When I first met Ryan, I’d never met anyone so frightened. I quickly realized he was suffering from so much more than just anxiety. I could tell, and he later confirmed, it took every ounce of courage he had to show up at that initial clinic visit. Using a trauma-informed care approach, I made sure to focus on what he wanted to talk about at that first visit, and I discovered he was in a state of chronic fear plagued by constant anxiety, perpetual nightmares, constant fatigue and horribly restless sleep among other things.
Like many other victims of human trafficking, Ryan thought he was doing right. He initially fell in love! While this romantic relationship was blossoming it was an easy decision for Ryan when his significant other offered to help him pursue his dream of higher education. Under the guise of being a host family, the significant other and his family brought Ryan to the US on a student VISA, at which point things turned south quickly. As soon as he arrived, they demanded he start “paying back” the debt he “owed to them” for bringing him to the US. He was immediately forced to work in a home health agency that this family used to steal identities of elderly people. Aside from forcing him through physical threats to himself and very real threats to his family back in the Philippines to perform this work, the romantic relationship also turned violent and he was repeatedly physically and sexually abused.
Eventually local detectives caught on to the illegal activity he and his trafficker were involved in, and after they were arrested the police did not believe Ryan when he said he was forced to do what he was doing. Being held in confinement and not knowing the local judicial system well, he was further traumatized by incarceration for something he had been forced to do. During this time his assigned public defender counseled him to plead guilty to the charges in order to receive a lesser sentence, and not knowing any better and already being horribly afraid of his current situation, that’s exactly what he did.
This then led Ryan to a four and a half month period of incarceration in the Ventura County jail prior to being transferred to a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Santa Ana. But then on day seventeen at this facility he was released due to a technicality. He was now all alone in a foreign country, a new city he knew nothing of, and he had nothing other than the phone number of the family that had originally abused him. Not knowing what else to do he called them from a 7-11 store. Naturally, they came and picked him up, and from there things continued to get worse.
The physical abuse increased to nearly nightly. At times he was locked in his room at the house with no food or water and was forced during the day to work in a restaurant where his wages were garnished by this family. After six months of this, due to the physical toll he had suffered from the abuse, he was literally unable to make it into work at the restaurant any longer. At this point, the family and Ryan’s former significant other had no further use for him and so they left him in the street.
Yet, despite all of this, Ryan was able to hold onto his humanity; so much so that during his time working at the restaurant, he formed a relationship with a regular patron who became a friend (and over time a true love). When thrown to the curb by this family, Ryan didn’t know where else to turn. This time, Ryan was not met with abuse on the other end of his call, but true support and love. Through this relationship, Ryan was able to gather strength and resources to begin rebuilding his life. He was able to not only begin the process of reporting the crime of the abuse and trafficking he sustained, but also to ask for help from the local organizations such as ours for mental and physical medical help and rehabilitation.
Over the course of my and Ryan’s time meeting together, he was able to open up and I was able to learn about how the root of most of his symptoms was the trauma he experienced when he was trafficked, assaulted, and brutally abused by someone he initially loved and trusted from his home in the Philippines. Now when I walk into a room to meet with Ryan, I am no longer greeted with a trembling and distrustful glance, but with a warm smile and the hug of a friend. While the scar this trauma has caused is not gone, it is no longer a bleeding wound. His healing did not happen overnight, but with time, selective medications, relationship building, therapy, a supportive environment, and in my opinion most of all treating Ryan as the human being he is he not only sleeps through the night, but is free from his oppressors. Ryan now actively works to give back to help others who are going through what he went through. In fact, as a survivor and patient of HFJ, he sits on our board of directors helping to guide our organization’s mission to appropriately care for this patient population.
Ryan gave us the honor of a brief Q&A to understand his experience further.
What was your first impression of our care?
Before I met you, I was really scared of even being treated by a medical professional. I know now that it’s irrational but at first, I was really afraid for my safety thinking that I might get flagged somehow to the immigration authorities if I seek medical care having gone through the hands of many authoritative figures who had wronged me. My trust with everyone was completely gone. You made me feel very safe and comfortable in sharing with you my history by spending a great amount of time listening compassionately without judgement. You made me feel that I was in a safe place to share with you my experiences. I never thought that I would be able to trust again but you made that possible. To this day, I still feel the same safe feeling whenever I am with your care. You make me feel that I am speaking to a great friend, whenever I am with your care.
How, if at all, has our care helped or enabled you to get to where you currently are?
You have provided me with follow up appointments as often as I would wish and needed which greatly assisted in my recovery. You also provided me with an abundance of resources for my medical, psychological and legal needs that have helped me in a lot of ways. For one and in my opinion, I am in a better state now mentally than when I first received your care. My panic attacks and anxiety attacks are no longer that often. I sleep better now. I barely have nightmares and my depression have decreased since I received your care.
Did our care enable you to overcome any barriers or obstacles you thought were insurmountable? If so, what were some of those barriers?
Yes, your care enabled me to overcome barriers such as my trust issues with authoritative figures and strangers. You also made it possible for me to achieve better health physically, emotionally and mentally. I also thought that I would just forever suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks and nightmares but with your guidance and care, I am now in a better state.