Editor’s Note: I am the host, producer and photographer for We Are Chaffee’s Looking Upstream podcast. I also write a monthly guest column related to the podcast for two local newspapers in Chaffee County, Colo.: the Chaffee County Times (Buena Vista) and The Mountain Mail (Salida). This is my column based on my conversation with Thuy Nguyen. (Show notes with transcript)

At some point, you might think I’d stop being awed by the life experiences and insights our neighbors carry and share with me on We Are Chaffee’s Looking Upstream podcast. As we also carry, if we’re fair to ourselves. You and me. 

We all have stories and wisdom, life lessons worth sharing. But we tend not to sit around the coffee shop or the office, or wherever with whoever, digging into them. That’s what can make a conversational podcast so worthwhile, in my opinion, and it’s why I love hosting Looking Upstream.

The long-form flow of an hourlong conversation, or longer, goes much further than an article like this can. Or than a typical chat with an acquaintance we encounter on the trail, or when passing by each other at the post office or grocery store does. 

A podcast like Looking Upstream is an excuse to lay out big questions and vulnerable thoughts with someone in a way that we so rarely create the opportunities to do otherwise. For me, that’s usually with someone I’ve never met before. Yet we launch into the deep of the human experience over and over on this podcast. It’s inspiring.

As it was with Thuy Nguyen, also known as “The Twiggy Mother.” Nguyen is a poet, writer, designer and speaker on self-empowerment. She also is a mother of three who works from home while homeschooling her three children. Her story is an extraordinary and valuable one that would not be obvious to the passerby’s eye and ear. 

Nguyen came up in a cult-like religious environment. When she was a teen, she was preyed upon by a church leader and, ultimately, shunned by that community. I talked with her about those experiences, how she broke free from the church, and what she’s learned about leadership, self-accountability and forgiveness in the process.

We also talked about mental health, including Nguyen’s experience of postpartum depression – her fear, her extreme paranoia – and how she worked her way through that and found the light again. Among other things.

“I think when we think of a cult, we think of those dramatic sensationalized news reports of one leader really taking a whole group of people down to a destructive end. In this case, it’s more so cult-like because it’s mind control,” Nguyen said. 

Thuy Nguyen, The Twiggy Mother

Thuy Nguyen, The Twiggy Mother

“It’s really influencing the way you think and the way you behave to where you’re conditioned over time with their teachings, their indoctrination to really consume who you are as a person. To dictate, I think, a lot of your personal choices in life and your ability to really truly think for yourself. I think that’s where the danger is.”

It’s remarkable to me that someone who goes through such experiences as Nguyen has is so resilient, that she comes out the other side with optimism, joy and a strong sense of spiritual self. I’d understand if she were bitter and angry, and fearful of religion and those in positions of leadership. She doesn’t seem to be.

Though, it was a decade-long effort from her teen years until she became a mother, to mentally and emotionally break free from the grip of that cult-like experience.

“The beautiful blessing that I feel very grateful for is, I don’t have to pass that on to my children now. I now am able to parent my children free from those belief systems that held me down,” she said.

Of course, not all of us have a “cult-like” experience of religion to draw upon. But leadership, good, bad and ugly, is something we all can relate to in some way. Individually or collectively. In professional, educational, political or other contexts. And on this, Nguyen also has worthy insights.

“(My experience) woke me to the need for leadership that is honorable, that is founded on moral and upright integrity in which the people that they have a responsibility to can turn to them, to trust and be heard and protected. 

“I think a lot of it is, society as a whole, we each can do our part to hold our leaders, or those that we look to, to a higher standard of ethics and truly hold ourselves to not turn a blind eye to these things that go on.”

Learn more about Thuy Nguyen. Listen to our Looking Upstream conversation on any podcast player or at wearechaffee.org. Til the next episode, “Share stories, make change.”

Adam Williams hosts We Are Chaffee’s Looking Upstream podcast every other Tuesday. Follow @wearechaffeepod on Instagram.