Not the Only One

By: Jennifer Hardy

Healing Action Peer Support Coordinator

In 2008, I had the opportunity to leave work in strip clubs, where I made others a lot of money at the expense of myself, which is one form of sexual exploitation. A few months after my life in the “real world” began I had a very clear calling to help other women “get out”.  I came to realize I had been blessed with an overwhelming amount of support, both financially and in the form of shelter, as well as a great deal of emotional and spiritual support. At the same time, I began to understand that a vast majority of women in similar situations had very little, if any, support: women I personally knew and cared for that wished every day they could also escape. My journey to Healing Action began.

There are helping hands across our land reaching out to assist people overcome many hardships, but very few reaching out for this one.  Many are quick to point a finger at women living in these circumstances without considering how she came to be in this position to begin with or the various elements that may be holding her there:  Was she exploited as a child?  Was she trying her best to escape an abusive situation?  Or, was she caught in an abusive situation, where she saw no option but to comply by “going to work”…?
Chains are not always physical.  Sometimes the chains that can’t be seen hold us the tightest.  Regardless of how we each came to be where we were, I can now clearly see one commonality in all of us:  a serious lack of self-love and self-worth.

There are so many beautiful, gifted, and talented women, with their shine being dulled, dreams being stomped on, demeaned to the same level of any common object or replaceable commodity; with no hope of escape, a future or any lasting thought of a new or different way of life.
What happens then, on this side of the street? What happens when they finally do find hope?  What happens when they are, at last, able to truly embrace self-love and self-worth?  They become “stronger-than-steel”, fantastic and amazing leaders in our world! They are terrific friends and mentors; mothers raising dynamic children; people with a past overcome, adding a very bright light to this dark world, blessed with a unique perspective and a lack of judgment. 
There are so many women who deeply long for a better life, but can see no way of getting there. I want to show them it can happen, and how it can happen.  This is what peer support is all about.  Why is peer support so important?  Well, what does life look like without it? 
I came out out of “the life” with a strong belief that I was the only one. 

No one else I had known in all of my years “in” had ever gotten out, not a single one.  I felt like no one on earth understood me.  The things I had experienced, that I so desperately needed to find healing with, I could tell no one.  Even the thought was absurd.  I was convinced that I would either shock someone beyond words or make them sick to their stomach, ashamed of me.  I could clearly see the look on their faces already;  those that thought they “knew” what I had been. That was bad enough and they had no clue, for real.  So, where did this leave me?  I was severely isolated inside my head, burying feelings and memories and tragedies deep down; hiding the sickness behind masks of “everything is fine,” and “it wasn’t really a big deal – none of that stuff matters – I don’t even care.”  Unfortunately, that kind of sickness and those types of secrets do not just stay hidden in the depths of your mind.  For me, they came out in the form of alcoholism, which led to blackouts of rage and self-harm.  I battled a long six years after coming “out” of the life until I was able to face the darkness inside of me and find freedom.  What a difference it made to know I was not alone, not the only one who had been through this thing, especially this thing with such shame, stigma, and secrecy surrounding it. 
Peer support in relation to survivors of commercial sexual exploitation is vital.

To the one still struggling, I say to you: I have walked in the trenches.  I have been on my knees in the darkest of rooms.  I have looked in the mirror and not at all recognized the hollow figure staring back at me.  Peer support offers someone to walk beside you as you make your way out; someone who has walked the trail before you, and who can show you some of the pitfalls as well as some of the bridges; someone who can point you in the direction of light and hope.  I want to create a space that provides the support, the hope, and the steps necessary to a new life; the way and the means of truly resting, of taking a breath to really begin to see yourself and your unique gifts and talents, who you really are and what you have to offer that no one else does.

Through peer support we offer a time to break free from addictions and strongholds that block escape…. We offer a means to instead face this life in all its beauty, to learn to embrace who you are, and shine as you were meant to. Part of the healing process is telling our story.  Having a safe place to share with someone who won’t be fazed by anything you say is crucial.  We need hope.  We need one another to see that change is possible.