How a sex trafficking survivor finds healing in the wild

by Jenna McKaye
with Holly Austin Gibbs and Chelsea Van Essen

As I stood at the bottom of Medicine Bow Peak, the highest point in southern Wyoming, I thought, “I don’t want to do this.” I was already tired from the days before. From life before.

It was August 2020. And I was on my first trip with Logos Wilderness Therapy. Logos is a nonprofit that organizes wilderness-based “therapy intensives” for survivors of trauma, including a program specifically designed for survivors of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. The trips, which are led by both mental health and outdoor professionals, are trauma-focused and group therapy intensive. Logos utilizes multiple therapy modalities that are primarily based on attachment therapy, experiential therapy, and interpersonal neurobiology. As a survivor of sex trafficking, I found myself struggling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the Covid-19 pandemic. And I thought a Logos trip might be a good way to dive into more healing. I was inspired by one of my favorite books (later adapted to a movie), “Wild”, by Cheryl Strayed.

In her memoir, Cheryl writes about her 1,000+ mile journey along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) – from southern California to the Bridge of the Gods in Washington – as a lone inexperienced hiker, following the traumatic loss of her mother.

Like Cheryl, I also was not an experienced backpacker or hiker. However, I felt inspired by her bravery to go into the wild, into the unknown. I took a leap of faith to go on this trip and to go inward. I wanted something to shift inside me and that’s exactly what happened with Logos. I bought boots with red laces, similar to the boots worn by Cheryl on the PCT trail. That seemed to make me feel prepared. I then booked a flight to Colorado, where I met the Logos team and other participants that would be joining me on the trip. Meeting other people who have experienced human trafficking is never really awkward. It’s like there’s an understanding and knowing between us. We don’t have to know each other’s stories to respect each other.

Image by Jenna McKaye

From there, we drove to Wyoming, to the Snowy Range of the Medicine Bow Mountains within the Medicine Bow National Forest. When I first saw Medicine Bow Peak, I was in awe. It was beautiful. The plan was to camp and hike for several days before climbing to the summit on our last full day. I tried to put that thought in the back of my mind. That part scared me.

We hiked every day. Then we went back to camp for different kinds of therapy like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), art therapy, talk therapy, and more. I loved it. The food was good, mostly cooked on a camp stove, like pancakes for breakfast and stir fry for dinner. We ate lunch on our hikes. We slept in our own individual tents, and it was very cold at night. Snow was still on the ground. I slept in a beanie and jacket in my sleeping bag. I didn’t read as I had planned, but I slept well once I was asleep. I was tired from the day’s activities.

Image by Jenna McKaye

I loved waking up in the wilderness. It was exciting to unzip my tent and see the trees and be in the middle of nowhere. I had been camping many times before. But this was different. There was no one around but us. I didn’t have any worries about going to the bathroom in the wilderness. I grew up spending summers on my family’s ranch in California. I knew what to do. On the morning of our summit hike, I was nervous. We were hiking up to 12,000 feet. This may not be a big deal to some, but I had never done anything like that before. Also, I knew my back would be in pain before I left for the trip. I have had back pain since 2006 – a result of the trauma I experienced as a victim of sex trafficking.

As my boots sunk into the snow, I wiped sweat from my forehead and thought about my life as a single mom, working three jobs for three years, coming home exhausted and heartbroken from my divorce. Later into the hike, as a group leader reached out her hand to help me across the boulders, I was further in my past, in the delivery room holding my doctor’s hand, trusting this man to help me give life to my son. And then, when the pain in my back finally forced me to the ground, I thought of my trafficker, whom I had met prior to my marriage, prior to giving birth to my son, and I thought of all the men who had exploited me during that time. Their faces flashed through my mind.

I was never taken to a hospital during my victimization. After I had escaped my trafficker sixteen years earlier, I went to an urgent care clinic seeking help. I needed someone to create a safe place for me, to discuss this experience with me, and to help me create a plan. Unfortunately, that was not offered to me. No support really was. Just temporary band-aids.

I was close to 100 pounds. My hair was falling out in clumps. I had bruises and a tattoo branding. I had erratic behavior. No one asked me any questions. There were just assumptions and judgments, and then the door.

I was left to navigate this new world on my own.

Not being offered support or resources left me scrambling to find ways to cope with my trauma. A year before this, I was a student at a private school, headed to college to play volleyball. Now, I was lost and alone. I started drinking and trying drugs. I was promiscuous and seeking attention. I was coping in unhealthy ways because I didn’t know what else to do. I was working odd jobs and taking classes at a local junior college. But my undiagnosed PTSD left me flustered and unable to navigate normal life.

During this time, the idea of healing hadn’t occurred to me. I was more focused on trying to figure out my future. I wasn’t sure what I would do or even where I would live in the next year. I was in survival mode, so therapy was the last thing on my mind. Fortunately, I now have access to resources that can help me heal from my past. I started seeing a physician at the Medical Safe Haven, a Dignity Health clinic for survivors of human trafficking in Sacramento, California. Dr. Chambers took his time and did a thorough evaluation. He explained that, because I was never treated for past physical and sexual assaults, I had developed coccydynia or chronic tailbone pain. If I stand or sit or do any activity too long, the pain only worsens.

Halfway up the mountain, I was bent over crying in pain. Let me express that this is not something I often do. I will tough it out and save the emotion for when I am alone. However, it hurt that bad. The therapists and other survivors were so helpful. Some went on ahead a little, while others stayed and helped me work through the pain. They applied Icy Hot medication, wrapped my lower back in bandages, and gave me Tylenol. With the support of my group, I forged ahead. I was determined to overcome the pain. My trafficker is not going to stop me, I thought. And suddenly, I got a burst of energy. I wanted to run to the top, to run from all of it.

When we finally reached the top, it was an incredible feeling. It was a high that I had never experienced before. I had a bird’s eye view of the world, and my problems seemed smaller. As I stood on the peak, I talked to God. I told him what I was angry about and asked Him to help me. I felt Him close. I remember that I chose forgiveness and grace. Integrity and grit. Love and perseverance. Although I was at the peak of this mountain, I knew I had not yet reached the peak of my own life. On the way down I thought of my future husband, the beautiful life we would build together someday. I thought about how I’d continue to fight for those who have suffered the same injustices as I have. I thought of my son as a grown man, saying Thank you, Mom.

With every step, I hiked my way to the woman I strive to be. I knew I would work hard to reach my destination in life. How beautiful it was to let it all go, too. How beautiful my freedom is and will always be. I knew that I would join Logos on another trip the following year. And I did. In the summer of 2021, I joined Logos in Utah. In 2022, I joined them again in Colorado. During each trip, I was nervous about my back pain, as I always am. But my physical therapist and chiropractor instructed me on what stretches to do. I was going to be in pain no matter what, so I would have to push through.

On my second trip, I knew a little more about what to expect. One thing that we did that was different was rock climbing. I thought I would like it. In fact, I had gone indoor rock climbing a couple of times before. But I struggled. Once I was on the rock, I wanted off. I thought I would feel disappointed in myself for getting down. I wanted to make it to the top. Instead, I was proud of myself. I set a boundary, and I did what was best for me. That was a huge accomplishment for me – more than if I had climbed to the top of the rock.

On the third trip, to Colorado, I loved where my tent was set up in the wilderness. I was in a corner a little bit away from everyone. I was backed up against the trees and on the side of a hill that overlooked trees and mountains. Every morning I woke up, unzipped my tent, and breathed in the fresh air. I practiced meditation, mindfulness, and relaxed thinking. I wished I could wake up to this view every day (with a real bathroom of course). The food is always so good on these trips, too. They set up a little outdoor kitchen and make meals for the participants.

Image by Jenna McKaye

We all participate in the daily groups and therapies. I love them. I would do therapies all day if I could. I often tell my therapist that two of my favorite things are public speaking and therapy. “Those are two things that people don’t normally love,” she said. I wish I could do them every day. In some ways, I do. I’ve been with my therapist for almost three years. I think a key part of therapy being successful is finding a therapist that is a good fit for you. I have finally found that. She specializes in sexual trauma and has helped me navigate through a lot of my past. We have worked through a lot, but we are still working through my trauma. I can see how the tools she gives me show up in a positive way in my everyday life.

My relationships are healthier. I’m able to set healthy boundaries, and I have so much more peace and joy in my life. I love our daily hikes on the Logos trips, even though I find them to be physically challenging sometimes. I’m a very social person, but, when I’m hiking, I find myself wanting to sing a song in my head. I feel like I’m working through my traumas with every step. Letting go and releasing it out of my body and moving it to other parts of my brain.

One of my favorite parts of the trip is having no cell service. It allows me to be fully present. Focused. I don’t have any contact with the outside world. It’s refreshing to know that the world goes on just fine without me. It gives me a healthy perspective. I can just go into the wild and find myself. Everyone else will figure it out. I am putting myself first – something women aren’t taught to do. It makes me feel empowered and strong. I feel brave and beautiful. Even without showering or putting on makeup for five days – this is a different kind of beautiful. My soul is at peace. There’s no better feeling.

On the day that we set out for our longest hike in Colorado, I prepare. Same as everyone else: I pack my day pack, lace up my boots, stretch, and eat breakfast. But before that, I am in my tent taking Tylenol, rubbing Icy Hot on my back, and praying it won’t hurt too much. When we set out, I feel hopeful yet scared. The scenery is beautiful: wildflowers, mountains, pine trees, and even a couple of waterfalls.

When we cross over water, I feel like Cheryl Strayed, like a baddass.

I play the movie soundtrack in my head. When we hike at an incline, I can feel the pain in my back, but it isn’t the same pain as I normally feel on these trips. Usually, the pain is at an 8 or 9, and eventually a 10. At that moment, it was at a 5 or 6. It was manageable. I turned to the lead therapist and told her how I was feeling. “That’s great,” she said. “Keep going!”

On our way up, she asked everyone to pick up a rock and store it in our backpacks. “I’ll explain later,” she said. When we got to the top, she asked us to set the rock down and to each go around and share something that the rock represents, something that we want to leave behind. When it was my turn to share, I talked about how I wanted to leave my back pain behind.

I also wanted to leave the resentment I felt towards my community, for not identifying me and getting me the care and assistance I needed. I wanted to leave behind the anger that I felt whenever I paid for medical care that I needed to help ease the back pain that my trafficker and rapist caused in the past. I hated that I was still paying for that sixteen years later. I wanted to leave behind the struggles that came with my daily life and the bitterness that I felt. I wanted to forgive even more than I already had. I shared this and more with the group as I cried, and when I looked up, others were crying as well. It was a powerful moment. And it stays with me.

After spending more time together, we started hiking back and I realized not only was my pain less than a 5 or a 6, but it was a 0. I was walking lightly, almost skipping. What happened, I wondered. This doesn’t just happen. “I don’t have any back pain”, I told the leader. She was amazed. She has seen me bent over crying in pain on previous trips. We made it back to camp, and I had fully enjoyed the hike. I got to experience all of it. I wasn’t focused on my back pain at all, which meant I was able to see things that I typically miss because of the pain.

The group therapist asked to meet with me individually. We sat down, and she asked me to share about the last time I was sold for sex. The last man who had raped and beaten me was also the person who had caused the worst injuries to my back. As I shared the experience, she teared up and so did I. Then, she pulled out a notepad and watercolors. She asked me to color whatever I wanted. “Whatever comes out of you,” she said. “Put it on paper.”

At first, I started to put colors all over the paper. Mostly bright colors – pinks and oranges. Then, I started to draw a mountain, and I drew myself climbing up the mountain. Then I drew the rock that I left at the top. I drew myself coming back down on the other side of the mountain. And on the other side of the page, I drew a stage with people in the audience listening intently. I drew myself on the stage with lights beaming down on me. I have a microphone in my hand, and I’m sharing my life story. I’m sharing my heart, my hope. I’m offering a gift to the audience. I’m sharing the experiences that I’ve had so others can find hope in their own lives. And healing, peace, even joy.

Then, she has me write down all the things that can potentially hold me back. I talk about my back pain. This will not stop me, I thought. My rapist won’t stop me. My trafficker won’t stop me anymore. We have a hailstorm later that day, and I watch from my tent. I love the rain. I love the cloudy weather. I look out into the mountains, and I listen to the thunder. I genuinely feel at peace. I feel excited, too. I don’t want to be anywhere else but in this moment, feeling these feelings.

Normally I try to escape my feelings. Normally I run from them; I cover them. I use things to distract myself from feeling them. But right now, I want to feel all my feelings. Every time I join Logos on a trip, I leave feeling braver, calmer, and more excited about life. Every survivor deserves this. And I can even say that I deserve this.

Learn more about Logos Wilderness Therapy.

Follow Jenna’s healing journey on her website and Instagram.

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