There is nothing quite like jumping on a trampoline: your feet make contact, your muscles tense as they push against the springy material, the gut-dropping freedom of being airborne for a few seconds as you envision yourself an Olympic gymnast sticking your dismount. As a child, the magic of a trampoline was intoxicating. I felt like anything was possible, mainly because I did not really understand the physics behind it. Now, as an adult, I have seen one too many social media viral “blooper” videos of broken trampolines – rusty springs snapping, trampolines with too little tension causing a person to crash straight through to the ground, and overly-taught surfaces launching people across yards.
In the finance world, the Federal interest rate is the safety net of our economy: if the economy is doing poorly, the Feds can drop the interest rate, which increases cash flows, investments, and business growth, thus helping it to bounce back. When the economy is doing well, the Feds have the opportunity to slowly re-raise interest rates, so the markets have that safety cushion when they need it again. Failure to raise interest rates at the right time could mean that the next dip turns into a full crash, and there is nothing for us to fall back on. Regardless of where rates and our economy are currently, both take constant supervision and maintenance is required.
This is much the same with an individual’s social safety net: the higher off the ground and stronger the net is, the further they can fall before hitting bottom, and the faster they recover. For those at the bottom of the social system, one innocent “bounce” can send them slamming into the ground, furthering the damage of the initial incident. This often turns what would be a “bump in the road” to someone with a stronger, higher support system into a full-fledged crisis for someone with little to no supports and resources to begin with.
One of the major areas of research that has followed the original Kaiser-CDC “ACE Study” has been on what is referred to as protective factors: the dynamics that cause two people with similar ACEs to have two very different life outcomes. The Minnesota Department of Health lists nine protective factors in their article Resilience to ACEs: Some Children Thrive Despite ACEs. Every single one of those nine factors has to do with the person’s social connections and sense of belonging within their community. ACEs Connection, an organization focused on understanding, preventing, and healing childhood traumas, lists eight protective factors they have found correlations to specifically with youth in foster care. Of those eight, five have very much to do with the social environment foster children are exposed to and supported within. A 2017 collaborative study with the Boston Medical Foundation, the Center for the Study of Social Policy titled Balancing Adverse Childhood Experiences with HOPE found that positive relationships have a “profound impact … on promoting childhood resilience.” In fact, it boiled down to three key factors within the family unit: “when [children] and their parents could discuss things that mattered, when parents participated in their child’s activities and knew their friends, and when parents managed their own stress around parenting.” Healthy, safe relationships are critical to an individual’s long-term well-being. These findings also further support client-centered and trauma-informed services, as what is good for the family system will ultimately positively impact the child.
This spring has been one of the most difficult periods of time both personally and professionally since I left The Game. I can only compare it to being in the ocean and being hit with wave after wave, each one knocking you further, and weakening you with each blast of salt water up your nose as you struggle to regain balance. But throughout this recent storm, there was an incredible silver lining: knowing it was all temporary and that I was going to be OK. Not only having the self-advocacy skills and confidence, but just the ability to conceptualize this in my PTSD brain! In reflecting back on the Perfect Storm that swept me into sex trafficking, and comparing that to the most recent series of events, I see four clear differences:
1. A fully-developed brain. Childhood trauma absolutely impacted my brain development. Science shows that the pre-frontal cortex finishes developing around the age of 25 – I escaped my last trafficker at the age of 26 and exited prostitution at the age of 27. When faced with this recent series of crises, I was physically better equipped to process my responses to them with a long-term, macro vision.
2. Mental health. Without going into detail, during my teenage years, I was denied access to mental health services and lacked boundaries and coping skills that I know without a doubt would have greatly altered my trajectory. Years later, as an adult, I was able to access mental health services when I realized I needed them. It is for this reason that despite this recent period in my life, I was able to use the grounding techniques, positive affirmations, self-care techniques, and healthy boundary-setting to keep both myself and my family safe (and with no guilt for doing so).
3. A wide, strong social support network. A main component of my Perfect Storm was an incredibly abusive marriage, which over time social isolated and financially crippled me to the point that what my first trafficker offered me – love and stability – seemed like a dream come true. Due to a non-existent social network prior to being trafficked, I didn’t “go missing” – I had no one to miss me. When I went off the grid recently, I had people who not only noticed, but cared enough to reach out. And not only that, but I had enough self-awareness to know that I needed to take them up on their offers for phone calls and lunches, and the knowledge that these were people I could trust to be vulnerable with and share what I was going through.
4. Options. When I look back at critical points in my life and began to wonder what would have been differently had I made a different decision, I see that in most situations, I made the best choice out of a series of terrible options, typically framed around poor socio-economic resources. When the storm hit this spring, I had at least two potential positive options, all due to the fact that I had a stronger socio-economic “trampoline” to spring back on.
About a year ago I was talking with Rebecca, and she mentioned that one of the factors that continues to negatively impact survivors long after their exit from trafficking is their lack of social capitol. Of course, she was right! For several years after leaving The Game, I was convinced that people were either out to sabotage me or flat out did not believe me. Now, both of these have happened, but far less frequently than I had initially perceived. It was far less about people trying to intentionally harm or disregard me, and more about me not understanding the importance of community relationships, and not being at a place where I was able to trust many people. As Aubrey Lloyd so wisely told me recently, “Our exploitation happened within the context of relationships. That’s why our healing has to happen within the context of relationships.” As we heal, we learn how to trust, and with practice, we learn who to trust. This in turn, has a significant impact on our ability to socially and economically stabilize.
Megan Lundstrom, Founder and director of national non-profit, Free Our Girls, Megan Lundstrom brings her experiences, education, and personal exposure to the issue of domestic sex trafficking to the forefront of the movement using groundbreaking research and practices to serve those in the process of finding their freedom. A survivor consultant for the Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign, and Case Coordinator for Larimer County’s CSEC High-Risk Intervention Team, Megan has dedicated her life’s work to preventing and responding to commercial sexual exploitation, and challenging the culture that fuels it.