Human trafficking is a complicated and potentially overwhelming issue. It is not for the faint of heart. The global struggle can appear impossible to win. But it is not impossible to create positive change. I’ve seen this firsthand, as a survivor, advocate, clinician, and leader. As a survivor, I am often asked, “How did this terrible thing happen to you?” Here, in the first of two consecutive blog posts, I will recount my personal story of surviving trafficking and intimate partner violence, listing the vulnerabilities to my being trafficked. In part two, I’ll discuss key ingredients of recovery for survivors. Every case is individual, but some vulnerabilities are common across all types of trafficking. Trauma is a vulnerability to being trafficked; so are poverty, isolation, and lack of safe housing, and all of these difficulties preceded by being targeted by an exploiter.
Imagine yourself in a faraway country, where you’ve never been before. You don’t speak the language. Upon arrival, you realize you’ve been sold to organized crime figures. You’re isolated in an apartment, under guard, then raped, brutalized, threatened with death. You are compelled to see a man every hour of every day, except when one of them buys up multiple hours of time with you. You cannot refuse any of these men, you meet their demands or face consequences. Cameras record each session: they are mounted high on the walls, in opposite corners of the room; in this way the traffickers establish their omniscience. You’re terrified, but you know you can’t show it — you can’t break down, or cry, either, or you risk being taken somewhere even worse. You have no idea if you’ll ever see your home or your family again.
That’s what happened to me. I am a survivor of international sex trafficking. I was trafficked from San Francisco to Tokyo, and held under the control of Japanese organized crime. But I am one of the lucky ones — I escaped the situation after slightly less than two months. And as an adult victim, I had inner resources to draw upon, street smarts to help me steel myself against the utter insanity of that situation. Within the first twenty-four hours being trafficked, I found my courage. I promised myself I’d be home by Christmas, and that I would treat the people around me with as much basic human respect as I could muster, so I could hang on to who I am. And I made my stand. I clung to the visualization of getting home, and refused to allow any other possibility to enter my thoughts. And at a certain point, one of the men helped me to escape.
I survived. But escape is only the beginning.
You have to survive the surviving.
My vulnerabilities to being human trafficked as an adult were:
- A history of adolescent sexual abuse/assault
- Sheer desperation trying to escape an abusive relationship
- Poverty: I was living in my car, living hand to mouth
- I’d had no permanent address in several months, not even a P.O. Box.
I was “low-hanging fruit for a perpetrator. The trafficker recognized all of those vulnerabilities, she offered to “help” me to escape the abusive relationship. The phony offer to help was the initial stage of the fraud, force, and coercion that defined my experience of being trafficked. The organized crime figures used coercion and force to keep me under their control.
As an adolescent, I’d been traumatized multiple times, (sexual assault and abuse at fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen years old), and had suffered adult trauma (sexual assault) as well. After escaping Japan, the trauma of trafficking descended on me like a heavy black curtain. I could not find a safe place within my own mind. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I suffered from severe PTSD. Trust evaporated from my mind and my life after being trafficked. Engulfed in fear and shame, I attempted to manage the trauma with hard drugs. Night terrors plagued me and I feared reprisals from the traffickers. Much like many victims of trauma do, I returned to what was familiar, went back to the abusive boyfriend. He beat me up and almost killed me. I ran away from him, into the redwood country north of San Francisco, where I slept under bridges and in abandoned houses. I dug ditches or chopped firewood for twenty dollars a day to survive. He followed, and whenever he caught up to me, he spit on me, tore my clothes, raped me, verbally or physically assaulted me.
In the middle of all that hell, I met my true love. After a year and a half of absolute rock bottom homelessness, I met a wonderful guy, Christopher Fitzhugh, who is my husband today, and I finally came in from the cold. It wasn’t a storybook romance — he was living a dangerous life, too. But we each found our courage and triumphed against all odds. We pulled ourselves up out of drug addiction and abject poverty. I’ve been clean for more than twenty-two years, and Chris and I have been together for thirty years. My first career after getting clean was in professional standup comedy. That’s cool, isn’t it? Tragedy, then comedy.
Initially, I focused only on my recovery from substance use disorder/addiction. I avoided thinking about the traumatic events that happened when I was trafficked, or the violence I experienced at the hands of the abusive boyfriend. I still didn’t realize that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I knew I had times when I was overwhelmed by anxiety that seemed to float, unattached to any external cause. I managed it the best I could for a long time, and I enjoyed success as a standup comic, went back to school, and continued my reentry into mainstream life. Until the suppressed memories and unresolved trauma erupted and brought me to a crisis point. Like I said, you have to survive the surviving. (Continued in Part Two)