I am going to be completely honest about who I have been, who I am, and who I strive to be. I cannot hide behind a title of “victim”, “survivor”, or “addict”. Those titles may have truth to them, but I would ultimately be hiding behind them to avoid exposing my true vulnerability- my complete and utter lack of identity.
Sometimes it is easier to explain my story by using broad qualifiers. I can confidently identify as a survivor of molestation, sexual violence, and rape. I openly admit having struggled with alcohol dependence. I am honest about my struggles with severe depression and anxiety as well as my years with an eating disorder. I have spent half my life battling a painful disorder. I publicly speak on my experience as a former stripper.
However, if I am going to be completely honest about who I have been, who I am, and who I strive to be, I cannot hide behind a title of “victim”, “survivor”, or “addict”. Those titles may have truth to them, but I would ultimately be hiding behind them to avoid exposing my true vulnerability- my complete and utter lack of identity.
I spent the first decade-ish of my life in fear. Sunday School lessons taught me about Heaven and Hell, while “big church” said that you had to be chosen to get into Heaven, and the lessons learned in secret by my first abuser taught me that my path to Hell had most certainly been predestined. Every night I would recite the sinners prayer written in my Precious Moments Bible, but I never felt saved. I worked hard to memorize all of the Bible verses for Awana and strived for the kind of good works I hoped would change my path, but I never felt safe. I was confused and afraid. Bitterness and resentment grew as I clung to that fear. Consumed with isolation, the last shreds of identity I was holding onto as a sister, daughter, and friend began to disappear. There was no longer room for my familial attachments so I cut them off. I was loved, but I was not capable of returning love. Scar tissue formed and I allowed that to create a barrier between genuine love and myself.
Throughout my teen and early adult years I collected more scar tissue, but I also picked up the ability to pretend to be something- anything- that I was not, or anything I wanted to be. Without ownership of my own innate sense of value, and a reluctance to identify the value in others, being used and using was completely acceptable. By my early twenties, I took great pride in my chameleon-like behavior. I collected personalities and tried them on as needed. I was who I needed to be, when I needed to be. When a particular aspect of my life was threatened, I moved on. I still lacked any real attachments, so I was able to walk away from anyone or anything at any given time. Every time I put on new skin and started over, I found myself more jaded, readily willing to engage in riskier behavior.
At 21 I found myself in debt, unable to pay rent, and determined to remain independent. Becoming a stripper seemed like a very natural progression. It was as if my entire life had prepared for this work. I knew how to sell myself, use my ability to swim in and out of personalities, but most importantly not care about my well being in any way. The six months I spent working at the club are a combination of a drug and alcohol induced blur and a series of regrettable choices I have to live with.
My path began to change for the first time when I began to date the man I would one day marry. Chuck was different than any person I had been involved with. He had character. He was disciplined. He was a republican! And he made me feel. He inspired me to authenticity. He was a catalyst to my pursuit of an education, and reconciliation with my family. Our relationship was all things normal. We fell into a routine. We grew as people together. His friends became my friends, and my friends became his.
Everything was perfect. And then it wasn’t. Chuck was in the Army National Guard and had received orders for a 12-month tour in Iraq. I was devastated. Our relationship had become my identity and once Chuck was removed from the equation, I was empty again. The fear, anxiety, loneliness, and pain became too much for me to handle. I drank. I drank a lot. Self-medicating was not new for me, however it was not something that Chuck was prepared to deal with on top of the pressure of his deployment. Ultimately, our relationship survived the deployment. However, we were both very much broken.
I began to throw myself into fighting sex trafficking. When I first learned about this injustice occurring all over the world, I could not explain the intense way I was drawn to it. I spent most of my free time educating myself on the issue. Then one afternoon in January of 2011, I was reading about the process of recruitment- how a pimp or a trafficker approaches an easy target to lay the groundwork to turn her out, or make her a “prostitute”. In an instant I had an identity. I understood who I was, why my past looked like it did, and what my mission was. I was saved. Revelations flooded my mind with absolute gratitude, complete forgiveness, and full redemption. Not only had I been saved from abuse, pain, and self-destruction- I had been protected from the 3 traffickers that were pursuing me without my even knowing it at the time. For the first time in my life, I experienced freedom.
My story isn’t over, but here is my favorite part so far... My greatest weakness as a lost and broken sinner is now my greatest strength in carrying out my mission for the Kingdom. When I was without an identity I learned to speak and walk in many different worlds. Now, as a believer I try use that fluency to meet people where they are, facilitate collaboration, and speak justice to all people. I still struggle with relational intimacy, but since I have accepted true love I no longer have to fear it. My identity is found in Christ, and because of him I have been blessed beyond measure for my identity to also include being a wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, and activist.
Author: Elizabeth Van Dine