Photo by Tim Matsui

Photo by Tim Matsui

I sat, on the end of the row of chairs, feeling like the journalist. The outsider, the observer, the untrusted. Not because my intention is exploitive, but because I don't directly help people. I tell stories, hoping the people who see them will learn something and want to act on their new knowledge.

I was at a training meeting for the Organization of Prostitution Survivors (OPS); the intention of the series was to get volunteers and board members on the same page, although most already were. 

The room was split fairly evenly between survivors of prostitution and social services providers, though to categorize so simply is unjust. Many fit both roles and, it seemed, all had some kind of a story. 

This evening's training was on trauma. Single event, vicarious; there are many forms. The evidence of trauma manifests itself in many ways too. While I observed, I was beginning to remember.

Like the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting next door, whose cheers and clapping I could hear through the wall, this group thrived on sharing. On honesty and vulnerability.  Some were talking about horrific experiences they owned; to do this meant trusting the people in the room. 

The only reason I was in the room is I have been researching the story of domestic minor sex trafficking in Seattle for four years, hunting for funding and trying to do this without repeating earlier mistakes; the kind where I overextend myself financially and personally.

And that's when it clicked. Sitting in that chair I remembered, and my own story became clearer.

My work in this field started over a decade ago, first with sexual violence. This led to creating a non profit. Suffering serious burn out, I left for several trips to southeast Asia to report on human trafficking.

I started remembering how I would come back from these trips. Anxious, keyed up. Everything had urgency. Re-entry into Seattle's every day humdrum was torture. I was angry, frustrated, quick to snap and even faster to judge. I'd also learned to cry again. Sometimes, by myself, I'd simply weep.

I still don't truly acknowledge it, but I was carrying a form of trauma. It grew incrementally.

I like to think I wasn't shocked by the stories I was hearing; I'd already heard a lot. I knew what human traffickers could do. I became used to the traffic noise, the scent of sewage, the bi-weekly food poisoning and respiratory illnesses. I took tips on anti-worm medications, laughing off sickness and political absurdities with the expats I met, all while treating every person as a possible contact.

The hunt for access was ever present; someone always knows more than you, can open the door you didn't know you needed, or keep you from ending up beaten and robbed on some red-dirt track in the jungle. I found it created a faux intimacy, a trust bound by immediate circumstance, but lacking in longevity.

I didn't have any one difficult, traumatic event. But I think it added up. The stress was always there, the insecurity, the politics amongst my various sources. And yes, some of the stories were hard to hear. Like sitting with a woman as she described her father's murder by Khmer Rouge child soldiers; squealing pigs triggers this memory for her. Or the scent of acid-burned flesh and the labored breathing of a mother, soon to die. Or the many young women who spoke of the violence and abuse they faced daily as prostitutes, some bearing the scars and bruises; almost all of them unable to imagine any other life.

I came back from my last trip to Cambodia in 2009, to a relationship I chose over leaving America indefinitely. That was four years ago. I haven't dug into a trauma story since then. The funding wasn't there, the timing wasn't right, and my energies were focused on building a family and becoming financially stable. 

During that OPS meeting about trauma, as I sat in my chair listening, all this came back. My palms grew sweaty. I waited for a lull in the discussion, then spoke up. I told them what I have just told you. That it's been four years since I've touched trauma. I told them they were helping me remember my capacity for trauma, and my limits. That I was reminded of the painful depths people can experience and still come back and be whole. And I thanked them, for they were helping me understand and better tell the story of domestic minor sex trafficking. There were some nods and a heavy pause, but then the discussion continued. I wasn't sure how to feel.

After the meeting, a couple of people surprised me by thanking me for sharing. And I felt, maybe I wasn't just "the journalist" anymore. Maybe I was a person, just like them, trying to understand a particularly difficult experience.  

I know journalists are supposed to sit on the side and observe, but sometimes I think this leaves us aloof and disconnected. Especially in a place like this, where stories usually kept hidden are revealed with honesty and vulnerability. As journalists, we expose those stories for all to see and, I feel, if we don't offer something of ourselves, we aren't truly connecting with our subject. We aren't vulnerable in return, and in our lack of presence, we cannot do their story justice.