According to End Slavery Tennessee human trafficking is a $32 billion-a-year, international industry involving organized crime, corrupt governments officials, cultural expectations, orphans, poverty and more. It is as real in small town America as in a village in Cambodia or the underground of Russia.
Over the course of this week my friend Z has been sharing her story of surviving the sex trade. Trafficked by her father beginning in middle school his actions and control dominated her even as she went to college. Today is the final segment. A few observations will follow.
KM: Obviously you kept a lot of secrets over the years. When you were a teen did you ever tell anyone what was happening?
Z: At one point when I was in high school our church called a youth pastor who meant a lot to me. So did his wife. She really helped and was always encouraging. Once when I was really discouraged and broken she reached out, but I didn’t tell her everything. What I did tell her was about my bad home life and my parents’ problems. I didn’t tell her about the sexual abuse, so when I begged her not to tell anyone she didn’t.
KM: You’ve noted a lot of this stuff was happening while you were at college. Describe that transition.
Z: I moved to college with a friend from my hometown. Pretty quickly it went downhill when she met other people and made new friends. She eventually just left me in the dust. This made things really complicated for me on a lot of different levels. I had no idea what to do because I lived with her. I was really depressed and stuck because I was now alone in a city I was still too nervous to drive in. She was basically the only person I knew.
One week I decided to go to a Christian student ministry meeting on campus. They have a worship service on once a week. This ministry is where J works. The night that I went, J was preaching. It was a miracle that I even decided to go, because at that point in my life I was so done with Christians and any sort of organized religion it wasn’t even funny. If you told me you were a Christian I would have been tempted to spit on you, and that’s a dangerous feeling when you live in a highly “Christianized” area. Something in me, however, was really desperate for people and community. So I went and J was preaching, and I was crying the whole time. I’m not even completely sure what she was talking about anymore. All I know is that whatever she said didn’t sit with me well. It didn’t sit well with me in a way that convinced me that I needed help – I needed people, and I needed to talk. At first I thought it was just about my friend who was no longer my friend, but it was about so much more. I just didn’t know it yet.
When I met with J the first time (after a long series of emails because I knew I wouldn’t just start talking to a complete stranger) I went in with a plan to only talk about my friend and the hurt and abandonment that I felt in that friendship. We talked for a while and something came up about my dad. I don’t remember the exact words or the question she asked me or what was said after that, all I know is that somehow she knew to start asking me those questions and I broke into a million little pieces. God used her to break through a wall that had been rock solid for 18 years, and the life that I had been carefully balancing for so long, quickly (she would probably say slowly) started to fall apart. J started speaking to me about a lifestyle that I couldn’t understand – a lifestyle that felt completely foreign to me. She started telling me how I didn’t have to live controlled by my dad. I didn’t have to continue to be hurt and raped and tortured. That was evil and was not love. I couldn’t understand that. When with her and listening to her say these things I wanted to believe her. Desperately. But, I knew that what she was saying was too wonderful for me. I was the exception to every other rule, so why wouldn’t the same be [pullquote]I don’t remember the exact words or the question she asked me or what was said after that, all I know is that somehow she knew to start asking me those questions and I broke into a million little pieces.[/pullquote]true here? There was nothing better waiting for me, and I was doing exactly what I was made to do and deserved. I couldn’t believe what she was saying. I couldn’t receive it. I continued to live in fear of and controlled by my dad. But God used her voice to keep whispering truths in my ear, all the same.
KM: I assume there was overlap in the time that J began ministering to you, your dad’s control and your ultimate escape.
Z: Yes. I eventually found another place to live. There’s nothing I wanted more than to belong, to be wanted to have real friends and real relationships. Even though I had dropped out of school I was able to live in a house for girls involved in J’s ministry, which for a while worked pretty well. I got a job and things seemed to be stabilizing. There was even a brief period when my dad lost track of me, but it didn’t last. Mentally and emotionally, though, I was still enslaved.
I still, at this point, felt some responsibility to my dad and to making my family appear perfect. He would call me sometimes and say he was going to be in town and wanted to take me to dinner. Sometimes I think I hoped that maybe something was different now, and he really just wanted to have dinner with his daughter. Sometimes I think I’m just too terrified of him to ever say no. Things were never different and he would always hurt me.
After I saw him I would try and stay away from my house for a day or so. I looked a hot mess and was too embarrassed and scared to go home and answer questions. Questions came nonetheless, and I would feed them some BS sensationalized story. Sometimes they bought it; mostly they didn’t, and I eventually just stopped caring about appearances at all – my own and others’. J was the only one who ever really pushed it and pressured me to tell her the truth. She was the first person I felt I could be somewhat honest with, and she was the first person who seemed genuinely concerned. I don’t mean in a pitiful oh-I’m-so-sorry patronizing kind of way. She seemed concerned in a way that was scary to me. She was concerned in a proactive “Let’s-do-something-to-end-this” kind of way. That was new for me and I didn’t trust it.
The living arrangements didn’t last long anyway. When I applied to live there again the following fall I was honest about my reasons for living there – I would be homeless otherwise, it was cheap, J thought it would be wise, I didn’t need to be alone. I was also honest about where I was with Jesus and Christianity. My answers, which included things like how I hate church and think religion is asinine, were not what they wanted to hear; I got voted out. It was kind of like being on an episode of Survivor. They snuffed my torch and I got kicked out of the cool tribe. I was pretty frustrated and embarrassed. I have always wondered if I had been less than honest about those things and faked it like I felt everyone else was doing, would I have been allowed to stay? I don’t know. Ultimately I wound up living with J, any number of friends or in my car. Basically, I moved all the time.
KM: Looking back, even in the middle of the hell you were enduring, what do you see?
Z: It’s taken me a long time to realize this, but looking back I can see that God had his hand all over the places where I lived and the people I lived with during my years at college. Aside from times my dad dropped me off for days on end, or took me out of town God made sure I had a “safe” place to sleep. Places and people would basically just fall in my lap. One of my biggest desires is to have a home and a sense of belonging. Looking back, sometimes I think that God has allowed me to feel out of place and homeless my whole life because he wants me to continually find my identity in Him and His truth about me. I know that I am always trying to find a place or person or family to attach myself to because I desperately long to be connected to someone or something – anything – I don’t want to be alone and not have people. I would always find myself crawling back to Him to find him saying, “I’m still here, I didn’t leave. You’re still mine. You belong to me and are part of my family.” Coming to that conclusion wasn’t easy; it still frustrates me like nothing else. It frustrates me because it’s in my nature to want to be as detached from Christianity as possible, but I know such a mindset isn’t truth.
KM: So, at some point you got away.
Z: I think everyone, except myself, knew things in my life would get so bad that I would either have to willingly disappear or I would disappear. That’s exactly what was happened. A couple of years ago my dad was planning to take me out of the country for an auction comparable to what he had forced me to endure in this country. He had my passport and control enough over me that I would have had no choice. It’s possible to hate someone and obey them at the same time. I don’t know that I can explain it; it just is, or was. At some point I told J what I knew. She started asking lots of questions, and was far more concerned about it than I knew or cared to be.
As the date drew nearer J and a few other confidants were getting more and more nervous about me leaving the country. There were probably other people that I don’t know who were working with them to keep me safe. I’m sure that was hard and frustrating for them because I was never super cooperative. I wanted to be, but I was so terrified of my dad I could not function in any rational sense. Plus, listening to them meant relying on them for more than I thought was appropriate or acceptable.
My dad must have suspected something was up, though. Before I could leave, two men also involved in trafficking found me outside a store. I have absolutely no memory of the following 24-hour period. I woke up in the hospital with J and another friend. I had been drugged and raped, but somehow I was still alive and in my city. The next day they took me to a rescue center.
KM: Tell us about being at the rescue center.
Z: Being a big bundle of (silent) attitude I showed up and hated everyone. I didn’t want to be there. When I realized J wasn’t coming back to get me after a couple of days I started plotting my escape, but I was in a completely different state and had no transportation, money, or phone. If had any one of those things I would have been gone.
I was not interested in building relationships with any of the people in the center. But they knew – divinely or otherwise – exactly how to start building trust with me. It’s always the little things, seemingly insignificant, that count the most. I met an amazing counselor there who helped me work through things and begin the healing process. At first, I wouldn’t talk about anything. I had no desire to let her know me. She started, though, by asking about things unrelated to the trauma and abuse. I have some mild sensory problems that definitely affect the way I interact with people and process the world around me. She wanted to know about them. I thought that was cool. Unimportant but cool. This allowed her to build rapport with me. From there we were able to transition into the darker and heavier things surrounding my life.
KM: You touched briefly on how God watched over you at different times. Anything to add to that?
Z: It’s a little confusing to talk about because I don’t have one date when I can say, “This is when I became a Christian and accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior.” It’s been a much longer – a lifelong – process for me.
When I was seven my Sunday school teacher literally scared the hell out of me. She was teaching us about the horrors of Hell and proceeded to lead us in the sinner’s prayer. From that day forward, and for many years, I fervently prayed that prayer many times a day and every time my dad would hurt me. I didn’t believe it worked the first time because my dad used my “badness” against me. He told me I was going to rot in hell because I was such a terrible little girl. This was all very confusing theology for my seven year old brain. [pullquote align=”right”]I’m now to the point where I can really comfortably say the words “I’m a Christian” and not cringe. And that’s a big deal.[/pullquote]Because of the lies from my dad, God for me was only interested in my ability to be good. He was only needed as a savior from the scary eventuality of death and hell. At some point, however, something shifted within me. Something deep within the core of myself knew that what this man I called daddy was teaching me was wrong; I knew my church didn’t have it quite right either.
At first my desire for truth was fueled out of rebellion against my dad, but it didn’t stay that way. I knew I had to find truth for myself–the truth–if I was ever going to make it out alive. Then there were times when I didn’t want to make it out alive, or I didn’t believe I could or would. There were times when I didn’t want to get better or live differently. It was during those times of raw and real hurt and honesty that I wanted to be as far removed from Christianity, as a faith and a culture, as I possibly could. I couldn’t ever leave it behind completely, though. I knew that was just as heretical as the things my father instilled in me.
I’m not saying it has always been peachy (because it definitely hasn’t) or that I haven’t resisted God (because I did and still do), all I know is that I can’t deny the existence of something that doesn’t exist. I can’t deny the fact that God has shown up in my life in unexplainable and unfathomable ways. I can’t deny the love I’ve felt as intensely and tangibly as a hug. I can’t deny my God full of mercy and grace. It doesn’t always make sense to me, and I have frequent moments of doubt where I want to call myself crazy, but maybe I’m now to the point where I can really comfortably say the words “I’m a Christian” and not cringe. And that’s a big deal.
KW: How has your life been since the rescue center?
Z: I laugh when I think about that question because my life now is relatively in exciting – in a good way. For the first time, my life is calm and stable and safe. I’ve felt peace and rest – that’s remarkable. I have a wonderful job with wonderful employers. I have great friends that I care about deeply and I have no doubt they care about me tremendously. I am able to more fully enjoy music (also a really big deal) and have time to do art and enjoy being me, and figuring out who I am.
Those are the good things. I don’t want to lie and wrap up my story for you and make it pretty. There are still bad days and really hard moments and feelings. I miss my home state like I can’t even explain, and I struggle maintaining relationships with people I love. I still don’t always trust the authenticity. That’s kind of unilaterally true for my relationship with God as well. It’s funny, maybe, but one thing I’ve noticed is that is was much easier for me to feel secure in God and his presence when things were really bad. When things are good, I seem to really struggle to trust and know that I’m still His. It’s so much easier to begin looking for my identity in things of this world. But one thing that seems to be very anchoring for me me is the thought “I am NOT of this world. This is not my home.” It just reminds me that I am one small piece of an ultimately beautiful story. Remembering that is why I wanted I share my one little piece.