As a survivor in the anti-trafficking movement, I am often treated as though I am only necessary for my story. This is not news. Most of my survivor friends can tell you about being re-exploited by those in the movement who are trying to make things right. But of course, in their effort to do the right thing, they are not helping the survivor advocates.
When I began my efforts, I thought I might be different. I thought that wouldn’t happen to me. I have an advanced degree in social work. I have twenty years of experience in the corporate world. I am different. I will be respected.
But in reality, I was stereotyping survivors too! Why am I so different? How many survivors have advanced degrees? How many survivors have experience in corporate jobs? How many are running companies? What makes me so special?
I am not special in the survivor community. But I think I needed to deal with the stress of the uncertainty by creating a reason that I was special, that I wouldn’t fail. It made me feel safer.
That being said, survivors are all underestimated. But there is one area where we are most underestimated: our bravery. I am not referring to the bravery it takes to tell our horrific stories to help others and deal with the inevitable stereotypes that follow. I am not describing the bravery it takes to tell advocates that they need to change their approach. I am not discussing the bravery it takes to tell the media that they are guilty of re-exploitation. I am pointing to something much more intense, the one thing that instills fear in every single human being. We have defied death. And we continue to defy it every single day.
Every time we write or speak or give an interview, we are defying death. We have been told that we would die if we “caused problems” for our traffickers. We have been assured that we would be punished with our lives for speaking out against our traffickers or going to law enforcement. We have been promised that murder would be the only result of our brave efforts to free ourselves and others. And yet, we keep going.
But most people have no idea the depths of the fear we have overcome. Most people have no idea what it is like to wake up at night wondering if our trafficker is in the next room or outside the house, if they have finally come to fulfill their promise. It is a life that can be overwhelming at times. But it was a choice we made. We made the bravest choice.
And yet the fear sits below the surface of my consciousness. It sits there as I work through the other beliefs, change them, integrate them and move forward. While I am supportive of my inner child, there are moments when I have asked, “Really? How can anyone believe that stuff?” I can almost laugh knowing that I was convinced my abuse was entirely my fault or that my parents were magical in their abilities. But there has been one belief that I just can’t argue with. That one belief is that my life is in danger. And so, that fear sits.
I can tell myself that my abusers and traffickers are really just wimpy criminals who weakly preyed on children. I can tell myself that they are now old and feeble. I can tell myself that anything they did to me would likely land them in jail because they would have such an obvious motive. I have even considered that if they harmed me, they might finally go to jail. And all of that is true. But it doesn’t completely eliminate the possibility that one day, they could venture on a psychopathic murderous rampage. I know they are capable. I lived with the threats.
But there is a new understanding emerging in my system, something new, something that says, “Who cares.” I am beginning to move past the feeling that my trafficker’s ability or inability to hurt me is relevant. Death is inevitable. But there is also a lack of living, which to me seems worse than death. I think Dumbledore said it best when he told Harry Potter, “Don’t pity the dead. Pity the living, especially those who live without love.” Living with love means living wide open. Living with love means living without the fear that stops us short of our ultimate purpose. And so, I will live until I am dead. That death may be tomorrow or in 50 years. And that strength is impenetrable because there is nothing left to fear.
So don’t ever underestimate the power, courage and strength of a survivor who is out there telling the world of their horrific experiences, anonymously or otherwise. Get to know them. Ask their opinion. Never minimize them to their story. You have a lot to learn from them. They may just be the strongest person you know.