My Story – Human Trafficking and ACEs
I received a lot of questions about my article that it made me realize it was missing pertinet content. So I’m re-posting it, using the long version this time, to include the links and events.
In 2013, just before I retired, was when I first heard of the words “Human Trafficking” (HT) and I knew right away I was a victim. My trafficking victimization started when I met my trafficker at age 15; but after reading an article written by Dr. Vincent Felitti, I had a lot of questions about the adversities of my childhood. Dr. Vincent Felitti and Dr. Robert Anda are the co-researchers of the A.C.E. study that started in the late 1990s. I was intrigued by what the study revealed. So I set out to learn all I could about my own ACEs and more about the study. By answering the ten questions on the ACE questionnaire, I found my ACE score is ten. I also learned that childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity. This statement got my attention: The higher your ACE score, the higher your risk of health consequences.
To understand how the ACE study helped me “reach the other side”, you have to know what the study is all about and what it reveals. Dr. Felitti says, “The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study, a long-term study spanning over a decade representing middle-class urban America, revealed invaluable data linking child abuse to the risk of chronic disease. Children and adolescents who are victims of sex or labor trafficking experience the same types of trauma, but to a greater extent and are thus at elevated risk for chronic diseases later in life. They are a group to which the ACE Study directly applies and represents a population that will continue to add to the economic burden of chronic disease on society if the proper public health attention is not given to the widespread problem.”
That’s a powerful study! But this statement from Dr. Felitti moved me to action, “Emotional, mental, and physical trauma during childhood is correlated with higher risk for many diseases that occur during adulthood, including coronary heart disease, depression, autoimmune disease, and drug addiction.”
In Narcotics Anonymous (NA) I was taught that our addiction puts us in a place where the only thing that matters is how we get our next high. But from reflecting back on what Dr. Felitti said and on my own ACEs, I can clearly see that it was the abuse, the neglect, and the trauma that I was subjected to that put me in a place where the only thing that mattered was how to get my next high. Long before I became addicted I didn’t care if I lived or died. Getting high was a coping mechanism for me. Once living in a safe place and the abuse, neglect, and trauma stopped, (at age 33) I was able to break my addiction, develop healthy coping skills, and then the only thing that mattered was getting my dignity back, getting my life back, and becoming independent and self-sufficient.
I learned a lot about myself as I learned all I could about HT and my own ACEs. But when I first started this journey I didn’t realize that by delving into both HT and my own ACEs I would learn so much more about my family, my community, our country, history, and the world. Now I see everything and everybody differently. Henry Louis Gates Jr. says, “The quest to know ourselves is eternal.” I believe this. I’m excited to learn more. I’m excited about life because my eyes have been opened to see the truth. Take it from me; the truth will truly set you free.
Passing our life lessons on to the next generation is one way we can prevent and break the cycle of abuse and the vicious cycle of ongoing trauma of HT. Life lessons are in our stories. We won’t be able to pass our own life lessons on if we don’t even know what our stories are or know how to tell them. It’s not easy putting our life into story form, but it’s possible. It’s not easy going back to the past and our darkest moments, but it’s so worth it.
Everybody has a story to tell. Not everyone has experienced trauma and/or abuse but everybody has experienced some kind of trial and tribulation. If we made it this far in life, we have also experienced victories and triumphs. We need to ask ourselves, “Who and/or what was it that carried me this far?” or “How and why did I make it this far?” and “What did I learn from it all?” By answering these questions we can piece our lives together and put them in story form. Piecing my life together helped me make sense of my life, my past and my mere existence. It’s like the blinders were removed. We cannot pass on our life lessons unless we’ve made sense of our stories.
For me, once the blinders were off, all the joys, victories, triumphs, and love in my past seemed to magically appear. In reality, they were there all along. I just couldn’t see them until I looked for them. I know it wasn’t magic though. It was God opening my eyes to see that He was taking care of me when I wasn’t even taking care of myself.
Even though survivors of trafficking will spend a lifetime managing the negative effects of their experiences I know I’ve learned a thing or two. Take it from me, reflecting back on our darkest moments, understanding the pain it’s caused us and releasing the shame from it enables us to pass our life lessons on to the next generation. Now I have so much to say because now I know. It feels so much better to know than to doubt. Now I can see the light.
I learned so much from these great teachers:
Dr. Robert Anda – “I have seen people, however, who begin to understand how ACEs have affected their lives, be empowered to take responsibility and change their lives, the lives of their children and families, and become a force for change and resilience in their communities.”
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris –About the ACE study – “What we need to see now is dthe irection of resources at every level. At the city and county level, at the state level, and at the federal level – investing in number one: raising awareness and public education. Because through public education, we can do prevention.”
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk – “As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”
Dr. Jack Shonkoff – “Everyone likes to talk about resilience. It’s not something you’re born with; it’s something you build up over time. We don’t say to people who have cancer, ‘Why don’t you suck it up and be like the person who didn’t get cancer?”
I experienced a lot of trauma as a child and as an adult. I was trafficked for 18 years, from age 15 to age 33. I carried a heavy load of shame for years. After escaping the dangers of trafficking, I was told I needed to go back to my darkest moments to process the traumas, to make sense of them. I was very reluctant to revisit them. I didn’t see any use in it. It would only make me cry and fearful again. When I tried to put the traumas into words I couldn’t, so I tucked them away into history. I thought I did a good job of it but they kept coming back to me in unexpected ways. The fear, the terror, and the shame wouldn’t let me forget. I felt stuck. I couldn’t move forward. I couldn’t figure out why. I blamed and shamed myself for years for being abused and for a very long time I didn’t even know I was a victim.
I had an untold story inside me that was screaming to get out, but I only had images in my head of what happened. It was like duct tape was on my mouth suppressing the screams. Plus, my memory failed me. It was so long ago. Not being able to put the traumas into words was the most difficult part in therapy.
I’m 63 years old. I’m retired. I worked as a clerk for 27 years. When I turned 58 years old, just before I retired, I realized that the same questions about my past, my life, and my mere existence were still spinning around in my head, after all these years. I still had so many questions. I couldn’t deny it anymore, I simply needed answers.
Then one day, while sitting at my computer at work, it dawned on me that most of my life is recorded in public records. Thence began a long and lonely journey of reliving those painful memories. I did a lot of research and I kept a journal. As I researched, I felt the fear, the terror, and the shame as if it was happening all over again. I was determined to keep going but after about 6 months I knew I couldn’t continue on this dark path alone. I was a mess all over again. So I signed up for advocacy services at a local YWCA. I had a wonderful therapist who walked alongside me on this journey. She allowed me to unload it all on her. Finding just the right counselor is the hardest part of recovering from sex trafficking. I was duped and re-victimized by several before, but this was a very qualified therapist. She seemed to know all about me even before we met. It was her calming presence that helped me persevere to the end. After a couple of years, I was finally able to put my life story into words. I was also able to change the way my story ends!
I learned in therapy that trauma escapes language and causes memory loss. Searching public records sparked my memory enough to finally be able to piece it all together and make sense of my life, my story and my mere existence. I ended up putting my journals in book form. Wrapping up my life in one, nice, neat, little package was huge for me. After the last chapter was written I was able to step back, take a look at my life, from the outside looking in this time, and I had a burst of gratefulness that I survived all that mess. I cried and cried but this time the tears I cried were tears of gratefulness. Then I saw my purring cat. I looked around my house and I saw all the comforts home and I knew then it was over. I knew I was safe and my mind stopped spinning.
From doing this inner work and difficult reflection, I was able to see that it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t ask to be abused, neglected and raped when I was a child. At age 13 I was gang-raped. I was blamed and shamed for it by my parents, the police and healthcare workers. The emergency department diagnosed me with an STD and I was then admitted to a mental hospital the very next day for nine months. There, they tried to figure out what was wrong with me. The rapists were set free. Nobody considered going after the rapist nor did they ask me what happened. I came to believe I wasn’t worth fighting for. I blamed myself like everyone else did.
Dr. Robert Anda says, “When people behave in apparently self-destructive ways, its time we stop asking them what’s wrong with them, and time to start asking, what happened to them”. I carried a heavy load of shame for being abused for years. I remained a victim for years. This is one reason why I was trafficked for so long. I took all this shame and confusion with me into adulthood, at age 18 and beyond, because I was suffering from relational poverty. Finally realizing this was not something I asked for, helped me to take that toxic shame off my shoulders, for being abused, and put it right back where it belongs, back on the abusers.
Healing Moments in Therapy
Three of the most healing moments in therapy for me were:
- When my therapist could see I was struggling to find the words to express myself and handed me a list of emotions to examine.
- When she handed me a list of our basic human rights to examine.
- When I blurted out my shame story of when I was gang-raped and left for dead in an apple orchard when I was 28 years old.
- Having a solid vocabulary and being able to express ourselves accurately is empowering. It motivated me to want to learn more words. Being validated is key to helping victims heal but how can anyone validate their feelings if they don’t (or can’t) express them? Just having the list of emotions to choose from helped me express my feelings. Expressing my feelings and emotions helped my therapist validate them. Once I found the words, my story made sense to her, and it made sense to me.
- The one basic, human right that stood out to me was the one that said, “You have the right to change your mind.” This brought me back to when I was a teen. My trafficker made me believe that “women who keep their word don’t change their minds.” I promised I would be loyal to him and a woman of my word. Many times I thought of leaving him and escaping his abuse but I quickly dismissed those thoughts because I was so confused about what being a woman of my word If I resisted his demands, in a threatening tone he would remind me, “You promised you would help me!” Because I believed that being a woman of my word meant being sacrificial, obedient, and helpful, I didn’t think I had the right to change my mind. I had to help him like I said I would. I believed I was doing the right thing by staying with him, but looking back, the real truth was I simply didn’t want to face his wrath. He very cleverly made me believe there was something wrong with me, not him. While learning all I could about HT, I learned that this is a tactic that traffickers use on their victims. It’s called gaslighting. The definition is: the gas lighter elicits constant insecurity and anxiety in their victims; manipulates them by psychological means, leaving their victims feeling confused and crazy. Reading the list of basic human rights reconfirmed to me, more specifically, how naive and brainwashed I was.
- After developing a healthy relationship with my counselor, I unloaded a lot on her but I was still holding back. There were still a few things I just couldn’t bring myself to tell her. But one day, I did. I just blurted it out. In between sobs I told her in detail what happened in the apple orchard. I was so ashamed of what I did to survive. She responded by calmly saying, “What you did IS the reason you survived.” Oh !!!! It felt like the world had been lifted off my shoulders. It felt so good to get that story out. Because of her warm response, I felt dignity in telling her my story. I know I survived because I had the will. I survived because I’m resilient. From therapy, I learned no one can participate in their own abuse. I certainly didn’t ask to be gang raped and left for dead. The rapists did the shameful act, not me.
Going back to my past, my darkest moments, and researching my family’s past has also helped me realize the generational hand-me-downs. I can see now how we all can so easily, and unknowingly, pass our shame onto the next generation. Abuse is passed on from one generation to the next and I believe it’s all because of toxic shame. My parents carried so much shame. My mom was a battered woman and my dad was in WWII and a raging alcoholic. They were abusive to all six of us. I’m the youngest. Neither of my parents ever received counseling. They never came to understand their own ACEs, their own pain, and they never released the shame from it. So they passed it down to all of us, unknowingly. I learned about life, sex, dating and even puberty all on my own, with NO guidance. I learned the hard way, just like I’m sure they did.
My mom and I were blessed to have had the opportunity to become the best of friends before she died. My dad died before we had the chance to rekindle our relationship. It’s so much easier for me to forgive them both now because in my research I learned that they had even fewer resources available to them in their lifetime than I had in mine. Women didn’t have divorce rights in my parents’ and grandparents’ era. Husbands had the right to physically “discipline” their wives. I remember the police showing up at our house when I was little, after mom called them because dad beat her up. The police said, “Sorry ma’am, he’s your husband. There’s nothing we can do.” Soldiers of war suffered silently themselves because no one knew how to treat PTSD back then. It was called shell shock. Long after the war was over, I’m sure it lived on in my dad’s head.
The result of the ongoing trauma I was subjected to was overwhelming shame. When the ongoing trauma is not intercepted victims begin to reason with themselves and believe they had it coming and deserved it. Without interception, these negative thoughts snowball into overwhelming shame. It develops into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I think it should be called Post Traumatic SHAME or SILENCE disorder. To undo it all and heal from it, one has to go through the REORGANIZATION OF PERCEPTION process (The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk). This is what I did from delving into my past, learning about the ACEs, HT and from therapy. I was able to see the big picture and shed the shame. I acquired compassion for my parents.
Let’s Flip It
There’s a flip side to everything and there’s no growth without looking in the mirror. Even though I can see now why I made those bad choices and became drug addicted, I can also see how I, myself, failed so many as an adult. History will repeat itself if you don’t understand it. Others were hurt by my bad choices and my drug addiction. To help heal these broken relationships I had to learn to be patient with them. I had to learn to look beneath the surface of THEIR anger like others had done with me. That was hard to do at first but it paid off. Others could see the change in me and apologies and forgiveness took place over and over. In my family, our actions back up these sentiments. I am truly blessed that my family took me back after all I put them through.
My trafficker, who I thought was my boyfriend, set me up to be gang raped at age 15. When he said he was broke I thought our happy life together was coming to an end. I promised him I’d be loyal to him and I wanted to be his Miss Wonderful. I thought he’d really appreciate it if I helped him financially so I agreed to go to the gambling house where he said a nice, rich man was waiting for me. I was a love struck teen desperate for my boyfriend’s approval. He had me right where he wanted me. I had no idea four men were there waiting for me. I walked right into it!
My trafficker very cleverly made me think it was my fault, and that I asked for the abuse because I agreed to go there. I believed him too. After all, I DID agree. Another reason I blamed myself is because I was so stupid.
The abuse got worse. If I didn’t comply with his demands, or if he didn’t approve of my behavior, I was beaten. But he always apologized. I was so confused, just like he wanted me to be. After every beating, I would seek his apology and approval because they made me feel safe again. I developed a trauma bond with him. I became an expert at managing his emotions and moods to fend off his wrath. No one but him explained to me what loyalty meant. He made me believe it meant being sacrificial, obedient and helpful. I was lost in the victim mindset.
He introduced me to heroin when I was 16 years old and I fell in love with it. It altered my reality. My traffickers were also my drug suppliers. I defended them for several reasons and my family couldn’t understand why. Once a HT victim gets lost in the life, it’s the victim mindset and the street mentality that is so hard to break. Nobody can save a victim from HT. No one can do the work of transformation for another person. It’s the victim that has to do that hard work. This is a hard fact for compassionate people to accept. It’s so hard to watch a victim go right back to their abusers. But the victim has to be ready for change before they’ll be open to anything positive.
I put my family through a lot of turmoil. When I was a teen my siblings started their own families. They got so sick of me defending my “loser boyfriends” (my traffickers), and all the lies. I sabotaged their efforts to live in peace with drama after drama and emergency after emergency. They received many calls from hospitals and jails. It got to the point where they had to start protecting themselves, our mother and their own kids from my chaos. They were forced to finally let me go. I was deemed as a bad actor and my family lost all hope for me. Later in life, I learned they told others they were afraid I was going to end up as a “bag lady”.
I expected my siblings to parent me because my parents failed me so badly. They were the only other adults in my life. I mean after all adults are supposed to care for children, right? They had their own children. But I was just a child too. My siblings expected me to act responsibly, like an adult. I mean, after all, I was an aunt. I was supposed to be a good role model for their children.
I blamed my siblings for years for abandoning me. None of us had any idea what went wrong or what we needed from each other. Reflecting back on everything they forgave me for humbles me and keeps me grateful. My siblings were actually my role models and trailblazers. There was no healthy communication between us growing up but we’ve grown so much closer since comparing notes of our childhood and our adulthood. Having a sense of belonging is a true blessing.
On April 24, 2018, I appeared in court. That day I officially changed the way my story ends. The prostitution charges that were on record were officially expunged. It was a very proud day for me. Just going back to a courtroom, especially to face a judge again gave me many flashbacks. I witnessed and was subjected to, a lot of corruption while being trafficked. I was arrested many times as a child and as an adult, by that same corruption for prostitution. Being violated by authority figures is a different kind of violation. Seeing how society can rely on the police and our justice system, and seeing how I couldn’t set me apart from “them”. I still have issues with authority figures. It’s one reason why I continue to get counseling today. But that day in court, after mentioning my long criminal history, the judge said ‘I was an inspiration’ and he called me “ma’am”. I knew then my life had come full circle. Click here to watch the court officially expunge my criminal record and finally acknowledge my victimization.
I still write. It’s very therapeutic. What I write down will outlast me. Even if no one reads it now, I did my part. I’m passing my life lessons on to someone, somewhere, someday. I let the truth be told and I’m standing on it. I’m standing on solid ground.
I co-authored an online training program for health care and law enforcement. I speak publicly. I was appointed in 2015 by the governor to serve on the Michigan Human Trafficking Health Advisory Board and I’m still serving. It’s so rewarding to do this hard work. I believe a successful and rewarding life is a constant fight against our comfort zone. I’m doing my part. HT took 18 years out of my life. I’ll be spending the rest of my life trying to make up for those lost years, and to make amends, or at least pay it forward. I’m doing what I can to break the cycle of abuse, this vicious cycle of shame and the ongoing trauma of HT. We’re living in a strong shaming culture. Somebody has to step up to break this cycle. Let that someone be me. Let that someone be YOU.
Once we reach the other side we can pass our life lessons on to our families and to generations to come. Isn’t that one way we can make amends for our failures?
My message is that it’s possible to release the shame. It is possible to “reach the other side”. But remember nobody can do it alone.