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Moving Forward

Nikki Bell

Nikki Bell

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Speaking out makes me feel that I have value, and something to add to the world.

I was running away right from the get-go. I come from a large Irish Catholic family and my mom was really sick when I was growing up. I remember just a lot of fear. If I went to school, was my mom going to be home when I got back? I started smoking and doing drugs like regular teenagers do.

For my friends it was experimenting. For me, it was escaping.

As a teenager, it’s hard to find the words to tell others what is happening to you. The Department of Children and Families got involved because I wasn’t going to school. I remember my dad sitting on the bleachers at the soccer field with me, asking me how he could help me, crying. I was too young to identify the fear that I was living with around my mother’s sickness. My parents were no longer together, so there was nobody supervising me at home. 

Sometimes exploiters call themselves friends. I got a job at a local restaurant and I became friends with one of the other waitresses’ sons. He was 32 years old and I was 17. I thought that this guy was my boyfriend. He starts feeding me drugs and alcohol, and soon I was sleeping with his “friends” in hotels in Boston. They were sex buyers.

However bad things are, they can get worse. I was the one who found my mother dead. She had passed away the night before. I just remember being like, “Why didn’t I know something was wrong? Why didn’t I go downstairs and check on her?” I called one of my older friends and had them buy me alcohol. I walked to another person’s house and started smoking pot. I had zero coping skills.

I ended up getting pregnant. I went to California to give my daughter up for adoption. The father could have been any one of those people purchasing me. I was ashamed of everything that was happening with me. I went clear across the country and just disappeared until my baby was adopted.

Imagine standing on the sidewalk and watching a stranger drive away with your child.

It’s easy for a user to become an addict. They gave me Vicodin for the pain that you endure after childbirth. From that point on, I’m calling the doctor and getting refills on this medication, going to different doctors and doctor-shopping. Soon I had a bad opiate habit.

When I went back home, my trafficker didn’t want anything to do with me. One of the first people I went to see when I came back from California was the guy who had been selling me. We got a hotel room together and I took off my clothes. I remember being looked at like I was no longer a viable commodity — I had stretch marks, I wasn’t seventeen years old anymore. It’s sad to me that that’s who I wanted to come back to.

How old was I by then? Nineteen. 

Recovery is never a one-step thing. My aunts and my family helped me get medication to come off the opiates. But I didn’t learn that there are other components to recovery. I didn’t learn that part of the reason I was using drugs was because of all this trauma and stuff that happened in my childhood.

There’s this whole group of prostituted people who say, “I’m choosing to do this.” But I was doing it because I needed drugs to survive another day.

Nobody wants to be standing on a street corner. I remember being in jail one time and another girl that was on the street saying about me, “Nikki, she makes that money, she really knows how to work a corner,” and that was my biggest pride. That becomes your work, that becomes who you are. I don’t think anybody aspires to be that. 

You need a safe space to be before you can get out. Athena Haddon, the program director of an area substance abuse agency, believed in me, even at my worst. She’s a powerful, respected woman in our community. I would sometimes just go to her office and she would just let me sleep. She knew I wasn’t ready, but that I just needed a safe place to go.

Just show up. There’s a program in Worcester, MA for women that are charged with crimes of prostitution — I cannot speak highly enough of the two probation officers that run it. It’s fifteen years old and they’ve done it all with no funding. When I was leaving prostitution I started by staying at that shelter and I showed up for every session of their program.

Giving back feels really good. One of the things I’m proud of is creating a drop-in center and a support system for women who are being exploited or prostituted. It’s an honor to able to work with these women, that they choose me when they’re having trouble. Because these women don’t f-ing trust anybody.

Even when you are out of the life, some part of the life is still in you.  Last year I took part in “The Stories We Tell” (a testimonial writing workshop for survivors of gender-based violence and other human rights violations). I wrote “I Dream of Simple Things” to show how being bought and sold still affects my life – even my dreams.

Caring for others starts with caring for yourself. There’s not enough hours in the day to do the service work, to educate your community, and to fix all the systems that are broken that are inherently doing harm to prostituted or trafficked women. And at some point I have to dedicate some time for myself. If I’m not well, I can’t help anybody.

Nikki is the founder and director of Living in Freedom Together (LIFT), a survivor led agency dedicated to supporting survivors of CSE and trafficking in Worcester, MA.