It is a question that is often asked of me nearly every single day, and one that I am not sure how to answer. If I were to answer it truthfully, it would surely unnerve many of my clients. At the same time, I am not one to lie and make up a silly excuse. So right now, all I can do is shrug my shoulders and respond with a laughing “I do not know.”
But, that is a lie also. I do know why I became a social worker, and it has to do with one particular woman who made me realize so many things on what not to do as a social worker.
In May of 2004, I was working in a summer camp when I suddenly began having seizures. I was in Boston at the time and was taken immediately to a local emergency room. It was there that I met a social worker who informed me that the doctors and nurses had found suspicious bruises around my body and were concerned that I was being abused.
I remember bowing my head and telling her that no, they had it all wrong. In tears, I told her the true story of where the bruises and cuts had come from. After I was done and after I had cried for nearly thirty minutes, she remained silent before she stood up, looked at me, and told me I was lying. She walked out after that and did not return.
I never spoke of what happened again for another five years, and I did not speak of the horrific trauma for that long because of the consequences. I became depressed, scared, paranoid and finally got to the point where I was willing to take a risk and talk about “it” again.
I met Deborah in August of 2010 after being on a waitlist for nearly a year. She was a counselor at a nearby rape crisis clinic, and I remember the first time we met she asked me why I was so angry and so afraid. I couldn’t answer her, the truth was I didn’t know. I hated her at first, but forced myself to keep going back. Until finally one day, eight months in, I cried, and I told her what had happened to me six years before.
I told her how I had been abducted at gunpoint from my own home, and how three strangers had ambushed me as I tried to get into my home. The safest place I knew. I described how those awful people took me just three miles down the road and sold me into a human trafficking ring. My dignity and my self worth was carelessly traded for my abductors to gain what they wanted. In exchange for me and my freedom, they each got one dime bag.
Slowly, my counselor and I developed a stronger rapport. It took a long time, but again, I found myself being able to talk to her, even though I remained guarded about my experience. It was in December of 2010, when things got even worse for me.
I began recovering memories on a daily basis, horrific memories that left me unable to do anything but cry. Deborah saw the difficulty and began asking me to come in twice sometimes three times a week for counseling.
As our talks progressed, I revealed to Deborah one thing that I had not said yet, and it was the game changer. I told her how during those four days and nights, it was not just one or two men who raped me, it was close to a hundred. Each time someone did, they would have to pay my handlers. I remember the exact phrase I used when Deborah connected the dots. I told her that money was exchanged for me. It was the beginning of the next session she held my hand and told me what she suspected.
I thought that I had been through the worst of it, and I had finally accepted that I had been kidnapped and raped. Now, she was telling me that my situation, while it encompasses sexual assault, it was something else altogether. She sat with me as she explained what human trafficking was and that everything I had mentioned to her aligns with that crime.
I felt as though I had been hit by a bus. While it was just a phrase to me, being a victim of sex trafficking was so much harder to accept than that of kidnapped and raped. I fell into an even darker depression, one where I honestly became scared of myself and my memories.
It was in November of that year, I was asked to meet with some federal agents regarding my case, and the wonderful people at my counseling center offered up their space so that I did not have to be at home. It took three hours to detail everything that happened, I told them at length about my abduction, about how I was sold and tortured in a shed, how I witnessed the death of another woman, and how I escaped.
That interview changed me, and it turned everything around for me. I learned right then and there that I am my own best advocate. During those three hours, when I was reliving the worst four days of my life, I felt myself growing stronger. I felt myself turn from a victim to a survivor.
Since that day, I have done a ton of interviews with law enforcement, both local and federal level. I have learned so many things and been able to educate so many people about the reality of human trafficking. There are few things that are an absolute need to know.
The first. I am an American citizen, I am a white woman living in a middle class neighborhood in the United States. In all of the media I have watched, there has never been a victim of human trafficking that resembles any part of me.The victims are always foreign, unable to speak English, or a child. All this is doing is creating stereotypes. This crime happens to everyone, regardless of color, nationality, age, sex, religion, etc. One of the main reasons I was unable to get help for so long is because nobody was able to see me as a victim of human trafficking. I did not match the picture that the media has given us as the typical victim.
Second. Like every other survivor, I deal with my trauma in my own way. I do get defensive, I do get scared, I do not share every second of that hell. What I do is make sure I am giving it my all. A good example of this is during one of my counseling sessions, Deborah asked me to draw a map of the locations I had been. I hated that map. I would only use black color and would only draw X’s. I hated it, it made this so real for me. One day, I got a hold of it and simply ripped it to shreds right there in her office and yelled at her. I told her to quit pushing me to do that, I hated it. It was the first time I felt emotion in years. Listen to your survivors, they know what they can and cannot do. Pushing me into drawing a map made me despise going to therapy and I quit for a bit because of it. No means no.
Third. I describe atrocious acts that happened to me, and while it might not seem real to you, the sad fact is, it is my reality. I have the bullet scar on my arm where I was shot at, I have a burn on my backside where a man tortured me. I do not need to prove that these things happened. If I am telling you this, even if you do not believe me, know that I am telling you for a reason.
Fourth: It is hard. Overcoming is hard. And when you are the victim of human trafficking there are very little resources available. There is little support available and very little chance of justice.
Fifth: I think this one is the most important. As a counselor, therapist, doctor, nurse, etc, you never know the change you can make in a person’s life. You never know how much you can help or hurt one person. Remember that the next time someone approaches you with what sounds like an unrealistic story. Deborah and her ability to listen to me saved my life. She saved others too, because without her I never would have gone to the FBI, my information may have helped solve a missing person’s case. But none of it would have ever happened if someone did not think outside the box and think that maybe, this client in front of you is telling the truth.
I became a social worker because the first social worker I ever met refused to help me. She did not believe me and because of her, I vowed that none of my clients would ever hear those words.
My name is Lauren Obermeier. I am an LMSW and the Director of Social Services at a psychiatric nursing home. My caseload, on average, is 190 people. I am a gymnastics coach, a daughter, an advocate. I am a survivor.