From the Red Light District to the Recovery Rooms

By The Fix staff 09/04/18

Getting sober can be extra challenging for sex workers.

red-lit rooms in Amsterdam Red Light District

Marie Edmonds was just 13 when she first started using drugs. At the time, she didn’t know that addiction would rule the next two decades of her life.

“From the day I picked up my first drug, I didn’t stop for 25 years,” Edmonds said.

By the time she was 18, Edmonds began working as a prostitute to pay for her addiction to amphetamines and ecstasy. Working the streets just made her addiction worse.

“Within a year I found crack and heroin and soon was out on the red-light area every night for 15 years,” she said.

However, Edmond’s story doesn’t end on the street. Although sex work, PTSD, trauma and addiction often go hand-in-hand, Edmond was able to break the cycle after 25 years of using. Now, she has been sober since June 8, 2014. At 41, Edmonds works for Serenity Health and Substance Misuse, a UK organization that provides alcohol rehab clinics Gloucestershire and connects patients with services. Edmonds writes about her experience and helps to counsel other girls and young women who are still working as prostitutes, getting them into alcohol detox Gloucestershire and around the UK. 

She says that sex workers face unique challenges when it comes to getting into recovery. In addition to being immersed in a world where drug use is normalized, many sex workers are also dealing with underlying issues like mental illness and trauma.

“We [sex workers] are living and breathing trauma,” she said. “I myself wasn’t aware of the impact the sex work was having on my mental well-being. The guilt and shame, humiliation we are suppressing has to come up at some point.”

To suppress that, many women continue living fast-paced, dangerous lifestyles so they are too busy to confront their emotions and mental health.

“We continue to sell ourselves in order not to feel those feelings and emotions,” Edmonds said.

Over the years, Edmonds tried many different types of drug rehab, but she was never able to stick with a program long enough to get into recovery. After living on the fringes of society for so long, she had trouble adjusting to the expectations of the rehab programs.

“I was never ready as I feared what felt like authority. I would never ‘conform’ to what the staff were asking of me,” she said. On June 8, 2014 she left rehab for the last time. However, instead of returning to the red-light district, she went to a 12-step meeting.

“I got clean and detoxed myself in a 12-step fellowship,” she said. “I know rehab works, but for this addict it wasn’t to be.”

Edmonds says that many sex workers are like she was: wary of authority and rule, and unwilling or unable to take the advice of others after so many years of fighting to take care of themselves.

“Most woman coming from a sex work background, they need to not to be told what to do, but just be loved and supported through the journey of recovery,” she said.

In her work as a mentor at drug rehabs Gloucestershire and beyond, Edmonds aims to show other women that recovery is possible, and that they can get clean in a way that works for them. After spending time in jail and in locked psychiatric wards, Edmonds hopes to show the women — and the treatment industry — that there are better ways.

“There is no support or help for sex workers in my area,” she said. “Not one service provider I was under ever suggested therapy for my sex work, never mentioned mutual aid groups: all they did was keep pumping me full of methadone and diazepam. I don’t feel for a moment they ever really helped me find a solution for my problem.”

Part of her recovery has meant addressing her underlying trauma and learning to live with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“My PTSD can be very draining and quite frightening,” she said. “When I’m in an episode I can’t get out the house to go to a meeting, I can’t pick up the phone to call another person: it really is about sitting in my room with my headphones in and waiting for it to pass.”

Yet even on those bad days she is able to stay sober.

“On those days there is no growth in my recovery, but what I do have is another day clean so I am living my step one of my recovery program,” she said.

Her PTSD has complicated her recovery, but she acknowledges that and is able to meet the challenge.

“It makes recovery more difficult since we are experiencing a wide range of emotions very fast, and they are very real: fear, anger, sadness, loneliness, confusion, anxiety — all the emotions we are used to suppressing.”

But now, rather than working to suppress those emotions, Edmonds moves through them.

“What I do know — and it’s very important to remember — is no matter how hard these episodes get they always, always pass,” she said.

Get more information on Serenity Health on the website or on Twitter.

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