By Wendy Barnes, Just Exits Advisory Councilmember

Each day I celebrate a miracle 22 years in the making.

What is that miracle? The life I have now after being arrested for “promoting prostitution” in 1999. Today, I feel that I have finally made it. Because I didn’t give up on my miracle.

After a sometimes frightening and incredible journey that has included two years in prison, college, navigating life as a felon, rebuilding relationships, nearly giving up, then recommitting to life—I have a loving family, supportive friends, and a job that I love because I not only feel valued and appreciated, but I am making a significant contribution to the important work against human trafficking.

As I reflect on my struggles, obstacles, joys, and accomplishments, I acknowledge what a long and difficult and joyful journey it has been the past 22 years. And I am not the only one who bears witness to that fact. Only because I have been through this journey do I understand why some people may go back. In fact, I not only understand, but I also have a deep respect for those individuals.

There is a limit to how much a person can take. How many obstacles and doors slammed in a person’s face can a person withstand? Imagine having very little or no support, and self-esteem so low that the familiarity of a trafficker’s terror still beckons. That the “option” of suicide brings comfort as it crosses your thoughts at least once a day. Imagine not having a clue what path you are supposed to be on. Imagine experiencing dead ends to every possibility, every dream.

What you, dear reader, need to understand is this: Building a life after being trafficked for over a decade has been more difficult than living in that life.

When I was arrested 22 years ago and ultimately sentenced to two years in prison, I was 29 years old. I had been trafficked by the father of my three children for over a decade. I was so broken that I had no sense of self. The trafficking ring that he had built and ran was my entire life. I had lost every dream I had ever had as a child and young woman. All hope was gone.

After a few months of sitting in the county jail feeling numb and confused, I was sent to the state prison. In the safety of the prison, no longer under my trafficker’s constant mind control, I found freedom for the first time—free to begin forming my own thoughts, free to wonder who I really was, free to explore how I felt about my life. Hope started to creep into my heart, and a wise woman inmate taught me that I had choices. I chose to start dreaming for a better life.

If I could talk to my 29-year-old self as she sat, frightened and alone in jail, this is what I would want her to know: The next 20 years are going to be a roller coaster ride. When things get tough–and they will—take a deep breath, check in with your thoughts and feelings, and listen to those around you who are genuinely trying to help.

I want to thank each and every person who has been with me on this life journey. If it weren’t for the people who believed in me, loved me, gently guided me and sometimes scolded me, I would not be where I am now. Never underestimate how much it means to a person to feel loved or cared about when they themselves feel worthless. Small acts of kindness from you and others have given me the strength to continue to learn, grow, mature, accept when I am wrong, and, most importantly, to believe in myself. I love each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart.

Today, I know that I am loved. I know that I am worthy, I know that I am ENOUGH. I also know that I still have much to learn, meaningful work to do, and a long way to go because the journey of life is hopefully, a long one—and I know we are all on it together.

Someone once told me not to give up before my miracle arrives. That pearl of wisdom has saved my life so many times. It granted me the hope that, even if today is a struggle, maybe tomorrow all my efforts to succeed will pay off and I will see my miracle: the simple miracle just to be a part of society. I wanted to go to work every day, come home tired, watch TV, and pay the rent and other bills so I could do it again the next day. “To be a part of society.” Even today, the words are a beautiful vision, heavenly poetry. I had to work very hard, cry many tears, and overcome a lot of what my trafficker had instilled in me to make that dream come true, but I did it. I have experienced my own miracle.

My advice to others going down that same journey is always the same: Don’t give up before your miracle arrives.

Please share if you think this may inspire another. If you'd like to learn more about my story, check out my book—And Life Continues: Sex Trafficking and My Journey to Freedom.