She was not what I had expected. Being told she had been tortured and sexually abused for years filled me with anticipation―what does someone who had survived the unthinkable look like? She appeared younger than her thirty-seven years, twenty-three of which she had spent living on the streets and sometimes with a pimp. Her features were etched with landmarks due to hard living; monuments of battles I had no comprehension of. She was missing one of her front teeth, and yet, she smiled broadly, laughed exuberantly, seemingly unaffected. I was surprised at how ‘normal’ she seemed.

I suppose I was a surprise to her too. I watched her intently, listened attentively, and did not wince as she attempted to perplex me with her elaborate narration of what she had endured. My counseling training geared my mind to responding minimally, conveying warmth and unconditional acceptance as I was trying to establish a trusting therapeutic relationship. I wanted her to know that I was not judging her in any way. My greatest challenge, however, was to control my facial expressions. “Don’t appear to be shocked”, the voice inside my head warned, as she was full of antics. At one stage, she suddenly jumped up and stood on the couch, towering over me, hands on her hips, glaring at me provocatively while pretending to lose her balance. The next moment, she unexpectedly flopped over onto her side and groaned dramatically while watching me from the corner of her eye. It was a magnificent performance, but I caught my jaw before it dropped onto the floor.

After she had grown tired of failing to evoke a reaction, she leaned back, pulled her legs up onto the couch, tilted her head, and stated dryly, I think I like you. I asked her what she meant, and she told me that counselors usually went running from the room after spending ten minutes with her. She had been testing me, and my calm demeanor impressed her. I was confident that we were slowly making progress, and it felt as though I had been given a rare, fragile porcelain vase to look after. This was an immense responsibility. Beneath my neutral smile, though, I was frantically praying for wisdom. Jesus, you have got to help me here!

I was beginning to relax when the next round of testing commenced. She told me in graphic detail how she had lost her one front tooth. A client punched her in the face after she had bitten him on his calf. She was in stitches while animating the incident comically, and I could not suppress a giggle. Her infectious laughter caught me off-guard, and as though she could sense my inward struggle to maintain a professional stance, she leaned closer, her blue eyes twinkling, and said, Youre allowed to laugh because it is an amusing story. I succumbed. She also told me that she had to go to the dentist after the incident. Upon informing the dentist and the dental assistant about what had happened, they treated her with apprehension and disgust. A sorrowful expression substituted her laughter.

We sat in silence for a while. After her bravado from before, she now looked like a terrified little animal. She fidgeted and bit her nails. I had a sense that I was treading on sacred ground―her pain was a holy cathedral where only the privileged were allowed in. I was allowed to stand at the door and peer in for a second or two. There were no colorful glass-stained windows or shiny pews. No candles burning. No choir singing beautiful harmonies in white-and-gold robes. There was only loneliness residing there. A frightened, rejected, forgotten little girl, calling out for help in the darkness. But no one answered. No one cared.

And then she shut the door.

The jester had returned. She dared me to ask her anything and waved her hands nonchalantly. I asked her whether she wanted to ask me anything, and she frowned. She told me that counselors usually could not ask her enough questions to hear her disturbing story. She admitted to confabulating some details for dramatic effect because she did not trust either of the counselors she had seen before. She was fully aware that they cared more about her story than about her. I assured her that she was in control of what she decided to share with me. I realized that respecting her pain was of the utmost importance if I wanted to gain her trust. She asked me, barely audibly, Why would you want to counsel someone like me?

Her question was definitive. I was tested once again and confronted with my true motives. This was the real test that so many counselors fail dismally. This would determine how far I would be allowed into her cathedral, if at all. My motives would mirror my honest intentions and whether I genuinely cared about the lonely, crying little girl in the abandoned space. Why do I want to enter here?

2 Corinthians 1:4 sprang to mind, (God) who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (ESV).

I have had my share of brokenness, abuse, and the comfort I had experienced from God, changed my life. He put me back together again. I might still reflect the scars of what I had endured, but they no longer cause me to bleed. If there were hope for me, indeed, there was hope for anyone.

This time, I leaned forward. I told her that I knew what it was like to carry a heavy load all by myself, and because no one helped me make sense of what that heavy load was all about, I wanted to help others, such as herself, to carry those painful burdens. Not because I could ever understand what they had gone through, but because I cared about what they had gone through. I deliberately didn’t make it sound super spiritual. I just wanted to be honest with her, and without telling her anything about my pain from long ago, which paled in comparison to hers, I could see that she understood where I was coming from.

For a brief instant, we were standing together in a communal cathedral.

Since then, she has allowed me to travel with her through her battlefield. We have made many disturbing as well as positive discoveries about herself and her story. She has eventually allowed me to help her carry those painful burdens from her past, and we have made sense of some of her emotional scars. I am unequivocally aware of every step I take through this foreign battlefield, as it is not mine to own, judge, or command, nor will I ever fully comprehend what took place there, nor pretend that I do. I do not view her as a victim or a perpetrator either, but as a survivor for whom there is boundless grace―the lost little girl in the dark cathedral has finally found the door which would eventually lead her outside.

Short Biography: Idalette (idalette@sats.edu.za) is a part-time co-lecturer at SATS, in the Christian Counselling courses, she completed the Higher Certificate in Christian Counseling at SATS in January 2020 with distinction. She earned a degree in music (BMus (Ed), 1992), and honors in Educational Psychology (1993) at TUKS. As a part-time counselor with survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, she is interested in effectively applying music- and art therapeutic techniques in trauma counseling, she is also a motivational speaker, writer, and spokesperson for Human Trafficking Awareness. She is married to Andrew and they have three children and live in Centurion.