The couple that found me wasted no time in grooming me into a prostitute.
I used to call myself names like whore because of my past. This was until an evening in 2012 when I heard the words human trafficking.
Those two words have not only defined my early life, but have also transformed who I am today as an advocate, speaker and survivor.
As I listened to the news story about trafficked teens, a multitude of different feelings and emotions washed over me: almost a kind of déjà vu. They were talking about me and my life.
I had blocked a lot of memories of my life in that world, because it was too hard to remember. I thought forgetting would help me move forward. So, I had buried the 10 years I spent in the streets of New York as a prostitute. As a result, I thought my experiences were exclusive to me.
The news anchor told a story of young girls from my hometown Arlington, Virginia. I saw myself in these girls who were being manipulated, exploited and sold door to door like vacuum cleaners by gang members.
For the first time in my life, I had a name for what I'd survived: human trafficking.
A doctor would say I had self-identified as a victim of human trafficking. An inability to do this is something that makes helping those who don't even know they are victims very hard as counselors, law enforcement and others will testify to.
I'd kept those traumatic memories deep inside for over 40 years. I was ashamed and believed with all my heart that even though I'd been a child, everything that happened was my fault.
Listening to the newscast, I knew I had to do something. I needed to make a difference, and I finally found my purpose in life
The abuse at home started the summer I turned 12. My self-worth quickly disappeared and thought if I left home, it wouldn’t matter to anyone in my life. I threatened to come out about the abuse but ultimately decided to keep it a secret, because I was afraid of what would happen if I did.
All I wanted was someone to believe me, so I ran away from home and right into the hands of predators and human traffickers.
It is my belief that wherever there are vulnerable people whether it is a 12-year-old runaway or a 35-year-old man, there will be those who seek to prey upon them.
I think human trafficking is about supply and demand, and until we can teach others that their fellow human beings are not commodities to be bought and sold, this reality will never change.
I was a child who had no self-esteem and knew nothing about the world. Looking back, I was a walking target for the couple who found me on the streets of Washington D.C. They wasted no time in grooming me into a prostitute. With their work done, they sold me to traffickers from New York.
I would spend the next decade of my life growing up on the streets of New York City while being forced to sell my body. I experienced degradation and every horrible scenario imaginable. I tried to escape and at one point, I made my way back to Virginia to only be found and brought back to the streets.
Traffickers are experts in creating compliant commodities out of human beings. They programmed me to believe it was the life I wanted and trained me to hate everyone who wasn’t in this world. This left me to depend on my traffickers, as they controlled every move I made.
The result was time in prison and an addiction to heroin.
But through all of this, somewhere deep inside me, I wanted to survive.
After over a decade of trauma and abuse, 99 pounds held my 5’9 frame together. This is when I miraculously dragged myself into a drug rehab clinic on Manhattan's East side.
The intake counselor, who was working the day I arrived, gave me the special care and help I had been seeking when I first ran away from home. After several months of rehab, she got me out of New York, reunited me with my family and ultimately saved my life.
I may have been saved, but there was a lot more work in front of me. I spent several years stumbling as I tried putting my life back together.
Initially, I felt in order for me to move forward, I had to keep what happened to me a secret, which is why I buried all of it. When I reflect on the damaged person I was and read words such as "whore" that I once used to define myself, sadness still grabs me.
But the sorrow never lasts long, because I remind myself how far I’ve come and how much further I want to go.
This article was originally published at xoJane. Reprinted with permission from the author.