Someone asked me the other day how to talk to an old friend of theirs who had been working as a prostitute. They had lost touch for a period but now, with contact re-established, she seems distant, unable to accept love and kindness. She seems to be in denial about what happened to her as a prostitute.
In some ways I am well placed to give an insight into this, yet in other ways I am quite lost. I identify with the woman in question, but I don't always know what I need, what would help me to move on. Sometimes it's hard to know when someone reaches out a hand if they're going to help you or hit you, particularly when past experience of reaching out for help has met with more of the latter.
I can still be very mistrustful of people, men in particular, who profess any affection for me, more so if it is romantically inclined. You get used to the johns giving you lines for their own ends. My first thought can still be, you ain't getting anything from me, fucker. Obviously, it's not an attitude that's conducive to great relationships, so it can be pretty lonely. Sometimes, when things are going well, I can make a conscious effort to avoid thinking like this. But inevitably if I'm tired, or scared, or hurting, its my default. The defences go up.
Being vulnerable with someone is an incredibly brave act, particularly if people have hurt you in the past and preyed on your weaknesses. Positively dangerous. Better, always better, to appear hard and uncaring and unmoved. Opening up, and being honest, requires safety, reassurance, and time. I saw my counsellor for 6 months before I began to open up to him. I had to be as sure as I could be that he wouldn't hurt me, of his integrity, his professionalism, his caring. I tested him for any hints of judgment or assumptions about me for a long long time, and even after all that time, and in that setting, I still doubted, and I still felt unsafe. The fact that his attitude towards me remained consistent both before I opened up and as I let small fragments out allowed me to continue. There's nothing more off putting than someone really pushing you to talk before you feel ready, nor than someone shutting you up or misunderstanding if you do talk. It's something of a tightrope walk.
I couldn't have rushed talking about my past, in part because getting my feelings back after trying to switch them off in prostitution and addiction has been a slow process. And then having the words and saying them out loud are 2 different things. I was afraid that by saying these things, it would somehow make them real. I would have to acknowledge that these painful and frightening things had really happened, and then deal with not only his reaction, but with mine too.
I wasn't sure I could handle it. Taking a proper, sober look at what had happened to me was a terrifying prospect. My mind and the drugs and alcohol had managed to numb me enough while it was happening to get through, just. I managed to distance myself from my body to the point that it didn't feel in any meaningful way to be me. Now looking back at my past, I could feel it. My body varied from numbness to shaking and aching with the flashbacks and memories. Muscles tensed and wobbled. At times I would physically vomit.
I felt that if I spoke, the feelings might overwhelm me and somehow I couldn't cope, wouldn't cope. I'd do something stupid and fuck my life up again. I felt I couldn't look another human being in the eye and say those truths, incredibly hard truths, aloud. I thought he'd hate me. I certainly hated myself. I thought he would judge me, and say that I'd liked it, like the abusers did. I think worst of all for me was the idea that in this man's head I was painting images of myself, horrific images in which I was naked and helpless and humiliated and being used as pure entertainment. I felt as if he could see it for real. Because I felt like I was really back there, it was hard to think he wasn't watching alongside the other men. I also worried at bottom that he wouldn't believe me. My ex constantly put that fear into my head, and it can still rattle around there if I'm not careful.
Denial's a tricky one. To survive as a prostitute, it is necessary to construct a network of lies, even to yourself. If you don't say it'll be different tomorrow, tell yourself that you don't care, that this doesn't matter, doesn't touch you, maybe even that you chose it, then how can you get up in the morning and face the johns all over again. To survive being sold and poked and prodded and fucked and told and made to do disgusting, demeaning things by punters, you have to change the experience, and if you can't change what's happening to you physically, you try to change your perception of it in your head, distance yourself, separate off. Your body's being fucked but you reach for the denial - I'm not really here, this isn't actually happening, they can do what they like to that body but it's not me. Trying to merge the fragmented parts of myself in recovery continues to be a slow and painful process, because it means accepting that the unacceptable happened to me, hurt me.
4 years on and I still at times find myself drained of all positivity and warmth, all connection. I feel separate from myself and from other people, cold, malicious and capable of complete self annihilation. There is a strong pull to self destruct and destroy everything that has meant anything to me along the way. It feels like someone has poured ice into my veins and unplugged my heart. I want to push people away, 'though I know when this passes I'll regret it.
These episodes occur when something triggers me and puts me back into my past. I think that underneath this savageness is a whole world of hurt and pain and more loss and sadness than I could have imagined possible before I experienced violence and prostitution.
I hope that there will always be people who will take the time and have the patience to get beyond the damage to the woman inside. I feel privileged that someone asked my advice. Sometimes it's hard to know what would help, or if you're in the position of trying to help someone who's exited prostitution, how to help them. I guess I'd just say that a little love and patience go a long way.