There have been times when I have thought about going back to prostitution. It felt to me, at times, inevitable that I would end up back there, as messed up by it as I have been and remain, with PTSD that makes everyday life almost impossible, with insomnia, when the splitting is frequent and time loses its meaning, when even being in a room with someone is too scary, too much. When things have been at their worst, I have felt any possibility of attempting ‘normal’ life to be laughable, and I have known the one place where I could go where I would be absolutely normal, where my fucked-upness would be not merely permissible but actually required. Prostitution. As a little girl I didn’t dream of one day growing up and having men fuck me for money. I don’t believe many little girls do. But we acquire damage on the way and end up there, getting more damaged day by day, desperate to get out, sometimes too damaged to get out, or out and sometimes too damaged to stay out.
I have had PTSD for more than a decade. It began with the violence of my ex, and continued throughout being pimped and then prostituting myself. Incapacitated by it, I struggled to speak or even move at times: I simply froze up. As the abuse continued and worsened, over time, the trauma continued to leave its record on my mind and body, layer on layer. My reactions to situations, from an outside perspective, might have seemed, probably still seem, at times, a little strange or unhinged. Sometimes in the face of extreme violence, I’d laugh: out on the other side of terror, a kind of hysterical ‘bring it on’. My different ‘heads’ – I remain fragmented – manifest quite differently. Or so I am told – I don’t always know. Difficulties with memory combined with splitting mean that I can lack continuity in relationships. I might react to the same situation very differently at different times, according which head I have on.
I never have gone back to prostitution. Even when it has felt inevitable, all I’m good at, when I’ve felt I’d never get any better and that I might as well get it over and done with rather than having it hang over my head – even then, I haven’t gone back. The reason? I couldn’t do it sober. The memory of the horror of what it would mean stops me. I have enough clear thinking even in those bleak times to realize that while things might not get any better, they could get a lot worse by going back. Hell, they would get a lot worse if I went back. Similarly, I have contemplated suicide when things have felt really black in recovery. In truth, I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t know how to live. I don’t want to go back but I haven’t known how to go on.
The help available out there to women who have exited prostitution is woefully inadequate. I have found it to be practically non-existent. The first hope I got was stumbling across the Object website (www.object.org), a UK movement against the objectification of women. I wrote to them, telling them my story and they wrote back. I couldn’t believe they took the time to write back! My attempts at accessing help elsewhere, at finding people who understood, who gave a shit, even within the mental health profession, had hitherto been unsuccessful. From my dialogue with Object, I gained a little confidence and started the blog, a big part of my recovery. I knew I wasn’t totally on my own, and had begun to be able to articulate some of what had happened to me, in print at least – it remained largely unspeakable. But I still lacked any face to face help. I needed someone who knew me, to whom I wasn’t anonymous, to see at first hand the different heads, the frozenness, to spend time with me and get to know me so that they could understand me and what it’s like to be me, and help me to move forward.
The last 6 months have seen that change. I am now seeing a therapist who listens rather than telling me how it is, who checks out if he’s getting things right and who I find myself able to trust. And I have a sponsor who I also trust enough to talk to about this stuff, which is immense – the power of a twelve step programme is that help isn’t confined to office hours and care isn’t on the meter. I have people I can sit down with and try and talk to about my past and work it through.
Now I have help, now I can talk to someone, I feel for the first time that I won’t have to go back. Prostitution is a trap, and simply having exited is not enough to stay safe. The mental trauma it causes serves to make women who have survived it incredibly vulnerable to going back - not because we want to (you can hear the johns rubbing their hands, gleefully saying see! They love it really!) but because in a society which has swallowed the lies and language of the sex industry, there’s quite simply no place else to go.
Things are hard right now. The PTSD’s bad: at night I keep the light on, bedroom door locked and wedged, and I sleep very little. I’m processing and re-living, body and mind. When I was pimped, it wasn’t safe to relax: I was always alert, always watching for the next danger, trying to stay a step ahead. Or I’d be dissociated, or numbed from the drugs and booze. The abnormal relationship between body mind and me is taking time to unknot. But I am so grateful to have help. I’ve done a lot of things alone of necessity, but carrying this stuff alone was impossible and made me incredibly vulnerable to going back. Things are moving, and that’s good, even if it’s painful. It’s not possible to change the future without disturbing the present, and I want a future that’s as far from my past as the east is from the west. I used to be a prisoner, locked up, beaten up, and told to shut the fuck up. Now I am free. Like a battery hen released for the first time from the confines of her cage, the mental cage can still confine me. It’s going to take a little sorting, a lot of patience and a whole bucket load of love for my head to catch up. Then I shall fly!