Human trafficking and trauma victims tend to turn to drugs

By Megan Brooks – [email protected] – Contributor
Years of victimization behind her, Melissa Woodward continues to fight the battle for her life.  Only this time, her challenger exists not as a pimp or a john but as a cancerous tumor.
“In March of 2013, I was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer.  I am a single mom and I run a nonprofit organization, but I daily choose to not live in fear,” said the
36-year-old as she sat in her living room overlooking the busy street.
Up until a few months ago, Woodward’s two daughters, China and Hannah, did not even know their mom had cancer. According to this forerunner for global human trafficking awareness, the girls only thought their mom was depressed.
“When I told my girls about the diagnosis, they had a lot of questions, but the thing that keeps me fighting the most was the faces of devastation that I saw when I looked at my girls after telling them that Mom has cancer,” Woodward said.
Similarly to most cancer patients, Woodward knew she was going to lose her hair because of the numerous chemotherapy and radiation treatments each week.  With the support of friends standing beside her, Woodward decided cancer would not take her hair.  She would take it herself.
“We walked down the street to a local barber shop. I told the hairdresser what I wanted to do, and she advised we cut my hair off slowly. My hair was in a ponytail and first, that ponytail was cut very short. Then, for fun, we shaved it into a mohawk and then to a very short buzz cut and when I was finally ready, all my hair was shaved off,” Woodward said.
In the midst of the vicious cycle of chemo and radiation treatments for seven consecutive days and then two weeks off, Woodward works on a project that will live on when she does not.
“As hard as it is, I sometimes have to talk to my girls about what could happen.  I have recently been making home videos of myself so that if I have passed away, my girls will never have to wonder what Mom would have said on special days like their birthday, graduation, dating, wedding and later grandkids,” said Woodward in a grave voice.
In order to keep her spirits high and to continue to feel beautiful, Woodward puts on her makeup daily, keeps her acrylic nails neatly manicured and eats a healthy, well-balanced diet combined with much rest.
“We take so much in life for granted until we lose it.  For me, my hair was hard to lose, but my life is bigger,” Woodward said.
Before her diagnosis, Woodward actively worked with the FBI and local police to investigate missing children.
Her nonprofit organization, For the Sake of One, takes in trafficked girls ages 11-17 who want help ridding themselves of drug addiction, trauma and abusive cycles in their lives.
Substance abuse, like alcohol and drug addictions, usually arise in people who have backgrounds of either sexual or verbal abuse, according to Lou Spencer, former second-shift nursing supervisor at the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center in Black Mountain.
“During my tenure, I saw doctors, lawyers, celebrities, movies stars, chefs, etc., come in for rehab.  While I had preconceived ideas about addicts before coming to ADATC, many of those thoughts quickly changed.  Many addicts are some of the nicest people you will ever meet and most usually they have deep, deep scars,” said the now-retired Spencer.
For the Sake of One supports the established safe house for rescued victims called Isaiah’s House, located in Montana.
“Before coming to Isaiah’s House, these girls are sent to rehab if they are addicted to any type of substance.  We also look to make sure that there is no gang involvement that would cause the girl to remain unsafe,” Woodward said.
On rare occasions, girls are sent elsewhere for grant purposes, Woodward said.
Brenda Carleton of the JFK Drug and Alcohol Abuse Center in Black Mountain and former employee of Women At Risk in Asheville works daily with women who come from abusive backgrounds and are addicted to substances like alcohol and cocaine.
“When talking about women’s help, the key thing is relationship.  Many times, we would see women walk in to the center to help meet their needs today and then it will be months before they would come and tell us that they are ready to get help,” Carleton said.
During her time working for Women At Risk, Carleton, the middle-aged social work supervisor, said drug use was commonly used as a coping mechanism to survive, because such women have been traumatized over and over again.
“Usually drug and alcohol abuse were introduced at the time of the trauma early in life,” Carleton said.  “At the Women At Risk center, we would establish a welcoming home life environment intentionally to help build relationship with these hurting women.”
Women At Risk daily offers free food and drinks, often supported by Manna Food Bank, as well as and condoms, tampons, shampoo and soap for women that come in need of daily help.
At the JFK Drug and Alcohol Abuse Center, patients commonly have very high rates of trauma and abuse in their life, according to Carleton.
“Young men and women are referred to us from Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountain facilities many times,” said Leonard Hollifield, managing director of the JFK Drug and Alcohol Abuse Center. 
The JFK Drug and Alcohol Abuse Center supports a 33-county area, leaving only three state-run drug and alcohol abuse centers.
“We usually see about a 65-to-35 ratio of men to women seen at JFK,” Hollifield said.
For individuals suffering from trauma or abuse, the JFK Drug and Alcohol Abuse Center serves in conjunction with nurses, psychiatrists and trained specialists to assist in rehabilitation and recovery.
“I’m not where I want to be but I’m on my way.  God’s blessings in my life help me to walk in freedom.  I look back and I see all the blessings,” Woodward said.