I remember the first time I saw him, I was ordering my morning coffee at the little café down the street when a hand reached in front of me and tapped the machine for my order. I thanked him and insisted that I pay for his order, but he declined and said he would rather my phone number instead. After just getting out of a toxic relationship a few months prior, I was missing being cared for and latched on to how exciting and new the possibility of him was.
In the beginning we texted every day, he took me out to dinner and bought me gifts, he wanted to know everything about me! We had so much fun together but we also shared tender moments talking about how we wanted to get married and have a family, I always wanted a big family. I fell pretty fast for him… what can I say, I’ve always been a hopeless romantic. He started taking me to parties on the weekends where alcohol and drugs were freely offered to me. I didn’t want to disappoint him, and I was just so happy that he chose me to love that I started using at these parties.
When I was trafficked for the first time, he told me he had invited his best friend over for a birthday dinner. I spent 6 hours that day getting ready, I wore the new dress he bought me and cooked an amazing meal. When they got to my place, my boyfriend told me what I was expected to do for his friend – I was so scared, I couldn’t say no, I didn’t say anything at all. Afterwards my boyfriend spent the night with me, thanking me and telling me that as soon as we made some extra money, we could buy our own house for the family we wanted to have. Looking back now I should have run right then, but I thought he loved me. I thought he wanted to spend his life with me and our future family. In a vulnerable moment though, I did what he asked of me. I wanted to show him how dedicated I was to him as he was to me. How was I supposed to know this would keep happening?
His friend started to come over once a week and I would make dinner for us. Then I was introduced to a new friend of his who he said was a co-worker that I could not embarrass him in front of. At this point I was at the worst of my addiction, using alcohol and drugs to fall asleep at night and especially when my boyfriend’s friends came over. One night I was too exhausted to cook, so I went on my boyfriend’s laptop to order food and saw a nude picture of myself in an email thread to 18 different email addresses, with a price attached.
These were not my boyfriend’s friends; he didn’t know these men! I made them dinner, and they were strangers paying my boyfriend to have a night with me. This was the moment I knew something was wrong. It took months for me to decide if I was going to do anything about it. I would have given anything to go back to the beginning of our relationship when it was fun and care-free. One night when he left my house, I got into contact with one of the advocates at the YWCA Niagara Region shelter. She talked to me about my options and that they run a shelter specifically for people who have experienced
similar things – a shelter for survivors of human trafficking. I had no idea what that even was, let alone if I wanted to go to a shelter! But I called them back weekly for two months before I worked up the courage to pack a bag, call them back and tell them I was ready. At 2 A.M. after one of his “friends” beat me up, I ran four streets over and got in the Uber she had sent to my location which then brought me to a shelter in downtown St. Catharines. I was scared he was going to find me, so they helped to get me to the Safer House that next morning.
I was in and out of the program three times. I was renting my own apartment and there were some days I missed my boyfriend so much. Something would happen between us again and they welcomed me with open arms each time. I am grateful to the YW because I would not have been able to understand what a healthy relationship looks like or secure the money I needed to get an addictions counsellor. I finally ended my lease and was going to start fresh – it was the hardest decision I ever made, but it may be the decision that saved my life. My case worker at the YW has helped me to find myself again, to not let this horrible thing that happened to me be what defines me. I know now that I was being exploited and the “love” my trafficker – not my boyfriend – was giving me was not real love.
Every few days I wake up scared from having nightmares from the night before, but I won’t give up on myself. Positive steps forward every day. In my times of struggle I remind myself of the accomplishments I have made and remember that I’m proud of myself for leaving and accepting support from the YW.