On Friday, I had the opportunity to share my story at Saddleback, including parts of my story I don’t usually share.
It was a very special night for me because I used to drive in 74 miles of LA traffic with my 10-month old daughter in the back seat every Friday for 2 years to attend Celebrate Recovery at Saddleback! I knew I needed to get well and was willing to fight for my own recovery. I was completely honored for the chance to share my story in the place that brought me so much freedom.
Below is what I shared… 🙂
I grew up in a violent home in a violent neighborhood. My mother struggled with addiction to cocaine and my father left our home before I was a year old and left the state when I was 5. I saw him about a dozen times throughout my childhood after that.
I was exposed to porn by a male relative at the age of 3 or 4, sexually abused by multiple people, both men and women throughout my childhood and raped as a teen. The abuse left me filled with shame and anger towards myself. I thought that something was inherently wrong with me that kept attracting that kind of attention.
My mother met my stepfather when I was 2 years old. There relationship was extremely volatile. I can remember lying in bed at night listening to dishes crashing as they fought in the next room. Sometimes, when the fights got particularly escalated, they would come into our bedroom, turn on all of the lights and continue having it out in front of us.
My mother would just stand there crying and when I stood up for her, my step-dad would storm out of the room, leaving me to comfort my mother. Early on, I learned that it was my job to make sure my mother was okay. I realized that her feelings determined the emotional climate of our home and as long as I could keep her happy, I had a shot at living in peace.
When I was 13, my mother allowed her new boyfriend to move into our home. She met him in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting after he fled Canada in order to escape statutory rape charges for having sex with a minor.
He made sexual advances towards me in front of my mother and even went so far as to tell her he was in love with me. I told her that he kept coming in my room at night and asked her to stop him. She responded with a lecture about my wardrobe and explained that if I wore long pants and stopped practicing my dance routines in the living room, this wouldn’t be happening.
Through all of this I learned from her that it was my responsibility to try to control other people’s sexual responses towards me.
Fed up, I finally ran away from home the first of many times. Realizing I was serious about wanting her boyfriend gone, my mother asked him to leave. When he decided to head back to Canada, she followed him there, leaving me at 13 alone with my 8 year old brother to fend for ourselves. She left us with $20 and a book of food stamps.
After the money and food stamps ran out, I started stealing from the liquor store to feed my brother and I. I remember making my brother wait outside on the corner while I stole food and told him to run home as fast as he could if anything happened to me. That way, if I got caught, he wouldn’t get in trouble too.
It was that summer that I lost my virginity to the first boy who told me he loved me. We broke up a couple of months later but he seemed to think he still deserved “boyfriend privileges”. He raped me more than 30 times over the course of the next year. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized he too was sexually addicted.
The summer my mom left, I also began a friendship with another boy from my neighborhood. When he realized my brother and I had been left alone, he started coming over more often. When he was around, I didn’t have to worry about stealing because he would buy us food. Wise to the streets with several older siblings in “the life”, he made me feel protected in our gang-ridden neighborhood. “Anybody messes with you, I got your back”, he would tell me.
My mom eventually came back from Canada. The following year she was in a new relationship. She spent at least 5 nights a week at her boyfriend’s house. Meanwhile, in order to make ends meet, she began renting out our home to a number of random people including the boy from my neighborhood. I shared a bedroom with him, my brother, another boy and a guy who was a drug dealer. At one point, my mom had 9 people living in our 2-bedroom, one-bathroom home including a woman who claimed to be a psychic and a woman with active schizophrenia.
As the boy from my neighborhood and I grew closer he also became more abusive and controlling. I was so desperate for the attention and presence of a male in my life; I mistook his control for care and concern. I was so filled with self-loathing; his name-calling and hurtful words only validated what I already believed to be true about myself. The more abusive he became, the more I became attached to him. He told me that nobody else would ever put up with me anyway, and I believed him.
One day we were on Lincoln Blvd in Venice when he looked at me and said, “I could sell you if I wanted to”. I didn’t understand what he was talking about until he looked at the next person walking by and said, “Anybody got a nickel?” As if this is the money he could make off of selling me. This marked the beginning of him figuring out how to make money off of me.
It started with him borrowing here and there and sometimes stealing it from me. And even though he was abusive and thieving, he was present and he never raped me. This was more than I could say for any other male in my life.
I came to believe that I needed him. That I would die without him. He had convinced me of this.
At 15, I was giving him whatever money I made from my job at the beach. By 17, I was fully supporting him by stealing from the cash register at work. At 18, his mother had a stroke and we moved in with her to take care of her. Financial pressure built as her medical bills piled up and my boyfriend’s spending habits continued to escalate.
By the time I was 19 years old, I was over $35,000 in debt. I was losing control. I looked for a second job, but none of them would make ends meet. My boyfriend began pressuring me to commit crimes in order to pay our bills as I had done in the past. His rationale was that I would be less likely to get caught then he would. I was reluctant to do this since I was legally an adult and afraid of ending up with a permanent record.
Young, naïve, hopeless, and seeing no other options, I began stripping. It seemed a better alternative to theft, fraud and the risk of going to jail. My boyfriend told me that I would only have to work for a couple of months in order to pay off some bills. Then I could return to a “normal” life. Instead, I found myself trapped in the lifestyle.
Co-dependently, I felt a false sense of control through supporting him financially. I thought that as long as I could make him need me, then he wouldn’t leave me.
In essence, my boyfriend became my pimp. Every night, I came home and gave him all of my money. I had convinced myself that I didn’t deserve it anyway. His vision of selling me finally came to pass.
At the time, I would have said that financial problems were the main reason I ended up working as a stripper. But there was another facet to the story. Prior to me entering the sex industry, my boyfriend started watching a lot of porn and I started watching it with him. It seemed like it was one of the only times he actually seemed happy. The rest of the time he was so moody, anything could set him off. Not enough ice in his Mountain Dew. Too much ice in his Mountain Dew. Cold French fries. If the house wasn’t clean enough. If I made too much noise while I cleaned it.
But when he watched porn, he didn’t care about all of that. He seemed so enamored with the women and I remember wishing he would look at me that way.
I didn’t like the idea of becoming a stripper. I wanted to get in and out of the industry as fast as possible. However, I also hoped that by becoming a stripper, I could get him to look at me the way he looked at the women in porn. It never really worked. Instead he started sleeping with my co-workers and getting them to give him their money too. We didn’t seem to notice we were being pimped.
My life unraveled like an episode of Jerry Springer. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, he got another girl pregnant and moved her into my apartment because she “had no place else to go”. They took the bedroom while I slept on the couch.
In the midst of all of this, I would go on walks through my neighborhood to an area where there were a number of single-family homes. Looking at the children’s toys scattered in the yard beyond white-picket fences, and peering through the windows into what looked like healthy, happy, in tact families, I dreamed of a day when I would have a home like that. I wanted a happy marriage and children…all with the same last name. Never mind the fact that I wasn’t making any choices that would have brought me one step closer to this dream of mine.
It was during this time of my life when I met a girl in a ballet class whose friendship changed my life. Through her love and care for me, she showed me the unconditional love of God. She invited me to church, and I constantly turned her down. I thought that if there was a God, and I wasn’t convinced there was, He wouldn’t want anything to do with a girl like me. Her friendship with me was never contingent on me attending her church. Eventually I saw something in her life that I wanted. She seemed so joyful and full of life. If church was the way to finding this, I finally got to a place where I was willing to try it out.
When I showed up to Church for the first time, I immediately had a sense that I was home. I was determined to get there anytime the doors opened. Even though it meant changing my schedule at the strip club so I could show up late for a shift on a Wednesday night after service. At church, I began learning that I am loved, valued and purposed. As this truth sunk into my heart, it became a game changer. It became more and more difficult to live in a way that contradicted it.
Finally, one night, I heard a man share his testimony. He talked about being a drug addict and living on the streets and how God had radically changed his life. He shared the scripture in John 15:5 that says, “I am the vine and you are the branches, if you remain in me, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me, man can do nothing.”
I realized that I was like the withered branch mentioned later in this scripture. I was disconnected from God and my life was going nowhere. I felt like I was dying.
From that day forward, I made a decision to commit my life to Jesus and that I was going to do whatever it took to live the fruitful life He had called me to live. He began to fill the deep voids in my life that had caused me to search for my significance in a man. He began to satisfy the places in me that I tried to fill with material things. I quit stripping, left my abusive boyfriend/pimp and committed myself to live completely for Him.
I even made a commitment to take a break from dating or even pursuing intimate friendships with all men for 6 months. This was a huge feat for a serial monogamist like me! After the dating break was over…and I mean RIGHT after it was over… like the day it ended, I started dating a guy I met at church. He had been in church since he was 15, was in leadership, respected by many, and had a quickly growing career in the Christian music industry. And to top it all off, he was a virgin. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a 25-year-old virgin! He was a dream come true. Thankfully, I knew enough to know that Jesus himself was my One True knight and shining armor. But in my new love, I thought I had found a very close second.
In my newfound faith, I found grace, healing, forgiveness, redemption, and wisdom for my life. But if I am honest, I also thought I had found the perfect formula for the perfect life. I was determined to get my white picket fence after all.
We dated for 3 ½ years before getting married. We did everything by the books, literally. We read the marriage books, did premarital counseling and did everything we thought that “good” Christian couples were supposed to do in dating.
They say the first year of marriage is the hardest. For me, it couldn’t have been easier. I married my best friend. We laughed together constantly, prayed together, and he was incredibly supportive of the purpose of God in my life.
During the first year of marriage, I returned to UCLA to complete a Master’s in Social Welfare. As I pursued my degree, God simultaneously put a call in my heart to reach women trapped in the sex industry like I once was. In 2003, with the support of my pastors and local church, I founded an outreach and support group to women in the sex industry called Treasures. I began to see how God not only wanted to set me free from my past, but use it to bring freedom to others. My husband was fully supportive of this vision too.
The only time we hit a roadblock in my marriage seemed to be centered on the issue of appearance. Every once in a while, he would make note of the fact that he thought I could stand to lose a couple of pounds or dress a little bit more “like this”. The weight stuff was a huge trigger for me since had dealt with body image issues since I can remember and began dieting in the 4th grade. But every time we had a discussion about this, he would retract his statements, tell me I am beautiful just the way I am and apologize. Each time, I found myself feeling just a little more insecure.
Five years into marriage, we were pregnant and I was one step closer to my dream of having a family. Three months into the pregnancy, we had a miscarriage. At the same time, several of our friends were getting divorces. My husband began touring in the secular market and I noticed what started out as casual, social drinking quickly turned into binge drinking. I tried to control his drinking habits by asking him not to drink while he was touring. When that didn’t work, I asked him to adhere to “2 drink maximums”. That didn’t work either.
One night, right after he returned home from tour, he confessed to having cheated on my with several women during the two weeks he was gone. I was completely blindsided.
I took comfort in the fact that he was the one to confess it. Since he had been drinking when he cheated, I attributed his cheating to his drinking and thought that as long as he didn’t drink, our marriage would be fine.
I was determined not to lose my white-picket fence dream and resolved to do whatever it took to get our marriage back on track. For me, that meant putting it behind us and moving forward as fast as we could. Forgive and forget. When it came to the issue of “why” he cheated or what relational factors could have led us into his situation, I made it clear that it was “his problem” and he had to deal with it. I focused my attention on trying to control his drinking habits.
Things seemed to be back under control. He took a break from touring, didn’t seem to be drinking, and we both started building new friendships in a married connect group at church. Once again, we were pregnant.
Towards the end of my pregnancy, he started going out late and coming home drunk. I tried setting curfews, limits on who he could hang out with, and how much he could drink. None of it worked. The asks and expectations were all about trying to control his behavior so I could feel safe. My addiction became trying to control his addictions. I had no idea how to set a healthy boundary or how to state what I wanted and needed. As long as I was “owning” his issues by trying to control his choices and outcomes and quickly cleaning up his messes to keep pressing on to the white-picket fence dream, he never had to face any consequences for his choices.
It seemed that the more I took the reigns in the relationship, the more he seemed to let go of them. At the end of the day, I felt more like a controlling, nagging mother than a wife to him.
As our marriage seemed to sink deeper into a state of disrepair, a friend suggested that talk to her sister who was involved with COSA meetings at Saddleback.
I knew something was severely wrong in my marriage. I sensed that my husband had been hiding something from me. I finally came to him and asked him to come clean about whatever “that thing” was. He confessed that he kissed another girl towards the end of my pregnancy. By that point, several months had passed and my daughter was already born. Desperate for solutions (aka ideas on how to fix my husband and my marriage), I finally called my friend’s sister.
Our first conversation felt like stumbling through the dark and having someone turn on a floodlight. She helped me break through the denial I had been in and see the reality of the state of my marriage. I sobbed and sobbed, partially because the truth was painful, and partially because I was relieved. I found hope in the idea that if I could finally see the problems I was facing; I could begin to find true solutions. Today, this awesome woman is my sponsor.
At one point, a well-meaning woman at my church suggested that the solution to my marital issues was to have more sex with my husband. Being the good perfectionist that I am, I wanted to make sure I did the “right” thing for my marriage. But nothing about her advice felt right to me.
I was processing this with my sponsor when she began asking me questions like, “What do you need to feel safe?” “What do you want?” “How do you feel about this?” It had never occurred to me that what I want, need and feel was a factor in anything.
As it turns out, deciphering what I want, need and feel instead of “owning” what everyone else wants, needs and feels, has been an integral part of my recovery journey.
Faced with these questions for the first time, I realized that not only did I not want to have more sex with my husband; it was time to set some boundaries about what I needed to feel safe in our marriage.
There weren’t any COSA meetings in my area. So every Friday, I loaded up my then 10-month-old daughter and drove in 74 miles of LA traffic from Northridge to Saddleback. Sometimes the drive would take me 4 or 5 hours, but I was desperate enough to do it.
Two months after I started attending meetings, on my first mother’s day, my husband confessed that he had been having multiple, ongoing affairs for nearly a year. I felt like I was losing everything I had ever wanted and worked for. No matter how hard I tried to maintain the fairy-tale marriage, I couldn’t make my husband choose me. I couldn’t make him fight for our marriage. I couldn’t make him stop drinking. I could only take responsibility for my own choices. I was forced to face my own powerlessness.
At that point, I chose to ask my husband to leave our home. Although we were separated, I was seeking God for answers, pursuing my own recovery, and for the first time, watching my husband make his own choices without trying to control him. I realized that thankfully, my recovery did not depend on my husband’s. That I could become healthier and whole, whether or not he made a choice to get better.
I also began to realize that every relationship I had since I was 14 was with guys who ended up cheating on me and that the common denominator was me. I was choosing them. I discovered that there was a part of me that felt safer in relationships with people who did not require me to engage in healthy emotional intimacy; people who were happy to have surface level, sexualized relationships because I didn’t have to really “show” up and risk being vulnerable.
In terms of whether or not to file for a divorce, I didn’t want to take any action without hearing from God. I NEEDED a word from God, so I fasted and prayed and fasted and prayed and fasted and prayed, and after that I fasted and prayed some more. I just wanted direction because as long as I knew what to do, I could try to get back some semblance of control.
After 80 days of fasting, I finally complained to someone I trust, “I have been fasting for 80 days for a word from God, and all I can hear is “wait”! I need a word from Him!”
My confidant gently delivered the news; “’Wait’ is a word.
So I waited and waited and waited. At one point, I asked God, “Why am I waiting on this man. He isn’t doing anything to show me he is choosing our marriage?” God kindly reminded me that it was never my husband I was waiting on, but God Himself.
I don’t know if He would have been able to do it if I wasn’t in that waiting place, desperately seeking Him. It was in the waiting place that I was given an opportunity to learn to surrender. I learned that in all of my searching for control, I was trying to take the place of God. And as it turns out, according to step one, I am not God.
I continued to wait for over a year until God made it clear to me that it was time to file for divorce. Then I found myself waiting on the courts in a process that I have come to believe was God’s sovereignty. The court denied my divorce a total of 5 times. It took almost three years from the time I was separated for it to be finalized. All of that just gave me more time to wait. More time to surrender.
Although my husband had broken our wedding vows, I was committed to upholding the vow that I made and therefore, dating was out of the question for that three-year period. If it weren’t for this season of waiting and the divorce had been finalized sooner, I often wonder if I would have been tempted to jump into another relationship and robbed myself of the opportunity to experience a more complete healing.
There is a line in the serenity prayer that asks God to help us to accept “hardship as a pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it”. That always stuck out to me because so much of my energy was spent trying to fix and control circumstances and the people around me in order to create a life as I would have it. Clearly this didn’t work.
In the midst of all of this, I lost my home, my credit was ruined, and it felt like one by one all of these safety nets I set up for myself and the life I was trying to build was completely dismantled. Life was not as I would have it.
At one point, I found myself truly grieving this and said to God, “It didn’t turn out how I thought it would”. I cried to God. “It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.”
And then, He spoke to my heart.
I rescued you.
The absurdity of this statement was almost laughable. There was nothing about what I was going through that even remotely resembled rescuing.
Harmony, I rescued you.
I was perplexed. He had my attention.
I rescued you from your version of the dream….
I will redeem the dream.
This promise, that God would redeem the dream, that He would restore family to me carried me through. Most days, I held on to it. When the truth of it felt faint and distant, my friends would lovingly remind me of this promise…
“God will redeem the dream. He will restore family to you. This was His promise.”
There was a point when I accepted the fact that it might not come in the form of marriage. Perhaps He meant He would simply surround me with such incredible friends that they would become family to me. He has done that, and I am thankful.
I resolved that I would be okay with this and tried to tuck away that desire in my heart to sit at a dinner table with a family of my own. To partner in life with someone with whom I could share dreams and vision, responsibilities and challenges, laughter and tears.
I minimized my want for these things, just in case God didn’t come through in this way.
But He had a question for me.
Harmony, what do you want? It was the same question my sponsor asked me on our first call together.
I began to understand that God wanted me to engage with Him in sharing my wants and needs. That the practice of this is a part of intimacy.
I finally fessed up. I told God what I wanted… to be married again.
And not just any marriage…
I told Him that I want a marriage that is strong and growing and rooted in God. One where we laugh together and love each other passionately. A marriage where we are moving in the same direction (towards God and His purpose) and loving life together. Where we are satisfied and confident and sure in our marriage because we are confident in God as our foundation. Where we serve one another in love. Where we are living life abundantly together and honoring God in our relationship.
Where our home is filled with love. Where we enjoy spending time together as a family. Where we are growing as parents and finding balance in discipline and love. Where we are in the moment with our children and enjoying and celebrating life with them. Where they are secure and confident and building a strong relationship and foundation in God.
A marriage where we are balanced in the time we spend working and our careers do not take away from our relationship with our God or each other.
I spent the next several years after the divorce as a single mom with this dream in my heart. The waiting continued.
This is the old ending to my story from when I first wrote it:
Life is not what I thought it would be. Being a single mother and carrying the responsibility of running a ministry was not my plan. But I wouldn’t trade one moment of this journey for the work that God has done in me. I know that He is redeemer. And I trust Him to make all things right as I surrender to His will.
In the meantime, I am not only content with my current circumstances, I am filled with joy and expectation for my future.
This is the new ending!
On March 14th, 2015, God redeemed the dream and restored family to me!
I married a man that has surpassed my desires. He is a safe person who demonstrates respect and love for my daughter and me through all of his actions. We laugh together and dream together. He has wiped my tears when I am grieving and cooked me chicken noodle soup when I am sick… from scratch… no bouillon… he uses a chicken to make his own broth!
God has given him a heart for Treasures (And not just because he loves me! He volunteered for YEARS before we were ever on each other’s radar!) Now, he is the director of Men 4 Treasures and leads all of our male volunteers. He is developing a restitution fund for Treasures and has a vision to see men who used to participate in the demand take the funds they spent on the sex industry and redirect them towards organizations like Treasures that are bringing restoration and recovery to the women.
In my marriage today, I am committed to loving and supporting him without fixing him. I am committed to true intimacy, to knowing my husband and being known by him… to sharing my wants, needs and feelings, even when it’s hard and feels vulnerable.
What I went through with my ex-husband was very difficult and painful. Truth be told, although I never want to go through those things again, I wouldn’t trade one moment of it for what I have gained.
God used that season to do a deep healing work in me. He used it to teach me how to love myself and how to set healthy boundaries with the people around me. He used it to teach me about reciprocal friendships and what true emotional intimacy looks like with safe people. I also grew in my leadership capabilities. By God’s grace, today, Treasures is thriving more than ever. We continue to reach and serve the women in our city, but the vision has expanded to a global scale as we train other leaders to replicate this model of outreach and care in their cities. To date, Treasures has trained outreaches in over 100 cities on 5 continents.
During that season, I also grew in my faith that God is, in fact, good. That His character can be trusted. His plans are good. He taught me that the circumstances in my life do not change these facts. He taught me to stand on these truths, even when I didn’t think I saw evidence of them.
Today I see His goodness all around me. In my husband when he tucks my daughter in at night and tells her how precious she is. In the rich friendships I have gained. In the way God has continued to show up in times of grieving and times of celebration. He has even done a restoring work in my relationship with my ex-husband. He is a committed and faithful father to our daughter and we have a very healthy co-parenting relationship. He and my husband have a mutual respect, and even liking, for each other and often sit side by side at my daughter’s school performances and important events. We all work together to love, care for and support my precious baby girl. Honestly, the level of unity and mutual respect we are able to operate in is a beautiful gift to my soul!
God is faithful. He is a redeemer. And I am thankful.
Thank you for letting me share.