When I first started this job, I really had no idea what to expect. The one thing that I knew for certain was that the women I was about to serve coming into the safe home would be like me, but also not like me at all.
I knew that they would be like me in that they would be women, and be dealing with all of the complexities that every woman deals with in this world. I knew that they would be like me in that they would be a human in America, so the idea of goals and dreams would be ingrained into their system.
However, they would also not be like me. While I am a goal-driven person who sees the world with hopeful, realistic expectations, these women have been dealt a blow of trauma that makes them unable to trust or believe that anything good will truly come from hard work.
It can be this misunderstanding of trauma and trauma-recovery that can be one of the greatest myths we face in the world of aftercare. The myth is that someone who has gone through trauma will transform into someone like me because of a program.
The reality is that this expectation that so many of us have is unrealistic and unfair to the women we serve.
Let's say I have a hard day and a family issue comes up. The holidays are coming up, right? So, this shouldn't be too far of a stretch for some of us to think about. So, this family issue happens. But in that day, I can turn immediately to my support system - my husband, my friends, my prayer partners. They talk me through things, I logically plan out how to respond, I pray and ask for forgiveness for my part, and I make amends. The family moves forward, and still has Thanksgiving together. In that time, my mind might be a little pre-occupied by what is going on, but I am able to focus on my day. I am able to work, deal with problems and pressures that arise, probably still make it to the gym to work out, and even cook dinner.
You see, I have years and years of practicing coping mechanisms in my life. I have years of leaning on support systems that I have built up. I have years of trusting my relationships, and years of saying "I'm sorry" again and again for my own faults.
Amirah's program is the longest program in all of New England for a survivor of sex trafficking. If a woman fully engages in her whole-person care recovery program, she could be with us for 2 years (maybe even longer depending on what she needs). It would be a myth to believe that in 2 years, this woman who has known trauma for most of her life is going to be like me, even after 2 years of intense, trauma-informed recovery work.
Not only is it is a myth, but it is an unrealistic expectation on my part to think so.
The reality is that these women are transforming. Most people don't get to see these women on Day 1 of their program. They come in, their heads never lift up, their eyes never look at another eye. They sleep for days because the weight of everything that has happened is either finally crushing down on them so much that all they can do is sleep, or the weight is completely lifted off and they can finally sleep. Either way, the sleep is deep and it is needed.
In the first week, they hardly talk to anyone at all. Their Program Director and Program Clinician get one-word responses to most questions. When dinner happens, they crouch over their food for fear that someone might take it away.
Move ahead to Day 365, and you have a woman that laughs with you at a joke. She looks you in the eye. She talks to the strangers that come into her home each day to take care of her. She might not have a fully, meaningful conversation - but she can manage to say a polite hello.
On the day that she graduates from her program, there is a woman before us who is out in the world working. She is going to college. She is accomplishing huge goals in her life. Is she still a bit rough around the edges? Of course. Does she still see things through a skewed lens and perspective that most of us don't? Absolutely - you can take a woman off the street, but the street code is ingrained in her system for years to come.
The reality is they truly are transforming. We may not be able to see it unless we look for the right signs. Otherwise, we see a woman that is still a bit rough around the edges, probably has a wall of protection against those she does not know, and might smoke like a chimney to deal with her anxiety.
But don't we all have these signs to some degree because of our own life experiences? I know that the trauma from my childhood, while not to the degree or experience of what these women went through, created in me an inability to trust people. I have a wall, and am extremely private. You just may not see it because I have learned to present myself in a way that America expects from a successful leader. But trust me, it is there. What you see now in me is years of work in my own personal journey of liberation and recovery.
My hope is that each of us would give the same grace to the women of Amirah, releasing our transformation expectations, and instead seeing the amazing transformation reality that is happening right in front of us.