For years, I sold my body in exchange for drugs, but I didn't choose that life. It chose me.

I first spoke with April Thacker by phone when I was writing an article about Sister Nadine Buchanan, a Dominican nun who helps women caught in a cycle of prostitution and addiction on Columbus’ West Side. April, once one of those women, is now a case manager at Freedom a la Cart, a workforce training program for survivors of human trafficking. When I later met with April in person, she gently told me she objected to the way I had described her in my article, calling her “a former addict and prostitute.”

“I was those things,” she said. “But I don’t want your readers to feel that I chose that life. I want them to see the real picture.”

Here is her story, excerpted from a two-hour interview.

***

I grew up on the West Side of Columbus, in the neighborhood called the Bottoms. My mother and stepdad were addicted to alcohol and drugs. The smell of marijuana and empty beer bottles on the table was the norm in my home. One year my mom made ornaments out of marijuana joints and hung them on the Christmas tree.

I had my first drink of alcohol when I was 6 years old. I asked my stepdad what he was drinking, and he gave me some. It was Black Velvet. He told me I would hate it, and I did—it tasted horrible. But I liked the attention he gave me when I drank it. After that, every time they had a party at the house—which was all the time—he would give me shots. People would laugh, and I would be the center of attention. By the time I was a young teenager, I’d developed a taste for alcohol.

I can’t remember having a schedule, growing up. Our family life was dysfunctional and unpredictable. I don’t remember my mom getting me ready for school or sitting down with me to do homework. I’d open the refrigerator 10 times a day, hoping there’d be something new in there for me to eat—but there never was. Yet there were always people around, a never-ending party. None of this seemed wrong to my childish eyes. It was just my normal.

By the time I was 16, I was a high school dropout and a full-blown alcoholic. I was smoking weed and taking pills daily. As I got older I would find jobs, but never held one down for long. I had no direction and no positive role models to help me find my way. Looking back, I see what my traffickers must have seen in me: easy prey.

***

I was 29 and living my life from one party to the next when I was first introduced to crack cocaine. It gave me a feeling I’d never experienced with any other drug. I didn’t go home; I simply never left that party. I used up my small savings buying more crack, and when I was out of money, the dope boy—the man who’d sold me the crack and showed me how to smoke it—began giving it to me freely.

But eventually he cut me off and said if I wanted more, I had to pay. There was a girl who kept coming in and out, and he said, “Why don’t you go with her? She’ll show you how to make some money.”

I went with her to Sullivant Avenue. She told me, “You don’t have to do anything. They’ll stop because you’re cute; I’ll go with them, and when I come back, I’ll share my drugs with you.” After a couple of days like that, she told me to get in the car with her. “You don’t have to do anything, just sit in the back seat,” she said. “They’ll pay you for watching, and they’ll pay me for doing it.” After another day or two, she told me to sit in front while she watched from the back. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll protect you.”

Before I knew it, she told me to go out on my own. “You’ll be fine,” she said. “I’ve taught you everything you need to know.” After that, she sat in the house while I went out, and I’d give her my money in exchange for drugs to feed my rapidly growing addiction.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I would later learn that girls are often recruited and trained this way.

***

When you’re stuck in that life, you don’t eat. You stay up all night and all day, for days at a time. If you want a shower or a place to sleep, you have to pay the dope boy. When it gets cold, if you don’t bring money back, you can’t come in.

Eventually, the girl I was working for beat me up. I got up my courage to leave—but I only moved a few blocks away. I thought I was making a positive change, but I was addicted to a drug that was now in control of everything I did. It wasn’t long before I was walking the streets again, with another dope boy profiting from me.

***

I’d been on the streets for about a year when my mother passed away. She was diagnosed with spinal cord cancer and died within a week. After that, there was nothing holding me back. I’d always felt like I had a home—a dysfunctional home, but a home. But when my mom passed away, that was gone. I didn’t even go to her funeral, because I was on the streets.

I couldn’t stay out of jail for longer than two or three months at a time. All told, I did three and a half years in jail. I was disconnected from friends and family. I remember once when I was arrested on a drug charge my bail bond was just $69. But by that time, I did not have one person in my life who would come and pay it.

Each time I got out of jail, I’d go straight back to the streets. I don’t know if I didn’t want change. I just never envisioned it. This was my life.

***

Sometimes I was sexually assaulted. I’d wake to find somebody at the dope house taking advantage of me as I lay in a crack coma. I heard a dope boy say, “How can you rape a whore?”

Out on the streets, people threw rocks and even urine at me. They would call me names and yell at me as they drove by. I felt I was tough; I was a hardass from the West Side. But sometimes, in the dead hours of the night, at 4 a.m. with no one on the streets, walking in the dark with my feet hurting, I felt alone and filled with guilt and shame.

No one viewed me as worthy of compassion or respect or human dignity, and after a while, I didn’t either. I came to think I did not deserve a better life.

***

I was in jail again when someone told me about a possible way out. In all my years in and out of the criminal justice system, this was the first I’d heard of a treatment program set up to assist people like me in getting out of the hell I’d been living in. I applied for the program but was denied. Discouraged, I did not know what to do but return to the life that, by now, I desperately wanted to leave.

The day after I was released, I got into a car and the guy reached over and started to strangle me. I’d been in situations like this before, and normally I would fight back. But this time, I just put my arms down and let him choke me unconscious. The fight was gone.

While I was out, I had a spiritual experience. I felt the Lord come to me and tell me, “You’re not going to die out here. You’re not always going to be addicted to drugs. You won’t always be a prostitute. I have a plan for you. And you will survive.”

When I came to, I was so excited. I wanted to tell him—this trick that was choking me—I wanted to say, “Hey, guess what happened to me? Guess what happened?”

***

I was on the streets for another 47 days. The next time I got picked up by police, my arm was swollen with an abscess—I was using heroin by then—so they took me to a hospital, where I was handcuffed to the bed. Nine days and three surgeries later, I went before a judge and told him, “You need to get me to a treatment facility or I will die.” He sent me to Maryhaven.

The women’s program at Maryhaven is a beautiful place. It used to be a convent. There’s a driveway around it, shaded by trees. I felt so safe there—like I was in a cocoon, where I could rest and grow and feed.

After seven months, I was accepted in the Amethyst program, which provides long-term support for women recovering from addiction. They gave me an apartment and filled my day with classes and supportive care. I still felt vulnerable, but I became a sponge. I told my counselor I wanted to earn a GED. When I walked across the stage to get that degree, the feeling was 10 times greater than the way I’d felt when my stepdad gave me shots. I loved it and wanted more, so I applied to Columbus State. After I finished there, I started at Capital University, where I’m working toward a degree in social work. I want to educate myself so I can better help others who have been through what I’ve been through.

I needed to be taught, like a baby if you will, how to live a good life. How to live in society and feel good about what I give to it, and not just keep taking. Today I don’t steal, cheat or lie about anything. To free myself from my past, I had to change everything I had learned prior to recovery. Most importantly, I started listening to the voice inside that told me when my actions were good or bad. I didn’t know it at first, but I was gaining a moral compass.

***

In my third year of recovery, I started looking for a job, but no one would give me an opportunity. I had a long criminal record and no work history. Once again those feelings of unworthiness began to surface. I couldn’t understand why people could not see the new me.

Then somebody told me about Freedom a la Cart. It was through other women’s stories I heard when I began working there that I began to understand my own. Until that moment, I felt a lot of guilt and shame. I know I’m not innocent: I went to that party, I took the drugs. But I began to see how I’d been manipulated and trained and used for profit. When I finally identified myself as a victim of human trafficking, it took some of the guilt away. It wasn’t all on me. That was freeing.

I’ve been in recovery eight years. I feel blessed that the Lord chose to give me the knowledge that if I wanted to be successful, I couldn’t half-step anything. It had to be a complete transformation, like the butterfly.

Today I’m the case manager at Freedom a la Cart, and I do whatever I can to help other survivors conquer obstacles to success. I take them to appointments, help them open savings and checking accounts, make budgets. I even take them to practice driving in my own car, so they can get their driver’s licenses. I draw on the community that I once felt was rejecting me to find resources to help survivors become self-sufficient in their lives. I’ve helped create a support group for survivors in the community. We call it the Butterfly program.

I could not have done all this without community support, and as a case manager I am even more aware of this. We need to continue to educate people about the problem of human trafficking, so we can challenge preconceived notions about women charged with soliciting or prostitution. This is why I tell my story, in hopes that people will see the manipulation and coercion that trapped us and the conditions that made us vulnerable. It is not a choice.

If we don’t make people aware of the face of human trafficking, how are people driving down the street going to recognize that they are seeing a victim? They’re going to see that girl as I saw myself: a crack-headed prostitute. But every girl’s story is different. We need to help people to look deeper.

***

According to CATCH Court, a specialized docket of Franklin County Municipal Court established to help women trapped in the sex trade, there are 1,200 arrests for solicitation in Franklin County each year, with 92 percent of those arrested identified as victims of human trafficking. To learn more, go to catchcourt.org.