Growing up in a small, Midwestern town was not easy for a child like me. From a very young age, I knew I was different. I also knew that being different – being Gay – in my hometown was not acceptable. My solution was to hide my authentic self and try to become the person that others wanted me to be, hoping eventually that the new “persona” would eventually snuff out the part of me that I was unwilling to accept.
The lies, fear, anger, resentment and secrets festered within me, creating a void that could not be filled. I began to rebel, searching for something or someone that could bring me peace. I found it in drugs and alcohol. I began drinking regularly. I would show up to high school with vodka in my water bottle. The shame and guilt led to anger and resentment towards everyone in my life. I withdrew from family and friends. I just wanted to get drunk and high so I could escape the reality that I was a Gay man.
Up until this point, I was a star pupil and class president. I was on the fast track to live the life that had been designed for me. Suddenly, I no longer wanted to live that life. In fact, I did not want to live at all.
Eventually, my fear of “being found out” became reality. Just as I had anticipated, my family was not able to accept that I was a Gay man. They insisted that it was a phase and I could choose to be different. I realize now that I shared that same belief. I was unable to love myself for who I was. I was afraid of burning in Hell for eternity because I was Gay.
One month before high school graduation, I left home and dropped out of school. Homeless, penniless, and alone, I wanted to just drink myself into oblivion – and I needed somewhere to do that. I sought out relationships with older men I knew could support me and my growing substance abuse issues. I also discovered the incredible feeling of being desired and wanted. The validation that I got from older men was just as good as any drug I could ingest.
But the high never seemed to last. I didn’t believe anyone understood what I was going through. Then I met a man on a “dating” app and everything changed. He understood what I was going through and told me that he saw potential in me. He told me about the amazing, glamorous life that he lived – traveling from city to city, attending high-profile Gay events, pride parades and exclusive clubs. He was charming and I believed I could trust him. He offered me a solution to my problems.
At this point, I was living in a dorm room at a college that I had gotten into after passing the GED exam. I was only there because I needed a place to sleep. I was on academic probation and I knew my days there were numbered. The man told me I had other options. He would teach me how to do massage therapy and I could live the glamorous and exciting life he offered. He promised the money would be great – especially because I was so “good looking.” I didn’t need an education. I could simply pack a bag and travel with him. Hopeless, I felt I had no other choice. I said yes.
He paid for my train ticket and I met him in Chicago. When I arrived, there were other men there who also traveled with him. They were not massage therapists. They were escorts. I was told that I could do massage – but I could make much more money if I had sex with the clients. The money that we made would then be pooled together to pay for the flights, advertisements and hotel accommodations. If there was any money left after that, I was told I would get a cut. I could make more if I helped recruit guys for the nightly live webcam shows. Every couple of days, we would book a hotel in another part of the country. Before we got on the plane, we would book a full day of escort clients in that new city.
I thought I was in control. I thought I was making these decisions. I thought this man wanted what was best for me and wanted to help me. It never crossed my mind that I was being used as bait, having unprotected sex with countless men for HIS profit.
Although hundreds and hundreds of dollars were handed over to this man in a given day, I was only given enough money to buy food. After one of the other guys introduced me to crystal meth, I became consumed. It was the only thing that could get me through this. I became a shell – detached from all emotion. I no longer had any respect for my body. My body was no longer my own. A piece of it belonged to every single man who violated it.
Eventually, I had a psychotic break. I became a liability and the men had the key cards to the hotel room changed. They skipped town and I became homeless in California – 3,000 miles away from home. I was used up and thrown away like a piece of trash from a fast food restaurant. That is exactly how I viewed myself – as a piece of trash.
I didn’t blame the men who left me there. I blamed myself. For years, I tortured myself. I replayed these events over and over and over in my mind. Like a prisoner being forced to watch his nightmares on a loop. Every day was the same. Even though time moved forward, I was still living each day in the past. I was stuck and unable to move forward.
Then something miraculous happened. In the depths of my despair, a stranger found me broken, beaten down and afraid, on the streets and took me to the hospital. I was given IV fluids, some food and an opportunity to go to drug and alcohol rehabilitation. I agreed to go because I needed a place to sleep and food to eat. I was sick and tired of eating leftover food from trash cans on the street. I was too tired to fight life anymore.
This was the beginning of the road to my recovery. Still tortured by the trauma of my past, I wrestled drugs and alcohol for many more years. I truly believed that no one else had experienced what I had experienced. I did not think that anyone could understand and that I would have to live with the pain for the rest of my life. I had isolated myself and was afraid of everyone. I did not trust anyone because I knew everyone wanted something from me. Then, in late 2017, I stumbled upon the Polaris Project.
When I read through the survivor testimonials, I heard my story. I realized I was not alone. There was a name for what I had experienced. I had experienced sex trafficking. For so long I had denied this truth because it didn’t fit the narrative that I had been told about sex trafficking. When I read the stories and identified with the other survivors, I found acceptance and was willing to find a solution. I was tired of feeling helpless and stuck, so I took action. I picked up the phone and I called the National Human Trafficking Hotline. For the first time, I was asked to tell my story and I told it with honesty and clarity. I was told that I was not alone and that others had similar experiences. I felt validated. I was given the opportunity to name the man who had coaxed me into trafficking. I was also offered services and resources to help me on my healing journey. Something amazing happened after that phone call. I got my power back. I was finally set free and ready to move forward with my life.
I no longer live in my trauma. I choose to live in my strength. I have recently celebrated three years of sobriety. I am so proud of my recovery and my desire to LIVE. I went back to school and became a certified massage therapist. I cried when I got my Massage Therapist Certificate in the mail because a pamphlet for the National Human Trafficking Hotline fell out of the envelope when I opened it. I realized things had gone full circle and that I had made something beautiful out of my past.
My family loves and accepts me unconditionally today. In fact, my mother is my best friend! I fell in love and have built a life with an amazing, loving partner. I never imagined that I could trust another man or have a healthy relationship. I never believed I was worthy of love.
Today, I know that I am loved and I am able to love others without fear. I have found that peace that I had been searching for all along. You can find that too. Today, no one has to be alone.
*Please note the name and image used are not of the survivor in order to protect survivors’ privacy.