What a Prostitution Survivor Taught Me About Joy, Part One
For the next two weeks, we’re featuring an article from Jay Stringer, an alumnus of The Seattle School (MDiv and MA in Counseling Psychology ‘09) who works as both a licensed mental health counselor and an ordained minister. Here, Jay writes about the devastating, paradigm-shifting stories he encountered working at a community mental health clinic, and about what the people there—including a prostitution survivor—taught him about trauma, addiction, healing, and, somehow, joy. This post originally appeared in The Other Journal.
I worked for a community mental health clinic in downtown Seattle for the first two years after graduate school. The clients at this location were considered the most severely traumatized and chemically dependent residents in the city. On my first day of work, my supervisor gave me a list of more than 80 clients with a handful of names marked with an orange highlighter. We were talking about my caseload when he said, “It is a lot of clients, but the names in orange are the people you need to pay particularly close attention to. They are among the highest utilizers in King County.” I nodded my head as if I understood the implications of his words. Little did I know I would spend more time with these orange names than I would with my wife in the first year of our marriage.
A high utilizer is someone who has a special knack for ending up in emergency rooms or involving the police or fire department in their day-to-day affairs. Where some choose to rant or vent through a Facebook status update, high utilizers go for a more graphic, performance-art approach. Their theatrics have led me to tears of laughter, and their violence has held me up against a wall at knifepoint. A memorable part of my job became the time I spent in our staff meetings comparing client stories. On one occasion, I shared about a client who plucked the tear ducts out of his eyes so that he could get a prescription of his favorite pain medication, which reminded a colleague about a client of his who ran in front of a metro bus in the hopes of being awarded a large enough financial settlement to move to Hawaii. Instead, all that client got was life without a spleen. Ostensibly, my job existed to help clients reach mental health goals, but I learned it had more to do with allocating tax dollars for mental health clinics so that we might prevent bodies from being splayed across a windshield on our morning commute.
Later that first afternoon I went into the records department, an eight-by-twelve-foot room filled nearly floor to ceiling with thick maroon folders containing our clients’ life stories. I took about ten files back to my desk to familiarize myself with a portion of my caseload. To date, it is the most gruesome literature I have ever read. The first five files I opened changed my life—a toddler set on fire for disobedience, a boy raped by his father for six years, a nine-year-old girl sold into prostitution by her mother, an immigrant raped by a group of men as she attempted to cross the border, and a man who lost three children and his wife in separate events within the span of a year. The amount of sexual harm, cruelty, and grief in these stories is still too much for me to metabolize. When confronted with such trauma, speech crumbles, meaning evaporates, and powerlessness intensifies.
Without exception, each client had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and some type of chemical dependency diagnosis for cocaine, heroin, alcohol, or meth at some point in their life. For the first time that I can recall, addiction made sense. My paradigm for drug users shifted from a posture of condemnation to a hybrid of relief and lament that they found a substance capable of giving them a brief intermission from all the brutality they had undergone. Those who are traumatized do not choose drugs because they want to be rebellious teenagers or irresponsible adults; they are choosing a chemical that is powerful enough to address the powers of evil that have been unleashed against them and within them. How is it that we have become so judgmental of drug use and so blind to their trauma? The tragedy, far more than the drug use, is the trauma. Woe to us who forget this.
It has always struck me that the first person in the Scriptures to name God is a teenager who has been traumatized. Hagar, whose name means “stranger,” was an Egyptian slave who was purchased by a wealthy couple in the midst of their infertility issues. Hagar was acquired for the sole purpose of conceiving an heir for the patriarch of Israel, Abram. As the story goes, the teenager conceives a child but also develops an attitude with Sarai, the patriarch’s wife. Sarai responds to this attitude with a premeditated “mistreating” of Hagar. The Hebrew word for mistreatment is also used to describe the violent treatment the people of Israel experienced as slaves in Egypt; it can also connote sexual assault. The author of this passage in Genesis is underscoring that this slave has undergone an experience so severe that rather than stay in Sarai’s home, she would prefer to head out to the desert, where, by all accounts, she will die.
It is in the desert where a miraculous thing happens—the presence of God finds Hagar near a spring. That description may seem lovely, like the prime location for your next Middle East vacation, but think instead of this spring as a treacherous watering hole in the most dangerous part of the world that you have ever been. The individuals who tend to gather in this geography are not the people you want your children to marry or grow up emulating. The angel of the Lord finds Hagar here in this unexpected place and asks her the best questions any friend, spouse, therapist, or pastor could ever ask someone about their life: Where do you come from? Where are you going? The voice of God is curious, and the ears of God incline to hear her trauma.
The angel of the Lord directs Hagar to return to Sarai—which, I hasten to add, is in no way a biblical mandate to return to a relationship of abuse or trauma—and promises to bless her with a son and with descendants who will be too numerous to count. Hagar is so moved by this encounter and blessing that she is compelled to say, “El Roi,” meaning “the God who sees me.” This is remarkable. It is a stranger, a foreigner, who is the first person to name God in the Scriptures. Although her knowledge of Yahweh is exceedingly limited, Hagar recognizes that this God is concerned with her trauma and will move with compassion toward her.
A few weeks after starting my job at the clinic, I acclimated to a new reality concerning my patients. The absurdity and oddness I observed in these men and women were, I realized, not only characteristics of their trauma. They were also estranged because they did not have the access, ability, or desire to bow to our modern idols of capitalism, denial, and power. These gods allow most of us to maneuver our lives away from pain as we settle for surrogate sources of comfort. In spending time with this population, I began to get a sense of something out of a Twilight Zone episode—I began to think that maybe we, the stable ones, are actually the most troubled.
Check back next week as Jay Stringer shares more of what he learned about trauma, addiction, healing, and—most surprisingly—joy, from the people we might least expect.