From teachers and policemen to doctors and dentists, many professionals encounter people who are suffering from trauma-related conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a person with PTSD myself, I have encountered many well-meaning professionals floundering when my PTSD causes me to be an ‘uncooperative’ and extremely terrified individual. Doctors, policemen and dentists have become very frustrated with me, and in turn, tried to use threats or force to get me to cooperate—the very opposite of what I needed.
Although professional training on trauma is available, it may not always provide practical methods of helping survivors. This article is a simple explanation of what a survivor may be experiencing and how to help a trauma survivor feel safe.
What does trauma look like?
During traumatic events, whether car accidents, childhood abuse, natural disasters, war or sexual assaults, the victim is often:
These traumatic events happen to them. There was no way to control what they felt, saw or experienced.
By very definition, trauma is experiencing something to which the victim feels unsafe, whether this is perceived or realized.
How to help a trauma survivor feel in control and safe.
Witness at a police station is sitting on chair, rocking back and forth, unable to control their shaking limbs or make eye-contact with police.
What to do:
- Get down on their level, i.e. sit if they’re sitting.
- Keep a safe distance.
- Talk gently.
- Ask how you can help them feel safe. Do they need a blanket or an object to hold onto to ground them? Do they need a policeman of a different gender or an advocate?
Survivor of sexual abuse is at a dentist having their teeth cleaned. Their legs are uncontrollably shaking and they are unable to keep still.
What to do:
- Talk gently – remembering to keep frustration or impatience out of your voice.
- Ask the patient for permission for everything you do, i.e. “Is it okay if I place this bib on you?” or “Is it okay if I look at your teeth with this mirror?”
- Ask the patient to come up with a signal that they are needing a break such as raising their hand.
- Ask them how you can help them feel safe. Do they need a weighted blanket, or to have music playing, or for you to talk to them during the whole procedure?
Again, the greatest help you can be to a traumatized individual is to make them feel safe and in control as much as possible. Working with trauma victims takes patience and gentleness. Remember, you have no idea what they are reliving, and you may be the one person that can help them overcome their fears and crippling traumatic responses.
I pause my dialogue as I notice the older gentleman next to me begin to go red and his eyes begin to water. “Are you okay?” I ask, thinking he is choking. He merely shakes his head as tears begin to spill down his weather-worn face. I remain silent, dumbfounded. I’ve known this man for over 2 years and have never seen him cry before. “It’s just so heartbreaking.” He whispers as more tears splash down his cheeks. I pause and reflect. It is heartbreaking, isn’t it?
I had just been telling him about the work I do with women who’ve been sexually abused and sex trafficked. It has become so much a part of my everyday life that I have begun to numb myself from the horror I encounter daily. However, that does not stop the reality of how truly heartbreaking the stories from these survivors are. The situations that millions of people find themselves still in today. It is estimated that 70-90 % of sex trafficking victims have been sexually abused as children prior to exploitation. Let that information sink in for a moment.
For many children, the traumas of childhood continue into adulthood. The trauma of their youth gives way to their mindset that “sex is all I’m good for” or “I’m worthless”, “no-one could love me”. These thoughts make them so vulnerable to sexual exploitation from pimps who know exactly what to look for, who know exactly what to say.
Abuse Happens in the Mind and the Body
I observed this pattern happen in the movie Forrest Gump, which I originally thought was only about the achievements of a boy everyone thought would never amount to anything. Jenny, Forrest’s best friend from childhood, was sexually abused by her father and she ended up being sexually exploited in magazines and on stages. She was used and abused by men for years and years because she didn’t know her worth. She didn’t know she was worth more than her father showed her. Her pain was so obvious as she stands on the edge of the balcony, wanting to jump, or as she sees her father’s house, years later, and begins to hurl rocks at it. All the pain and anger begin to come out.
I’m right there with her in that moment. I know many survivors who are also feeling that same pain and rage. But the moment that tears me apart the most, is the moment Forrest asks her to marry him. Forest is obviously head-over-heels in love with this woman. Most would assume she would say no because of his low IQ, but instead she says, “You don’t want to marry me.” In her mind, someone so kind and loving could never want to marry someone like her. She believes she is worth absolutely nothing. She believes she is unloveable.
God Heals the Brokenhearted
I once believed the same things. I once thought the same thoughts. But God, in His great mercy, brought me to a point of healing where the words of my now-husband broke through the lies. I was able to believe his love for me as he knelt on one knee before me. I was able to shout above the screams from my past, telling me that no-one would ever want me, and say “Yes!”.
The reality of sexual abuse and sex trafficking is heartbreaking, but I know a God who is in the business of healing the brokenhearted. I know a God who brings beauty out of ashes. A God who can heal, restore and set free the captives. Do you know Him?
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” – Isaiah 61:1-3
For much of my life I believed that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was only found in soldiers as a result of their time at war. Never did I think that one day my therapist would look at me and say “you have PTSD”. In that moment, all my preconceived ideas of what this condition was, flew out the window. I was made to see that every day I walk by people—normal looking people, not wearing uniforms—who are living and reliving their worst nightmare.
I wanted to give you a glimpse of what it is like living with PTSD, so that those of you who live with this, know that you’re not alone, or that those of you who don’t know the reality of it, can more fully understand.
PTSD and Groceries
Imagine this with me, if you would:
You’re walking down the aisle of the grocery store, pushing a cart in front of you. A man turns down the aisle and starts walking towards you…
If you’re lucky, your mind does not spit images from your past into your vision, making you forget where and when you are. If you manage to stay in the present, you are assaulted with a flood of adrenaline (the fight or flight response) causing your heart to pound in your chest, your breathing to become shallow and unsteady and your hands to shake. Everything in you wants to turn and run. You try to remind yourself that you’re in a supermarket, no-one is going to hurt you. Your body ignores your rationale and shivers begin to race up and down your spine. You are now convinced that it’s going to happen again. This man in front of you is going to pin you down and rape you here and now. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to go. Yielding yourself to what you deem as the inevitable, you force your mind and body to detach—a method you learned long ago to keep yourself safe from the horror of the reality…
Someone touches your arm and you snap back into the grocery aisle. “Ma’am, are you okay?” The woman next to you has a crease of concern between her eyebrows. You realize you’ve been staring blankly at a box of cereal for who knows how long. The man is long gone but your fear continues to paralyze you. “Yes,” you manage to squeak out, desiring to hide away from everyone. Self-hatred and frustration begin to build inside you since you can’t even walk around a grocery store without your past getting in the way.
From the Outside Looking In
My husband has seen me in this state many times. He describes it as such,
“She starts to have difficulty focusing on reality. Sometimes, I was able to distract her enough to keep her from going into a full blown flashback, but many times she would become dead to the world, staring off into space, her body looking uneasy and her lips shaking. I would say her name and her eyes might look at me for a split second, but she wouldn’t really see me there and would continue to stare in a panicked manner. Other times she would interact with me, but she was still reliving a past traumatic memory. I just happened to be in the room with her. Even though I would tell her she is safe and it was only me there, she would still be terrified and panicking and would hear or see her abuser. These states could be as short as a few minutes or as long as an hour. The worst part was that once the flashback took over, I was often helpless to stop it or to bring her back to reality. I could only do my best to comfort her until she was back.”
PTSD affects all aspects of your life. It makes you more prone to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and addictions. It gets in the way of relationships and aspirations. It is not something that will simply disappear over time. It is a daily battle.
There is hope. There is always hope.
I have been living with PTSD for over 8 years now. I cannot say it has always been getting better. Some days are worse than others. But through the grace of God and the support of many friends, I have been able to move from surviving to thriving. I continue the climb onward, encouraging and helping other survivors along the way, one step at a time.
For more information on PTSD see: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/post-traumatic-stress-disorder.htm
Bangkok has several red light districts. During our night of outreach, each of our team members was assigned to a certain district where they were to enter as a group, then break into smaller groups and set out with the simple goal of loving the women encountered. Our goal wasn’t to raid and rescue or anything like that, but to establish gateways of relationship that our partners in Bangkok could follow up on later. I’ll leave it vague like that on purpose, since this is a dangerous business.
Anyway, I was assigned to go to Nana, the red-light district known to be the most vicious of those in Bangkok. There were three of us on the team and we were to meet up with a fourth person once we got there, then walk in together. Now, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to make a proposal. Instead of just recounting my experience, I’d like you to place your hand in mine and allow me to lead you into that red-light district with me. I promise I’ll keep you safe, but it’s so easy to think this issue is far off and that it happens to people far different from you…that I need you just to step in and see things from a new perspective.
So imagine that you are there with me in a little sanctuary of a coffee shop, waiting. Waiting for the full team to assemble. Waiting for the night to unfold. Waiting to have your expectations demolished by reality….
Finally, the door is opened and you are beckoned to head out into the night and leave the station at the window from where you had been standing and watching the passersby. Now you join them, heading to your right, down the sidewalk towards the entrance to the Nana cul-de-sac of hell. The crumbled sidewalk causes you to watch your step as you pass vendors of all types of street food and other goods, taxis and streetcars whiz by and the air is full of the sounds of traffic and sizzling food, chatter, and shouting. A proper city street. You breathe in a putrid scent, heavy and drug-like. A strange mixture of incense, fried food, and something rancid and humid, like body odor, but not quite.
All these observations are registered quickly, but you have not gone more than a few paces before noticing the faces. The majority of the buildings along the street are bars with outdoor terraces open to the street and, lining the rows of thin bar-tables flush to the railings, are rows and rows of men. Most of them late middle-aged to elderly. Almost all of them white and appearing as tourists. What strikes you is that they converse very little with one another, as if not one knows any of the others, but there they sit, separate and together, staring out into the night en masse, like jackals waiting to feast on another beasts’ kill. And then you look and see what their eyes have already been consuming, the faces of young women appearing on the terraces too, but across the street. Their dresses are short and their heels high, their faces chock full of make-up and bright lip stick. Vibrant. Glitzy. Sparkly. And dead. The night has only just begun and while some wear a gaudy grin, most stare off into the distance with void eyes. The sun is almost down and they aren’t required to put on their mask just yet.
You keep walking, anger brimming up inside you. You suddenly have a new appreciation for wrath, and some choice words come to mind for the “consumers” lining the bar edges. But then you remember that hatred will only temper your ability to love well so you focus on the faces of the forsaken instead, trying to catch their eyes and communicate in one brief interaction, “I see you and I see your suffering.” You pray that 3 seconds in enough to pass on the taste of hope.
And you continue on, finally turning into Nana, the district known for making sport out of torturing women. You utter the word “Jesus” under your breath over and over and over and over and over, realizing you are far beyond your depth and powerless to intervene in the exploitation taking place on every side of you.
You travel up an escalator to the second story of the district and make your way past snoozing cooks and trash cans out to the balcony that extends around the whole second story. You’ve heard stories of what happens up here and your stomach tightens, wondering what you will have to behold at your final destination and at last, you step into that bar, dark and dirty and take a seat a few feet in front of the dance floor, full of poles and bikini-clad women, each with a pin attached to her bottoms with a number…so you may easily “order” who you’d like.
Above and behind you there are cages that expand to cover all four sides of the large room you now sit in. One larger cage rises up from between two dance floors and sits suspended in the center of the room. You order a coke and quickly realize your best bet is not to look around. You were encouraged to look straight into the eyes of the dancers, the most, and only, dignifying thing you can do, so you do. You look into their eyes and hold their gaze. Some act more seductive at that, thinking you’re a customer. Others look away. Some stand at the back of the dance floor half-hiding, looking beyond frightened. You decide they must be new.
Finally the DJ yells something into the microphone and the women come down from the stage to find customers. One nearly runs up next to you, pointing to one of the team members you’re with, asking if you came with her. Her eyes sparkle when you nod and her stiff posture instantly relaxes. She knows she’s safe. You order her a coke and try to converse, although neither of you speak the other’s language hardly at all. Even so, she speaks to you rapidly, pointing here and there and when the DJ makes another call and the girls remaining on the stage simultaneously lose an article of clothing, she looks at you and scowls. “I hate that,” she says. You keep sipping your coke and teach her tic-tac-toe. She giggles loud and innocently, like a little girl, every time a game ends and gasps at every cat’s game. Between games, she tells you her dream, simply that her daughter will have more opportunity than she has had and not need to be a dancer. The DJ makes yet another call and she sighs and stands hesitantly, frowning. “I have to go dance again…but I’m coming back,” she promises, then disappears into the other side of the bar…
You watch the other faces and you meet other women and your expectations are confirmed–they are not enjoying themselves. The girl next to you giggles flirtatiously as her customer gropes her body, but when she’s unaware that she’s being watched and her mask is down, you see in her eyes a blank, numbing stare. No smile. No sparkle. Just nothing. Her job is to get him to buy as many drinks as possible, so she does what she must to ring up the bill.
On the ride home, you struggle to comprehend your feelings. Heavy is not the right word. Glad, maybe, for the chance to meet the girls behind the masks. Glad to build relationships that can be followed up with. But you feel loss too. Powerlessness. And at the same time, hope. You could do nothing to relieve them from that hellish place and that bar was better than most, but there must be something you can offer. You think real hard and then it occurs to you, you can offer what you do have: a voice. You can share their stories. You can lift them up in prayer. You can help change mindsets. And you can empower others to do the same.
Now it’s your turn. You didn’t go all the way Bangkok to see it firsthand, but you don’t have to. The truth is, the sex industry in America is really not that different from Bangkok. We may not have red light districts you can walk to filled with 40,000 women, but we do have red light districts–in America they are just online. I’m told that 90% of Thai men visit a prostitute with some regularity; it’s ingrained in that culture, but it’s denied that prostitution exists there. And in America, we have learned that 68% of young men and 18% of young women visit porn websites at least once a week. But no one wants to talk about it. Pornography is sex trafficking. It is exploitation in every sense and fuels and catalogs the trafficking that would be considered “more traditional” by nature. And by our silence, we will sacrifice a generation to the neurological, physical, emotional, and relational devastation that are the implications of this consumption. Not to mention that we will victimize millions of adults and children in the process, with horrors that you can scarcely imagine. This is the Siren’s island.
You maybe can’t rescue the sweet girls in Nana, but let your voice be loud on this because one voice is enough to change a life and many voices together can change a culture. Don’t be fooled, people don’t consume pornography. Pornography consumes people. If you want to know what you can do to stop sex trafficking, this is it.
On February 11th, 2016, I set out on a journey to the other side of the world. My final destination: Bangkok, Thailand, heart of the global sex trade. In other words, hell on earth.
I went as a learner with Women-At-Risk, International (WAR) to better understand the nature of sex trafficking and prostitution in a setting other than America, to study the influence culture has on the industry, and to figure out what makes a ministry or safe house successful at reaching out to and empowering those whose lives have been devoured by exploitation.
For 6 years now I have been a student of domestic sex trafficking, but since the very nature of trafficking is fluid and often cross-cultural and if TriHOPe is serious about “moving in” to this field, it seemed obvious a broadening of perspective would be greatly beneficial. I hoped that I could learn something in Thailand and from the partners and staff of WAR that could help us at TriHOPe take strides on this matter back home in Michigan, and I believe I have.
I have learned a great deal.
And it is my hope and intention to, in the next series of blog posts, take you on that journey with me, into deep chasms of evil and to a hub of humankind’s depravity and then out again, with a renewed sense of hope, a vigor for justice, and a tenderness for the wounded.
It will be messy as I struggle to turn fragmented thoughts, notes, and emotions into cohesive and meaningful structures, but I will do my best.
Looking forward to taking this trek with you 🙂