Friday, February 13, 2015

From Gym Bunny to Cripple: How Child Trafficking Destroyed My Back

I got this dress at a thrift store recently and Beau said it reminded him of the 80s. I didn't know what he meant until I thought of the 1980s exercise craze, and all those striped leotards. You can't tell by looking at me now, but I was deeply, devotedly into fitness for over 20 years before my childhood injuries rendered me disabled, so the dress sent me on a long and mournful trip down memory lane.

I've lost a lot. The injuries caused by those who bought and sold me when I was child robbed me of a lot, not the least of which being the ability to choose my own fitness level.

I know what you're thinking when you look at my dress. You're thinking of Jane Fonda, circa 1982, right? Who wouldn't? (Well, actually, I didn't, till Beau called it to mind.) Looking at this photo recalls to me that whole panoply of fitness trends of the early 80s, that whole new world of hope and excitement in the new, strong, female body. No longer were we merely ornamental. We could be powerful too.

Jane Fonda's Workout book and tapes -- "little bounces, feel the burn" -- came out when I was about eleven. I was a very active child, and had, like every hippie kid, been forced to take yoga classes, but this was my first introduction to exercise not as a form of play or sport, but for its own sake: exercise as and for exercise itself.

I liked it. It was enough like dance, that I found it quite fun. It was my first step toward my ultimate dedication to fitness as a lifestyle.

Shoes: Ecco; Sweater: boutique; Right hand ring: Birks; Dress, jacket, purse, earrings, and bracelet: vintage 
But, at about the same time, my body suffered a severe blow from some of the many pedophiles who paid to rape me so very often. They injured my back in such a way that some of Fonda's exercises became impossible, as did many basic exercises over the years. I appeared extremely fit and able-bodied and, indeed, believed my body to be at a peak of strength and skill, but I was wrong. I wouldn't know that for a very long time.

Since the dress made me think of my very early interest in fitness, I decided to pose in it in a schoolyard, a place of youthful exercise, sport, and general physical robustness.

Note the stripes on the woman's little skirt.
As I thought about the stretchy striped outfits of my childhood, I was most especially reminded of the roller skaters of San Francisco. My father took me to see them in about 1978; I was wide-eyed with amazement and admiration. 

They were clearly athletes, but not like any kind of athlete I'd seen before. They were cool, hip, and rebellious, and they had great, if daring fashion sense.

They were so sexy! Men and women alike wore the shortest of short shorts, usually with a little stripe up the side, and they glided around with obvious pride in their beautifully muscular, young legs.

What kid wouldn't admire and want to achieve that kind of moxy?

Would I ever be daring, muscular, skilled, and sexy like that?

Well, yes, I would, but only for as long as my back held out, which wasn't nearly long enough.

I didn't know that yet, though. I didn't know that eventual disability was inevitable. I'm glad I didn't know. I'm glad I didn't live with that fear and dread until much later.

For the time being, the world of dance and fitness was wide open to me, and Diana Ross, and a whole pantheon of fun-loving folk who embraced this new movement with great joie de vivre.

I was genetically mesomorphic and short, with a perfect body for gymnastics or anything that incorporated gymnastic-like movements, like dance and aerobics. I would later learn that I was also perfectly built for weight lifting.

And, me being me, I liked the clothes too. For many in these heady new times, the line between fashion and fitness blurred. That's not so unusual: How many women who never exercise wear Lulu Lemon pants? A lot, that's how many.

I guess I'm one of those types now, wearing the clothes but not doing the exercise. But once I owned all sorts of fancy exercise gear which I used for its intended purpose.

Now, with my core utterly destroyed by my injuries, simply balancing on one foot for this photo was a great effort, causing an ache of pain across my lower back. These are the kind of simple, frustrating exercises that are available to me now: physiotherapy, simultaneously difficult and boring, yielding virtually no visible results in either muscle tone or body size.

But that's now. Then, I was one with the masses, discovering this new world of exercise without sport, and dance without a party or a bar.

Heather Locklear, one of my major crushes in my pre-teens.
The fashion continued to spread, sexy and somehow virtuous at the same time.

Overlapping with the last days of  disco, which was exemplified by the cocaine-addled hedonism of Studio 54, the new fitness craze was a  weird combination of decadence and asceticism. One denied the body many pleasures in the achievement of the perfect shape and tone, but one also rewarded the body with the pleasures of sex and dance and, yes, probably cocaine too.

The movement and its attendant fashion were everywhere.

Fashion, fun, fitness: all one and the same.

At times, the trend didn't even pretend to be about fitness, as with this dress ...

... which is quite clearly echoed in this dress that I wore when I was about thirteen.

A scene from the movie, Roller Boogie. Stripes, stripes, and more stripes!
Even as I enjoyed the fashion, I remained far more enthralled by the sheer exuberance that one could feel in the fit body.

I loved it! Far from being one of those people who did not appreciate my good health, I revelled in it.

How I loved to dance!

A scene from Flashdance
As I got a bit older, I began to understand that my own combination of dance, gymnastics, and aerobics could be a way to release intense and confusing emotions. I think the scene in Flashdance in which Beals dances/exercises alone was a real turning point for me. Her emotional intensity matches her physical intensity and that was where the beauty came in. 

I could do that. I knew I could do that. 

In other words, by the time I was about thirteen, fitness had become an important form of therapy for me. Remember, I was still in my abusive home, still being trafficked to sadistic pedophiles, still maintaining my "school girl" fa├žade to both myself and the world. I needed release and I got it from exercise.

U2. More stripes.
As I got a bit older, I moved away from disco and Abba, and into angrier, more emotional music, like Def Leppard and U2. U2 was my dance favourite. I was already an avid reader and a copious writer, so good lyrics mattered to me more and more.

U2's albums, Boy and War spoke to my own, soon-to-be activist self. I cared more about social justice than about pop trends now. U2 were four, angry and caring young men, singing not about sex and partying, but about war, greed, God, and politics.

Plus, look at that album cover. That child looked the way I felt. Here was some kind of evidence that somewhere, someone knew that children can and do suffer terribly in an unjust world. I looked everywhere for things that would help me understand my own plight. I found very little, but I did find this.

So, the music and the dance were cathartic for me, therapy, a way to express feelings I had no other way of expressing. I was highly dissociative (a subject about which I may write more if and when I find the courage to do so) and could not even speak or write about what was happening to me. The abuse was tucked up in my fragmented self, not to be faced for many years. But the emotions still surfaced. There was nothing to do but dance.

Maybe because I needed to exercise to maintain my sanity, I was good. I mean, really, really good. I could do back bends without even using my arms to catch me. I could do the splits and kiss my knee at the same time. I could stand and reach my hands not just to the floor, not just flat on the floor, but right through my legs. I was a muscular little pretzel.

I found joy in this, even as I expressed my pain. I guess I was discovering the high that endorphins bring, but I was also very proud of what my body could do.

Meanwhile, the fashions of hip fitness were working their way into gym classes the world over.

Me, at about eleven, teeny tiny between my grandmother and great uncle.
It wasn't quite roller disco, but at least I got to have the shorts.

This photo is a good one for giving perspective on how little I was too. I think I'm about eleven here, flanked by my grandmother and her brother, my great uncle.

This is how little I was when my back was injured. A little girl like that could not possibly survive the weight of a grown male raping her, let alone three grown males beating her, throwing her down on a cement floor, and shackling her to the wall, all while gleefully violating her in every way they could imagine -- for three straight days and nights.

Stop. Imagine it. Feel the horror.

So, for me: my little salvations, dance high amongst them.

I did finally get free. I left home at seventeen and supported myself, went to school, moved to a few other big cities, and slowly built a life for myself with chosen family, many of whom are still in my life.

I went dancing with them often, as young people do.

I'm on the left, about 21 years old. That's my ex on the right. Yes, that's the same hat that you see me wearing when I'm eleven. I think they still sell them in Chinatowns everywhere.
When I was about 20, I started dating a very handsome and extremely intelligent butch woman (who is now a man, but that's another story) who was getting into weight lifting. I got into it too.

I took to it like a fish to water, or like a mesomorph to, well, weight lifting. 

In about a year, I went from the curvy body you see above ...

Me, at about 23.That's an old house-mate behind me.
... to this! It was all exercise. I did not diet. Indeed, my appetite increased, which was a hardship for me because I was so poor.

Soon, I was also taking aerobics classes several days a week. By my later twenties, aerobics had become too easy so I took up jogging instead.

Me, at 25
I was hooked. I was a full-on gym bunny, exercise freak, hard-body, whatever. I was very proud of my body, of its beauty, its muscle, its tone, its sheer strength and endurance. I received compliments on it almost daily. I had not thought of myself as overweight before, but now I lived in fear of gaining weight. I wanted to be perfect and sought perfection with something bordering on self-punishing obsession.

But I also did it because, in a way, I had no choice. I needed some way to cope with my severe PTSD. I had tried therapy but therapists were ill-equipped to deal with trauma histories as severe as mine. I knew that most people with a background like mine ended up on the streets on heavy drugs (or dead) and I knew that simply was not an option for me. I'd been drugged enough as a child. There was no way I was going back to that lack of control.

Exercise was my self-medication. For one thing, for the first time in my life, I felt really strong. I was still little, but I knew I could fight back against or outrun an attacker. When I exercised, I often imagined that I was beating up my abusers. It felt good to feel strong.

It also felt good to be in control of my body, for the first time in my life. I could set physical goals and achieve them. I sculpted by body like an artist. My body was my own, mine!

And, as we all know, exercise is a great way to manage stress and anxiety, and PTSD is nothing if not intense stress and anxiety. As I say, exercise was my drug of choice. Without it, I don't think I could have finished my degrees and built my career as a college English instructor. I needed it.

I remembered all this as I wandered around these school grounds in my little striped dress. Remember the dress? This is a style blog, after all, and I'm writing about a little striped dress.

Sort of.
Me at about 27.
In my mid 20s, with my toned body, I learned that I could pull off all those sexy looks in magazines. I strutted and preened quite a bit. Why not? Why not show off all that hard work?

I continued to love to dance. I went out dancing almost every weekend. Remember those back bends and splits and such that I taught myself as a teen? Imagine me on the dance floor. I really was good, and, according to others, sexy.

I was a bit of a menace! And it was fun! In a way, I was, for the first time in my life, having a normal life. I was dressing up in the latest styles. I was going out on the weekends. I was dating quite a bit. I was drinking a bit. I was dancing a lot. I was having fun.

No regrets. Well, a few, but not many.

I often miss my old fit body.

But it was not to last. It was never to last.

If I live a full life, I'm going to be disabled and in chronic pain for far more years than I was fit. It's heart breaking.

The signs that I would eventually become disabled were always there.

Me at 12.
They first manifested when I was still a child ...

... when suddenly I could not do any of the core work that had only recently been so easy for me in yoga or in Jane Fonda's workout.

I started to have back pains. I modified some things, like the way I lay in bed, but mostly I just ignored the pain. There was nothing else I could do. It's not like my abusers were going to take me to the doctor with an injury they had inflicted. They were evil, but they weren't stupid.

This struggle never went away. Even with rock hard, cut abs, an actual six pack, I could not do the most basic core exercises, exercises that people far less fit than I could do with ease.

There were things that were out of reach for me. But my other muscles were still able to compensate for my injuries and, mostly, the physical world, including my own body, was still mine to enjoy as I chose.

I had been suffering terrible headaches, the kind that last for days and make me want to throw up, since my teens. They always start in my upper back. By my early twenties, my back would go out from time to time, but only for a few days. I thought this was just what happened to normal people.

When in New York City, I moved into a Queens, walkup apartment by myself, hauling all kinds of bulk food up the stairs in a little grocery cart like the kind old ladies use. I think it was then that I slipped three discs. My pre-existing injuries had made further injury inevitable and this was my moment. I crawled around my apartment for a few days, with no phone, and absolutely no friends in Queens. I struggled to feed myself, to go to the bathroom, to get on and off the bed. 

I had no medical coverage so I just struggled to walk again and get back to work as quickly as I could. Time was money.

From then on, I had new types of pain that I'd never felt before but I just stretched a lot and hoped they would go away. I told myself that that moment in New York, when I suddenly had to crawl, was just another normal "outage" as I had come to call them. It was and it wasn't. It was yet another marker on my way to disability.

Me and an ex, on my 30th birthday
I had just turned thirty the first time my back went out for more than a week. For months before that, though I felt that nothing was amiss, people had been asking me why I was limping. I thought they were just seeing things. I was still jogging. I was still weight lifting. 

I did a major cleaning of my apartment one day, including moving furniture and carrying a heavy television down three flights of stairs. I was incredibly stiff for a few weeks, stiff enough to be frightened. I was right to be frightened.

This time, my "outage" lasted eight months. My on and off, mostly off, boyfriend found himself in the odd position of having to take care of me for a bit, despite the shakiness of our relationship. Ironically, he was one of the few people in my life who tried to warn me that I was pushing myself too hard; it was, in fact, a major sticking point in our relationship.

At one point, the pain was so intense, I fainted -- right into his arms, thank God. As I lay there, passed out, he kept calling me to me, afraid that something was seriously wrong. Me, I was in a happy, soft, warm place, with no pain. I never wanted to leave but I didn't want him to worry about me so I came back -- and promptly threw up from the pain.

I used a walker for a week, and then a cane for several months. That was the first time I used a cane.

I could never really dance the same way again.

By now, I knew something was wrong but I didn't know what. I went back to jogging and weight lifting, though things weren't quite right. I was on and off the cane sometimes. I went to a chiropractor often, and he said that something was wrong, but, he too, didn't know what. He suggested I do more core exercises. I tried, but my body just couldn't do them.

I now lived in terror of the pain returning for good. It was like a tentacled beast living in my lower back, ready to seize my sacroiliac joint with its teeth and tether my back with its tentacles. I talked to that beast, wrote to it, begging it to leave me and never return.

I moved to Toronto to get my M.A.. I kept running and I kept going to the gym. I had surgery for endometriosis. I went back to the gym so soon after the surgery, I could feel the incisions ripping in my belly as I did, you guessed it, core work.

I'm about 32 here. I thought I was getting fat!
I finished my M.A. and moved back to my home city, with no money and no real plans. I just kept on exercising. When everything else was wrong in my life, this was the one thing I could control, the one thing I was good at, the one place where I felt competent and at home. 

But my feelings about exercise were changing. It wasn't fun anymore. I was in my early 30s and it was getting hard and exhausting. My reasons for exercising were changing. I had that body, the one everyone wanted -- no breasts, no belly, killer abs -- and I wanted to keep it at all costs. I received constant compliments so clearly I was doing something right. 

I realize now that I was obsessed. I had a rule: No part of my body could jiggle except for my breasts. I would work out until I got gut cramps and had to run to the bathroom -- and then I'd go right back to exercising.  I was about a size 8 by then. At one point, I'd been a size 4. I told myself I'd be happy if I just got back to a 6; I thought this was sensible. Sometimes, while I was jogging, I would repeat, like a mantra under my breath, "size 6, size 6, size 6." I told myself it was a game and I wasn't really obsessed. It wasn't just a game, and I was obsessed.

Occasionally, someone, including my doctor, would express concern about how much I exercised and how thin I was, but I just thought they didn't understand.

But I also still needed my PTSD management, and the exercise was still a great help with that. I really couldn't give it up. 

I'd started teaching college courses and it was really very gruelling work: four courses per semester, no teaching assistants, no semesters off, disrespectful students, and humiliating evaluations by committee once a year. There was also a bully in my department dead set on my being fired, despite my consistently good student evaluations. 

My stress levels were through the roof. I wasn't dancing anymore. I wasn't dating. I had no social life at all. Sometimes, when I stood up from my desk, my leg would collapse under me and I'd almost fall over. This too, I ignored.

And there was another thing. From about 13 to 16, I'd been forced to "work" in a "kiddie brothel." For several hours at night, I'd be locked into a room and forced to service whatever sick and twisted adult came to my dirty cot in that dirty room. I was drugged and raped over and over and over again.

Ever since then, any job I had would trigger me into a terror I did everything to hide. Having to stay in a building and work for a set period of time felt like prison, like slavery to me. I had trouble even breathing as I approached my workplace. I realize now that I could have gone on disability for PTSD but, at the time, I was on my own and saw no options but to keep working, swallowing my terror each day just to stay alive.

I kept going to the gym. Often, I would literally run from work, jogging the several miles home, letting the endorphins wash away my fear and depression.

My body began to fail with more regularity. I had more and more "outages." Eventually, I was on and off the cane for a year, jogging and weight lifting when I could, hobbling with my cane if I had to, still not sure what was wrong with me. A hugely muscular guy at my gym told me I should get a CT scan. He was so fit, that I couldn't dismiss him as yet another person who just didn't understand

I lived in terror of what would come to my body next. 

What came was complete and severe disability. My back gave out completely. I could not even walk more than a few feet and even that hurt like hell. About a week later, the results of my CT scan came in: three bulging discs.


The pain was more than most people can even imagine. My entire back was on fire with it. It ran down my legs in sizzling, searing, screaming, sciatic pain. 

I went to a sports physiotherapist. I told him about what had happened in New York. He and I both believed that moment in New York, and those bulging discs, were my only problem. He told me that, if I did the right exercises, I'd get better in a year. 

I didn't. I blamed myself. I figured I should just do my exercises more. They helped some. The pain lessened and I could walk more, but I wasn't even close to "normal." I never would be.

It took me about four years to think of telling my physiotherapist about all the sadistic sexual abuse I'd endured as a child. When I did, it was like all the puzzle pieces came together. My injuries were much more severe than we'd thought -- and I would never fully recover.

I got a mobility scooter. I stopped fighting so hard. I changed my approach to my exercises; I could no longer approach them like an athlete. I was a cripple and, if I could learn to go easy on myself, my pain levels would be a bit more manageable. The more I could accept that I was disabled, the more things I could do to manage the pain (get that scooter, get special pillows, allow myself to have bad days).

I hated it. I hate it.

My fitness days are over forever. I won't be dancing again. Don't tell me I'm thinking negatively. It's simply the truth. 

More than any of my other fitness routines, what I miss most is my long long walks. I miss the feeling of my limbs moving freely and without pain, my heart beating strongly in my chest, my lungs filling deeply with air, and the meditative calm that would come over me after I'd been walking for a few miles. My drug of choice, my main form of PTSD management, is gone forever.

I miss walking like you'd miss a loved one who has died. I mourn my losses. My grief has not passed. Nor has my anger. What was done to me was an injustice too huge for words, too huge for dance... too huge for human comprehension.

My body is a cage. It feels as if my abusers inhabit my back, kicking it from the inside -- for the rest of my life.

I put on a brave face because I don't know what else to do. I find emotional and physical balms where I can.

But I hate it. 

If there is any sense to be made of this tragedy, it is this: Child abuse MUST end. It's up to me, and it's up to you. I'm writing this blog and trying to get the truth out there. What are you doing?

(I'm sharing this over at Patti's Visible Mondays.)


  1. Wow Charlotte. I've never known anyone with a story like yours. Keep writing! We all need to hear these stories.

  2. I just can't get past how strong you are, even as you write a post about your frailties. My sister had anorexia which manifested as obsessive exercising, so I know a little of what you speak.
    How heartbreaking to be denied the only thing that gave comfort and relief.
    My heart reaches out to you and others like you. Thanks for writing and sharing your pain. As Kristin says, we need to hear these stories. Xo JJ

    1. I don't feel strong at all, but people keep saying I am, so maybe they're right. Stories like mine do need to be heard. I wish there were an organization that my readers could donate to or volunteer for, but most work around child trafficking does not focus on those trafficked by their families and those as young as I and many others were when the trafficking began. Beau and I kind of dream of starting something up, but we're not sure what form it would take.

  3. What terrible and horrific things they did to you. Just to have been able to manage the anger as you have is amazing. Thank you for sharing your story, so many just don't believe this can happen, and if they do, they are far removed from it. It is a reminder to care for all people, and stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Much love

    1. Managing the anger is indeed difficult. I try to direct it outward, toward speaking out and trying to affect change. The more people hear what people like me have to say, and actually do something, the more my anger is relieved.

  4. What a long way you have come on your arduous journey; your capacity for love, life, beauty and art are a testament to your incredible strength. And my heart goes out to you, and to the child you were, for having bern subject to such unfathomable cruelty.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Even though I've been through it, it remains unfathomable to me too.

  5. Hi Charlotte ~ Thank you for sharing your story. It takes a lot of courage to speak your truth, for sure. I can only imagine how much it took for you to write this story for all the world to see. I do believe you may just start a movement and give others the courage to speak their truth and move Farther On in their own journeys, despite the humiliation they have faced. I am launching an initiative called Magdalene's Child: Hope & Healing for Humanity. While the website is still being lovingly created, you can follow me on Facebook at Magdalene's Child. I'd love to collaborate with you, in some way, and help other survivors find the courage to speak out against the injustices they have faced. I'll be heading down to Magdalene House in Nashville, TN this weekend for a national education day. Their organization is a safe haven for thirty women who have survived lives of prostitution, drug addiction, and trafficking. Their message is Love Heals. The other organizations I'll be supporting throughout the year are LifeWay Network, American Himalayan Foundation, and Love146. My hope is to raise awareness about this dark topic through the universal languages of music and art, and through holistic healing. If you feel called to join me in this work to help other survivors of trafficking in their healing process, I'd love to collaborate with you. Email me at you <3

    1. I'm going to take a look at your work on Facebook. I'm on Facebook too but I work more on Google+. Do feel free to repost anything that I've written that might help other survivors and/or help raise awareness. My experience is that virtually all the work being done around child sex trafficking in North America is focussed on girls no younger than about 12, "groomed" by pimps. We simply must get people more aware of younger victims, including the many victims who are trafficked by their own family members, churches, teachers, etc.

  6. You're on such an incredible journey. I look forward to your posts and am in awe of your courage. Thanks for sharing with Visible Monday.

  7. Patti, that's a really interesting way to put it: "an incredible journey." Thanks. I still don't really understand when people tell me that I'm brave, but maybe some day I will... maybe when I finally write that book that's percolating in me.

  8. i really relate to this. Not the reason for the disability-- mine is a brain tumour, but the feeling of being trapped in a body that no longer serves your needs, and struggling with the changes happenning to it. nd longing for the rush and escape that used to come with dance, with exercise-- it crushes me that it is no longer available to me. And, like you, i somehow get by day to day, even when i dont really feel like it, i just dont know what else to do. I am sad that so many others out there in he world are feeling this too. And yours even deeper than many experiences of disability-- having the illness connect into such a violent abuse you endured as a child. Well done for writing so eloquently, sharing your story, and touching hearts. Plus you look awesome, though i know hard hard it can be to see that when you want still to be that able bodied fit version of yourself. But others do see it. Please do write that book.