“How in the world did you survive?” is the one of the most common questions people ask after hearing my story. I grew up (and was trafficked) in a very poor northern Appalachian community and escaped by running away to New England. Friends from stable homes came to Massachusetts for college. I followed them in my quest for a stable life, which included my dreams of working in academia.
I knew early in life I wanted to be an academic. At age 10, I went to a friend’s house whose mother was a professor at the local state college. Their house was filled with books and the radio was tuned to NPR. I wanted my life to look like theirs. My life looked exactly the opposite. We were ensnared in generational cycles of violence, substance abuse, mental illness and poverty.
That vision of how I wanted my life to look was the cornerstone to my healing. Studies show visualization is an effective tool to help athletes improve their performance and competitive success rate. I was no different, although, my goal was simply getting through daily life, rather than making the perfect free throw.
University of Pennsylvania psychologist Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth defines this long-term thinking as “grit.” Grit is more than resilience in that a person with grit is able to create a goal and stick with it for the long haul. This stick-to-itiveness allowed me to weather the years of isolation and transformation necessary to tap into the authentic person I knew I was always meant to be.
Restoring my sense of humanity was the biggest change I needed to endure. I had been treated like an object by my exploiter and hundreds of solicitors: I was taught from an early age sex was my only worth. A few “boyfriends” treated me the same by either raping me or by breaking up with me if I was not sexually compliant. Movies, books, television, and music reinforced the sexualized message.
Patience was the final key to my healing. Over a decade of exploitation and twenty-four years of biological familial abuse and control does not heal overnight. Additionally, the path to recovery is not linear. Instead, the road is cyclical so you can come around again to see how much you’ve changed. Some changes such as a new job, apartment, and friends can be drastic. Others shifts in behavior, such as noticing the need to take a nap or shower, can be subtle. All are revolutionary.
My journey to healing has been longer and harder than I ever could have imagined. Many times I have felt like Sisyphus pushing a boulder uphill, only to see my efforts dashed in one fleeting moment. Yet, even then, each uphill battle came with valuable lessons and profound experiences. Thankfully, grit allows me to endure.