A prisoner of war in former Yugoslavia, Lurata Lyon empowered herself and changed her life by sharing her heart-wrenching story of adversity and survival through her book The Devil Couldn’t Break Me. She chats candidly to Susannah Jaffer about her life lessons, and how learning to control her mind has given her strength to heal.
Tell us about your life before Singapore.
In 2000, I fled from Yugoslavia to England as an asylum seeker. I count myself very lucky to have been given a second chance, and to be able to create a new life for myself there.
During the fourteen years that I lived in London, I trained and worked as a coach in public speaking and presentation skills. To be honest, when my husband and I moved here in 2014 to set up his company in Asia, I was reluctant to leave the UK, as I love the country and had a great client base there, but in the end I decided to support him. Six months after we’d arrived, and once we’d settled in, I set up my coaching business here too.
You’ve gone through horrors most of us couldn’t imagine. Could you describe what it was like?
The Yugoslav Wars taught me that this sort of hardship could happen to anyone. To give some context, I was an only child brought up by wonderful parents in a loving and caring environment in a town on the Serbia-Kosovo border. I went to a great school; I had friends and cousins. I had a rich life – not financially, but rich in love – until the age of 18, at which point I lost everything overnight. I went from being a happy-go-lucky teenage girl who was studying hard, to losing my home and family when the war broke out and rape camps, massacres and ethnic cleansing became a reality.
When I think back on it now, it seems like something you’d watch in a movie. I still struggle sometimes to believe it happened to me. Everything I knew and loved was just…gone.
How have you been able to move on from that experience to become the person that you are today?
The honest answer is that it’s taken a lot of time and hard work. After what I went through I had completely lost my identity, and I’m very grateful to the UK for giving me the chance to rebuild my life and gain some confidence back.
From housing benefits to counselling, I had to be reliant on the system, but I wanted that to change and I knew that I would be independent one day. I had to learn English from scratch, and saw many psychiatrists and other doctors for depression and post-traumatic stress. When you come out of a war zone, nothing feels normal. The terror and the nightmares continue. It was a very emotional time.
How did you manage to find peace?
I went through a long period of wishing revenge on my captors, and those who had done me harm. One day, a dear friend of mine reminded me that unless I learnt to forgive, I would never find peace. From that point, I took up meditation to control my thoughts and I practised forgiveness, starting with forgiving myself, and then those who had hurt me. As a victim, you can often believe that you’ve brought hardship upon yourself and the people around you. I had to teach myself that everything had been out of my control.
In the end, I came to learn to pity my kidnappers rather than hating them. I know that sounds strange, but I came to a point of feeling sorry for them. They had to put food on the table for their families using the money they earned from sex trafficking and selling organs. Instead of wishing them harm, I began to wish I could have helped them. I recognised their weakness.
The moment I came to this realisation, it was like someone had flipped a switch, and my life changed. My heart felt lighter, my relationship with my other half blossomed, and my career took off. All the negative energy I’d harboured had been holding me back from living my life meaningfully.
Sharing your story publicly has inspired many, but was it difficult for you to speak out at first?
Yes. For a long time, I was ashamed of what had happened to me, and I didn’t want to talk about it. Only my therapist knew. I didn’t even tell my boyfriend (now husband) until just before we were married. He didn’t understand why I kept on having so many nightmares, and when I told him about my past, of course he was shocked.
So what was the turning point?
At the coaching academy where I worked in the UK, one of the key things we taught was that storytelling was a great way to get any message across. Despite strongly believing in this method, I never thought of using my own story to communicate a message.
I was slowly encouraged to do so by other coaches around me, and I first gave it a go with a group of 500 people. To my surprise, when I finished the session everyone got up out of their seats and applauded. I never expected that! I realised by my sharing something so fragile and so genuine that I truly touched people and helped them to better relate to the lessons I communicated. In the end, choosing to tell my story in public was cathartic and became a huge part of the healing process.
Did that experience give you the courage to write your book?
It did. The Devil Couldn’t Break Me, which I wrote under a pseudonym, came from a desire to continue inspiring and helping people. In fact, when it came to writing it, it came out so naturally that it took only seven months to write and publish. I’d kept rough notes over the years as I wanted to record everything I’d gone through – writing helped me to empty my mind. Through the proceeds of the sales of the book I’ve been able to give to charities that advocate women’s rights, such as AWARE and Women on a Mission in Singapore, which I’m passionate about.
It seems that allowing yourself to be vulnerable has enriched your life in many ways.
Life can be like that. Through my personal and professional experience, I’ve learnt that every person has a story to tell. We tend to be scared of appearing vulnerable or less than perfect, but I think that our weaknesses can become our greatest strengths. It’s often through accepting your flaws that you begin to shine.
Tell us how meditation has helped you.
We can often let other people’s negative energy affect our own; learning to block it out can prevent mood fluctuations. Meditation has taught me I can rise above my emotions.
I follow a Japanese meditation called Divine Light, which makes you focus on your energy and how it can affect others. Over time, it’s taught me to remain calm and positive, even in trying situations.
To this day, I still have nightmares about my experience. I don’t like sleeping because it’s the only time I can’t control my thoughts. I wake up feeling emotionally exhausted.
Despite this, I try not to dwell on things. Exercise has really helped me to stay strong and to release stress. It helps me to realise I’m more than what’s going on inside my head, and not to get trapped and dragged down by my thoughts.
What you think is what you become – I strongly believe that. When I was imprisoned in a dark cell, being frequently raped and abused, I used to starve myself because I wanted it all to end: I didn’t want to feel anymore. At some points, though, I used to visualise the world outside; being able to run free, feel grass under my feet, meet my parents again and smell my mum’s cooking. Those moments felt a bit like out-of-body experiences.
I learnt to not focus on the pain my physical body was feeling and found solace in my mind, promising myself I would make it through for the sake of my parents. It gave me strength and a reason to keep going. I told myself that I would get through it. In the end, I took each day as it came, and I still do so today. I’ve learnt to always be thankful for right now. Tomorrow, even the next few hours, aren’t promised to anyone.
Finally, what are you most proud of?
After everything I went through, I never thought I’d be able to have a relationship again, let alone create life. My two beautiful children and my husband are my greatest accomplishment. They inspire me every day to be a better person. With love in your life, I really believe you can achieve anything.
The Devil Couldn’t Break Me by Lurata Lyon is available on Amazon. Read more inspirational stories here.