When sharing about Amirah, I usually talk about the issue or teach on the nature of trauma. However, today, I want to share a little differently. I want to try and give you a picture of what it is like to be a survivor of sex trafficking in active recovery – what is her day like?
In order to think about this, we have to understand that for her, the residue of trauma is the filter that everything passes through. All that she sees, all that she hears, all that she feels is changed in some way because of her experiences – but how is it changed?
Let’s begin – morning is the start of the day for most of us, and this woman’s schedule at Amirah assumes that morning is the start of her day. However, every woman who comes into our program has difficulty with sleep. Anxiety, spinning thoughts, dreams or night terrors, never having had a routine sleep schedule, the effect of substance use, or the effects of physical trauma like back pain or headaches all serve to make sleep sometimes impossible and always a nightly challenge. So, when her alarm goes off in the morning, she may have just fallen asleep and now has to face her day exhausted.
She gets out of bed and goes to stand in the rain to have her morning smoke – a habit she knows isn’t healthy and may not like, but it helps with the anxiety, and she just doesn’t have the energy to face trying to quit right now – then she makes her first cup of coffee. As she stands in the kitchen in her bathrobe trying to wake up, the first volunteer of the day – someone she has never met – comes in to the kitchen and greets her with a cheerful hello and asks her name. Who of us wants to meet someone new before we are awake, still in our PJs, and before our morning coffee? This simple greeting is another occasion of anxiety and stress for her before the day even starts.
This woman is still in Phase 1 of her program, so she isn’t working or going to school yet, but she still has lots to do. Staff has been working with her to establish medical care and other services, so a trip to Boston to meet with her PCP is on the agenda. Boston can be a tiring trip for any of us, but no one knows that for this woman, it is also a frightening trip. In her short life she has been in two major car accidents, and while she escaped serious injury, she can’t help being nervous in traffic – especially since she has never ridden with the volunteer who is driving today. Can she trust her to drive safe?
One of those accidents happened in the snow, and snow is predicted for today; she just hopes it doesn’t start until she gets back to the home. Let’s not even talk about her fear of bridges – some things are best ignored. Boston itself is stressful because on more than one occasion she was brought to Boston by her trafficker and had to work there – will she be in those neighborhoods or see someone she met while working in the city?
Let’s set these concerns aside for the moment because she has to get ready for the day. The scars on her body are not a big deal anymore because she has learned to look past them, but the fact that she doesn’t have many clothes that fit her IS a concern. Since arriving at Amirah she has gotten some cute outfits, but they are not the size she used to wear – coming off drugs causes everyone to gain weight and that discourages her and makes her hate herself even more than usual.
While brushing her teeth she forgot about the serious cavity on her back molar, and she winces in pain. She is not looking forward to seeing the dentist. Speaking of teeth, she needs to remember not to smile so wide or someone could see her missing teeth – she feels very self-conscious about that.
Well, the moment she has been dreading is here and it is time to go. She knows because Heather is yelling up the stairs at her that she is running late – Heather shouldn’t yell up the stairs. She hates that even though she is an adult she has to live by other’s rules and timetables. She knows that she needs this help right now to get her life back on track, and she accepts that – but it is just another reminder that she has screwed up her life, and it is so far from what she dreamed it should or could be.
Because she was running late, she forgot to grab her MP3 player, so she doesn’t even have her music to block out the things that stress her out on the trip into town. This volunteer seems nice, but she keeps trying to start a conversation and our woman doesn’t have the emotional energy to make herself do that right now.
She breathes a sigh or relief when the car ride is over, but now she has to face her doctor. Fortunately this doctor knows her story so she doesn’t have to repeat it AGAIN, but she does have to find out her test results; does she have Hep C or not? These medical conversations are always difficult. She is physically uncomfortable or in pain almost all the time, and it is hard to deal with because it takes her back to memories of using – which is how she used to deal with pain. Not to mention that it is another reminder of either the mistakes she has made or the memories of the beatings and assaults she has endured.
A final struggle, the doctor needs to have blood drawn. It always takes 4, 5 or 6 attempts to find a vein that will allow them to draw enough blood. It would be easier if the nurse would listen to her – she knows her body and can tell her where to try – but no, the nurse has to stick her 2 or 3 times before willing to try where she said in the first place. So frustrating to be ignored or judged by people who are supposed to be helping!
Afterward, she heads back to the home. Today didn’t take as long as usual, only three hours. Once she returns to the home, Susan is waiting to take her to the RMV to apply for an ID. She arrived at Amirah with no documents, they were taken from her a long time ago. She and Sarah have talked to four or five different people and waited three weeks, but she finally has a copy of her birth certificate and the other documents she needs; so now, a fabulous afternoon at the RMV and maybe this task can be done. Thank goodness Susan is with her, a room crowded with strangers is overwhelming, and Susan is always so calm and doesn’t have to make conversation. Sometimes it is better to just sit next to someone familiar without talking.
Too bad it is rush hour when they finally get on the road, because it is her night to cook, and now she is going to get a late start. Cooking is no small matter, she never cooked a meal in her life before she got to Amirah, and now she has to do so at least once a week. And what if her housemates don’t like what she cooks, or she doesn’t do it good enough? She has always struggled to get along with other women, maybe it is because her pimp forced her to compete with the other women she lived with – if she had the most dates she didn’t get beaten and got her drugs first. Now, she isn’t sure how to be friends with these women – she wants to be liked because she admires them, but they intimidate her a little.
When she gets back to the home she breathes a sigh of relief because Anne is the volunteer and she can help her with dinner – Anne is good at that. She likes the volunteers she has had a chance to get to know, like Anne and Taylor, although it takes awhile. They are all part of the “square world” she was taught to distrust, and in her experience, if someone does something nice for you they want something from you that is going to hurt. So far so good at Amirah, but it takes a lot of time and effort to let her guard down enough to get to know them.
As the day winds down, she finds her thoughts winding up. She has discovered that without drugs, evenings are filled with dread because the spinning thoughts begin to return, and she fears not being able to sleep again for the third night in a row. She replays all that was said by and to her today – is the staff disappointed in her because she ran late all day? Are the volunteers mad at her because she didn’t talk to them? Did the women like the meal she made?Is the pharmacy going to have her medication ready tomorrow? Are her blood tests going to come back positive or negative? What kind of treatment will she have to have? Will it hurt?
She also thinks about tomorrow – she has an appointment with her counselor, and she hates dredging up the past and she’s not even sure she likes this counselor. When is she going to get in to see the psychiatrist? She knows she needs some medication adjustments, but she has been on the waiting list for over a month. Sarah calls every week to check, but no opening yet. She has an NA meeting at noon; it’s a new meeting because there was a creepy guy at her old meeting who wouldn’t leave her alone. Will she like this meeting? Will she feel safe?
Then there are the familiar thoughts that never go away no matter how hard she tries. What are my kids doing? Are they thinking about me? Why is my boyfriend not returning my letters? Is he stepping out on me? I feel so alone! And I feel so overwhelmed! What if I can’t stay sober? What if I can’t find a job? What if I can’t find an apartment or make enough money? What if I make too much money and start using again? What if I have no friends? Who would want to be my friend if they find out about me? Then the darker thoughts come that include pictures and sounds and words and feelings she has tried desperately to forget.
And before she knows it, the alarm sounds and she is dragging herself back down to the porch for her morning smoke…
Hopefully I have been able to give you a glimpse of the internal struggle that constantly rages for the women who come to Amirah, who are fighting to find life. They come to us with different backgrounds, different personalities, different experiences, but every day they share a common fight to make it through the day.
Recently in the home, we talked about the meaning of courage. Afterward, Heidi, our Clinical Life Coordinator, sent this quote from Brene Brown to me:
“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor - the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant 'To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart.' Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences -- good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as "ordinary courage.”
Our women face overwhelming challenges and obstacles:
…Until they made the very courageous decision to come to Amirah, and everyday they call on that same courage to keep going. I am in awe of their hearts, for they are huge!
Our job – yours and mine – is to work to lower these obstacles, to level the playing field, so to speak, so these women have the opportunity to reach full freedom. Your donation of time, energy, and finances is doing just that. There is a direct connection between your giving and effective intervention. I know there is because I see it every day. I am the one yelling up the stairs telling her she is late for her appointment (and yes, I should stop doing that), and our staff and I are the ones at the home when she returns, providing the support to help her cope with the experiences of the day. And I know that the home she lives in, the food she eats, the clothes she wears, the van that takes her to Boston, the volunteers who drive that van or hang out at the home, and everything in between make her journey of hope possible – and those things came from you. Thank you!