Colleen Stratton is a wife, mother, and advocate for survivors of sex trafficking.
Looking at her now, you would not know she was a victim herself, but she says it all started at the tender age of five when she was sexually abused.
"I know that two things really took root in me, and that was shame and fear, and it really changed me. It changed the course of my life forever," said Stratton.
She said her life turned into trying to cope with the pain and keeping it a secret.
"That led me down a really dark path," said Stratton.
At seven years old, she began cutting herself to try to take away the pain.
She turned to using drugs and alcohol at age 11.
"As the addiction kind of progressed, my life just became more and more out of control. It spiraled," said Stratton.
In her early 20s, her parents told her they feared for her life.
"By then, I was overdosing on a regular basis," said Stratton.
She said they told her they found a treatment center in Florida and put her on a plane with some money.
Instead of going to the treatment center, she went to the beach and used some of the money to get a hotel room.
"When that money ran out, I literally lived on the beach," added Stratton, "One day I was standing outside of a liquor store, and I had just stolen a bottle of liquor, and I was sick, withdrawing from drugs and alcohol. And this man came up to me, and he said, 'Are you doing alright?'"
She said anyone who would've taken a look at her would know she was not.
"He said, 'Well, I have a place that you can stay. I have a bunch of people living with me, and I can help you get back on your feet," said Stratton.
So, she went with him.
"There was really no fear about going with a strange man like I literally didn't care anymore," added Stratton.
She said all she cared about was getting off the streets and to get that next high to cover the pain she was still feeling inside.
She went to the house with him where four other women were living. She said it was a haze of drugs and alcohol for a few days.
"He shot me up with heroin, and I can just remember like coming in and out of it and seeing these women come in and out of the house," Stratton recalled.
One day, "He came in with three other men, and they all raped me, and he said, 'You know, nothing's free in this life, baby, so if you want to stay here, then you can earn your stay,'" said Stratton.
During her initiation into the life, she was taken to a stretch of highway where prostitutes walk.
"The reality just didn't set in of what I had gotten myself into," added Stratton.
Stratton felt like she had no other option.
"I felt like I had sunk too low, made too many bad decisions and choices, that this was the life that I had chosen and that this is what I deserved," said Stratton.
She said at first, her trafficker was charismatic and flattering.
Then, he became angry, instilling more fear and shame into her.
"He used to go from girl to girl in the house, and he would hold a gun to our heads, and he would say, 'Which one of you feels like dying tonight?' And then he'd pull the trigger, and it'd be an empty chamber," said Stratton.
Stratton said in these moments, she wasn't afraid to die.
She was afraid to keep living and didn't know how to leave.
"I couldn't see how I had been coerced, how I had been deceived in that I was just acting on my pain and trying to survive," added Stratton.
She said the heroin addiction fueled her to stay.
She was being sold 10 to 12 times a day.
"Every night, every shift that we were taken out to the stroll or taken out to the truck stop or to motels, we would have to make between 800 to 1000 in order to be picked up by him, and so if we didn't make that quota, either we would not be picked up, we would be left out there or he'd pick us up, but we'd have a punishment at home waiting for us," said Stratton.
Finally, one day, she was all alone in the house filled with cockroaches and broken bottles.
"I was on the floor, and I had just gotten a really bad beating," said Stratton.
She said she heard the voices of so many women she met while in a treatment center.
"There was this one nurse, in particular, that was amazing and said, 'You know, Colleen here is my home phone number. I don't do this very often, but if you ever want to leave, call me day or night and I'll come get you,'" said Stratton.
So, she called the nurse.
"She said, 'Just keep walking I'll be there,' and she did. She got me to a treatment center five hours away, and that's really where my healing began," added Stratton.
She stayed at the center for almost a year before returning to Wisconsin.
"I went back to using drugs and alcohol again, and in 2009, I ended up in jail again," said Stratton.
She said she was alone in a cell detoxing.
The only thing she was given was a bible, and she met with a chaplain.
This began her true healing process.
"I can tell you that apart from Jesus, there is no way that I would be here today with the life that I have today with the peace and the healing that I have today," added Stratton.
Stratton, now a wife and mother to four beautiful children.
"I had a doctor tell me after I had left the life, that the chances of me being able to have children would be very small just based on all the injuries and things that I had sustained. And really to have the life I have today and to have four healthy beautiful kids and a husband who knows my scars, who sees my scars and thinks that i'm beautiful anyway just really speaks to the heart of who God is," said Stratton.
Stratton now uses her own story of survival to help other survivors of sex trafficking by giving presentations, meeting with survivors in jail, and fighting for every survivor out there, showing them hope and the beauty in life that lies on the other side when they can't see it for themselves yet.
If you or someone you know is a victim of sex trafficking call the National Human Trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888.