Christa Cairus, Survivor of Sexual Trafficking and a Spinal Cord Injury, on Surviving and Thriving Through Trauma
Christa Jo Cairus was exhausted after her 16 hour shift at the hospital. A Nurse’s Aide salary wasn’t a lot but those extra hours went a long way toward paying the bills. Those hours also kept her away from home more. She couldn’t wait to collapse into a few hours of sleep before she’d have to get up and do it all over again- but her boyfriend had other plans.
Christa walked through the front door and into an evening of intimacy. Under normal circumstances that would seem romantic, but Christa’s normal was not the same as everyone else’s and this was not a romantic occasion. Instead, it was one more night that the man who said he loved her insisted she have sex with a stranger in exchange for money.
Christa was just a teenager when she met him. He was older than her, and from out of town, and he was exciting and said all the right things to her. Christa was swept away by him, right out of her loving family’s arms and thousands of miles away to another state. Her brother is a police officer and her mother worked at a men’s prison. She’d even run a background check on the man who was wooing her 18 year-old daughter, and discovered a history of arrests.
Christa, however, was undeterred in her love. “I wanted to live fast,” she says. “I believed everything he said.”
And he said a lot.
Eighteen year-old Christa Cairus soaked up every compliment he fed her. She loved hearing him tell her how beautiful she was, and how special. When his temporary job ended and he announced he was returning to Mexico, Christa didn’t take much convincing to leave Iowa and go with him.
“I really wanted to see the world,” she says. She believed she could pursue a career in cosmetology and make more money in a dense area of New Mexico than in her small town in Iowa. She was not a child anymore. She was ready to see what the world had to offer her.
So her parents and brother reluctantly said goodbye to her, and Christa drove off into the sunset with the man of her dreams – straight into a nightmare.
She thought they would get married and live happily ever after. He knew he’d found a perfect victim.
Her cosmetology career never happened. She found a job as a Nursing Assistant at a hospital in New Mexico and settled into her new life. Her dream was rudely interrupted just a few weeks later.
Christa’s boyfriend was laid off from his job. His solution to bridging the income dilemma was the beginning of her nightmare.
At first she thought he was making a bad joke. Sleeping with other men for money? No way could he be serious. She wasn’t amused but she let it go, assuming he would move on from the topic. Instead he doubled down on manipulating her into complying with his sick demands.
“You’re so beautiful. This is why my marriage didn’t work. We need the money. I love you.” Compliments and praise expertly mingled with threats and demeaning comments created the perfect blend of guilt and a desire to “fix” the problem.
Christa’s soft heart and nurturing nature, coupled with his masterful moves of isolating her from her family, making her feel dependent on his love, and presenting the financial situation as something only she was responsible for fixing worked.
Christa finally submitted to his cajoling. Technically, she offered herself up for consensual sex but in reality she was screaming inside. Feeling dirty, ashamed, and demoralized, Christa attempted to appease her boyfriend with a one-time act. She hoped that would be the end of it, but it was just the beginning.
One night turned into two which turned into two hundred which turned into hundreds more.
“I wanted so badly for him to be the person I’d thought he was,” says Christa, that she would do anything to make that happen. Instead it just kept getting worse.
Her boyfriend was able to wield power over her through emotional abuse. Christa became so numb to the reality of that abuse that it seemed normal to her. He trafficked her as much and as often as he could. If she complained or got upset, he’d tell her she was getting fat anyway, so she may as well move back to her hick town if she was done with it all there.
For years, Christa held on to the belief that she was the one who was at fault; If only she was a better person, or did a better job, or understood how to fix him, it would all be better. She coped by taking on as many shifts as she could at the hospital, leaving less time for him to traffick her. Her co-workers may have thought she looked tired, but they never imagined the real reason she became the go-to girl for their time off requests was to avoid being pimped out by her boyfriend.
Her family had no idea what was happening either. They saw precious little of her, and she never whispered a peep of her trauma to them.
Inevitably, Christa became pregnant. Her boyfriend flew into a rage when she refused to have an abortion. It was the first time she’d ever defied him and he did not like it. Christa was unable to stand up for her own life but she was fierce about protecting her baby’s life.
Miraculously, she made it through the pregnancy and delivered a healthy baby boy. Her boyfriend gave her one week to recover before putting her back to work.
Horrified as she was, Christa could not stop the tears from rolling down her face as the man touched her. Something in that man registered that what he was doing was very wrong, and he left without doing what he’d come to do.
Christa’s boyfriend became enraged.
About a week after she was forced to service a prison warden, Christa’s boyfriend put her on the back of his motorcycle and drove it straight into a firetruck. He was uninjured. She was paralyzed as a result of breaking her spine.
The time in the hospital was the only relief she would have from his continued abuse. Still, she did not tell her family about her life. They were devastated enough about her injury and she did not want to make that worse.
If she’d thought she would be free from abuse when she returned home in a wheelchair and still suffering headaches as well as emotional distress as she struggled to accept her immobility, Christa was wrong.
Instead of showing compassion or remorse for any of what he’d done to her, her boyfriend escalated his campaign of terror. She would regularly be choked or punched. One time he pulled her off the bed and let her crash onto the floor. As she felt her head hit the ground and heard her baby cry while her boyfriend slammed the door and left her there, Christa realized or she didn’t leave he would kill her one day.
With the inner strength of a warrior, Christa held on and formulated a plan to take her life back. She convinced her boyfriend to move back to Iowa, where her parents could assume the “burden” of her care. Once there, she got a job and saved some money up. She enlisted the help of a friend to get herself and a few possessions out of the apartment before she told her boyfriend it was over.
He pulled a gun on her. She instinctively raised her arms to shield her one year old son, who was on her lap, as her boyfriend punched her in the face. Incredibly, Christa had the wherewithal to talk her boyfriend down and deescalate the situation even as she mentally committed to getting him out of her life.
She was not the same naive girl he had conned into a life of torment. Ironically, the injury that crippled half of her physically revealed an inner strength she’d never known she had. It had taken all her strength to endure the abuse. Now, she channeled that strength into reclaiming her own life and creating a safe life for her baby boy.
“I felt like he took so much away and I was going to be damned if he took the rest of my life away,” Christa Cairus says.
Her body may have been more broken than before, but Christa’s spirit was stronger than ever.
Today, she has indeed built her life into that happily ever after she’d dreamed of years ago. It has not been easy but she is unwavering in her mindset to savor all of her blessings and recover from her trauma.
She found a counselor to help her navigate her PTSD. Depression is a lingering ripple effect, so she works hard to manage it. She’s a loving wife and a mom of three. She is a special education teacher and has published two books about her life, each sharing the wisdom of her experiences and serving as a guide for others struggling under the weight of catastrophic trauma. She pushes herself to workout and maximize her physical strength just like she maximizes her inner strength.
The more Christa shares her story, the more power she takes away from her pain. Once upon a time she had to keep her mouth shut and freeze in order to survive. Today she speaks openly about her story and she is rarely still. Christa Cairus has learned a lot about herself and about the human spirit – both good and bad. She suffered at the hands of evil but she holds to the truth that most people are good. Most people want to help. She is one of those people as well.
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