Heavy-hearted over the death of another survivor leader

Harmony (Dust) Grillo Blog, Life After The Sex Industry, Straight from Harmony's Heart 3 Comments

My heart has been heavy as I am processing the recent overdose and death of another survivor leader. To be candid, for many years, I silently questioned her conduct based on witnessing some of her tactics and hearing the experiences of women I cared about who were impacted by her organization. I was so frustrated by what I considered poor leadership, I failed to see her for who she was— a human being, a survivor, struggling with unresolved trauma. 

She is not the first survivor leader that I have known to meet such tragedy. Another founder of an organization, whose leadership I deeply respected, ended up back on drugs and living on the streets after years of dedicating herself to reaching and caring for victims of exploitation. (Thankfully, her story is not over yet.) Shortly after, I was devastated by the suicide of another survivor who had volunteered on the Treasures outreach team. 

As a fellow survivor leader, I am haunted by and heartbroken over the direction their lives took. 

Most of us who find ourselves drawn to use our experiences of exploitation to help others have big hearts and incredible intentions. Some of us find ourselves neck deep in the work, with little to no personal recovery and limited support systems for ourselves. At one point, I realized that I had dedicated my life to giving other people what I needed and never received. 

When I asked one woman how she got into the field, she said that while she was still being prostituted, she saw an organization’s classified ad looking for a survivor leader to run support groups. She got the job and with it, the title, “Survivor Leader”. While she was still trapped in her own exploitative situation, she was leading other women who were working to escape theirs. 

There was a time when I used the work itself, the busyness, the chaos, the constant crisis, as a distraction from my own pain. As long as I worked 16-hour days and immersed myself in other people’s trauma, I didn’t have time to face my own. 

I am sobered by the reality that there is so much riding on the way I manage my own trauma as well as the secondary trauma I experience in this line of work. Using work to cope with my pain might be more socially acceptable than drug use, but it is escaping just the same. 

I have gone through a lot of recovery since my workaholic days and what I have discovered is that survivor leadership, in fact, all leadership, begins with self-leadership. We can’t lead other people well if we aren’t leading ourselves well. We can’t take people where we have not gone.

If you feel called to this work, we need you! Not just your able body showing up for a job, but your whole self. We need you to be wholly present and functioning as the healthiest version of you. 

I don’t have all of the answers but I want to share some of what has helped me so far…

*Note: If you work with trauma survivors, you may find yourself experiencing secondary/vicarious trauma. You may also find these practices helpful.


Do you dissociate? Are you chronically exhausted? Do you experience a sense of hyper-vigilance? Or perhaps the feeling that you can never do enough? It is important to recognize the ways in which we respond to trauma so we can tend to ourselves properly. I tend to dissociate, so when I notice myself feeling that familiar sense of detachment, it is a cue to me that something is off. Check out this list of 16 Common Trauma Exposure Responses and explore your own reactions.


During a particularly stressful time in both my personal and work life, I discovered the importance of self-care. I began taking dance classes and engaging in activities that were replenishing to me. One of the minor changes I made was to take the long way to and from work. Instead of taking the 405, one of LA’s most crowded freeways, I went out of my way to drive down Balboa Boulevard, a street that took me through a state park, lush with trees and greenery. It added another 5 minutes to my commute, but it was worth it to me to be surrounded by beauty. This tiny act of self-nurturing made a big difference in how I started and ended my work day. 

The author of the incredible book, Trauma Stewardship says this…

“If we are going to be present for life’s suffering, we will need all the nourishment and rejuvenation that comes from life’s beauty”.-Laura Van Dermoot Lipsky

What does it look like to make self-care a priority in your own life? Does it mean signing up for a class you love? Finding time to practice creativity? Nourishing your body with healthier food? Exercising more regularly? (I am a better human being after I work up a sweat!) Or carving out space in your day for prayer and spiritual practices? 

No one else can do this for you. You are the only person in all the world who is responsible for your own self-care. We cannot afford to put this off. 


I have a friend who travels and shares her story of walking away from a career in porn and finding freedom from the pain of her past. After each event, she takes a few days off to decompress. 

“It must be nice” I huffed to myself when I first learned of this. BTW, I have discovered that anytime I have this thought towards someone, it is an indication of an unmet desire in me.

The truth is, it wasnice. She recognized her need for downtime after the emotional output of revisiting the trauma of her past and was kind enough to herself to honor it. 

I began to realize and honor my own need for rest. I made a commitment to take regular vacations and a weekly Sabbath (a day when I don’t work AT ALL and take time to do things that are life-giving.) In 2018, after fifteen years of working in this field, I did something I never thought I could do—I took a 3-month sabbatical. When I finally had some down-time, I was amazed at just how bone-tired I truly was. Treasures not only survived my absence, but thrived!

Making time for rest has been a game-changer. Not only does it give me the re-charge I need, but it helps me remember that I am not God. The fate of the universe and all of the people in it is ultimately, not in my hands. 

We are human beings, not human doings. It is important to take time to rest and just BE. 


By “it”, I mean life. We are not designed to thrive in isolation. We need people. We need reciprocal relationship with safe people with whom we whom we can be vulnerable. People who love us as we are while encouraging us to become all we can be. People who will laugh with us and cry with us. 

There will also be times when we need therapists, mentors, sponsors, spiritual directors and support groups. Ain’t no shame in this! Get any and all of the support you need! Not only will you be investing in your own well-being, you will be a healthy example to the people you are leading. 


Why did you decide to do this work? Were you compelled by a sense of calling or purpose? Compassion? A desire to use your freedom to bring freedom to others? A passion for justice? 

If you are doing this for a paycheck or because someone told you that you “should” simply because you are a survivor, perhaps it’s time to revisit your true why and whether or not this is really where you want to be. Just because you are a survivor doesn’t mean you have to be involved in the movement. Or maybe, after reflecting, you will find that there is a different way in which you want to be involved. Perhaps sharing your story, case management or mentoring isn’t a good fit for you, but you love teaching or consulting. I invite you to explore your personal dreams and passions. If they are in another field, perhaps it’s time to switch focus. 

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”– Howard Thurman

If you do feel called to this work, if this is what makes you come alive, it is important to stay connected to your personal why. There will be days when the work is hard on our hearts. Remembering your why will keep the wind in your sails and bring meaning to your efforts. 

Bottom line, if survivor leadership is a part of your calling, we need you to show up as your healthiest self. It’s going to take some effort and intention. Whatever that takes is what it takes! You are worth all of the effort! 

Love, Harmony

P.S. My friend Emily Mills and I continued the conversation on healthy survivor leadership on this podcast.


Note: When you order using the Amazon Associate links above, Amazon will donate a portion of the proceeds to support the work of Treasures.



Comments 3

  1. Angie

    Your writing is eloquent, your message transcends walks through all recovery, self-love, true leadership. Thank you for this reminder, you have given me wind again after 10yrs. God bless you and may He gently carry His beautiful daughers to Pleasures’ mind, body, spirit healing. Inspired, Angie Z.

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