Interview by Audrey Sileci
Edited by Janet Jun
Terry LaDow is the program director for an organization that provides high-quality training around the world to safehouses that assist survivors of human trafficking. After a journey of pain, redemption, and transformation, he began to live his life out of the deep compassion he feels for people in difficult and vulnerable situations. His straightforward, “no nonsense” approach to himself and others challenges us to face our core beliefs and attitudes, and to find the strength to take action towards meaningful change.
Recently, we asked him to tell us about his journey. We hope you feel as encouraged and inspired as we were while reading this.
If after this article you still want to learn more from Terry, please join us for our next Justice School 5.24. Click here to learn more.
To start, could you tell us a little bit about your childhood and how your upbringing shaped the type of person you were in the first decades of your life?
I was born into a violent, alcoholic family. My parents, my younger sister, and I lived in Phoenix, Arizona. As a child, my parents often told me that they didn’t need nor want anything to do with me or my opinions. They said my asthma made me a burden to our family. It was difficult to accept that I didn’t get a vote in how I was treated. My parents fought constantly, and their anger spilled over onto me and my sister. She chose to be the quiet one, and I chose to rebel.
While I was growing up, my parents entertained almost every other weekend and expected me to help clean up the next day. There were always unfinished drinks left around our house. At about the age of seven or eight, I started finishing the ones that tasted good, and by the age of 13 or 14, I was addicted to the effects that alcohol had on me. Alcohol made me feel cool – having access to it made me popular with older kids – and drinking helped kill the pain in my life.
My mother was physically and emotionally abusive. Both my parents regularly compared me to other kids and pointed out to me that I was not as good as they were. Other kids got good grades and did not disappoint their parents like I did. They were much better people than I was. After so often hearing that I did hardly anything right compared to others, and routinely being asked why I didn’t do better, I started to believe that I was defective. I simply didn’t believe that I mattered as a person.
My mother consistently told me that it was my obligation to become a doctor, to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. I was never asked if I wanted that. I was to do everything my parents’ way or else.
By the end of high school, I was pretty much an alcoholic. Although I didn’t care much about school, I managed to graduate as part of the class of 1962 and went off to college. I prioritized drinking over my classes and flunked out in my freshman year. My parents, who told me I was supposed to stay on track to becoming a doctor, didn’t take this well.
Once out on my own, I did only what I knew to do: I drank, used my “charm” to get what I wanted with most women, and reacted violently by hitting anyone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, whether male or female. I didn’t treat myself as valuable because I didn’t believe I was. For years, I used and abused people on a regular basis.
Overall, things did not go well. I became homeless and was forced to learn survival skills. I blamed others for my circumstances since I couldn’t fathom the pain of admitting that I was responsible for myself. Alcohol, drugs, and women were what I used to distract myself from the pain of how I saw myself.
Eventually, I got married and we had a daughter. Throughout the entirety of the six years of my first marriage, I regularly cheated on my wife. When my daughter was one year old, I left my family for another woman. I was with this new girlfriend in Arizona for about a year before running away to California to get away from the chaos of my life. I was not an active father in my daughter’s life.
California turned out to be no different from Arizona. I continued to spiral downward—drinking and chasing women—and became homeless again for about a year. I continued to abuse myself and everyone in my life. I wasn’t able to treat anyone kindly.
You are a completely different person today than you used to be. You say that God played a key role in your transformation. When did God start becoming a part of your story and what changed for you at that point?
In 1976, I was living with a couple of guys in southern California and one of them was a believer. One evening, I asked him what was so interesting about the Bible. He invited me to read the book of Matthew to get a basic idea of the New Testament. That night, God got me when I read Matthew 5:14, which says, “You are the light of the world.”
How could I be the light of the world if I “knew” that I was not a good person? It was impossible that I had any light to shine on others. I questioned God, wrestled with the question of whether any of this was real, and ended up having a real experiential moment with the Living God, which led me to accept Jesus Christ as my personal Savior.
The moment didn’t seem to stick, though. I soon returned to my old ways because I still couldn’t take to heart the truth of who I am in the eyes of the Lord. Yet somehow, my life still started to change more than I was consciously aware of. For example, I decided that I was tired of being single and so, I got married. This marriage was different from the other one. For the first eleven years of our marriage, I was still drinking, but for the first time, I didn’t cheat. I was beginning a new journey, which I’m still on today. I’ve been with my wife for over 40 years now. She is a pretty amazing lady who has put up with a lot from me, for which I am thankful.
You’re open about how addiction, specifically to alcohol, was a part of your life for 45 years, until October 23, 1989. What happened on that day, and why do you think it was enough for you to choose to let go of your addiction? Also, once the decision was made, what was it like to let go of drinking?
My decision to quit drinking really makes no sense except as a continuation of an ongoing healing process in my life that I wasn’t even entirely aware of. On October 23, 1989, my old drinking buddy with five DUIs, Bob, asked me to take him to meet Jack, the director of the men’s programs at the Orange County jail. At one point in our visit at the jail, Jack told me that I had a drinking problem and needed to get help. I had never seen this person before and would never see him again. I went home and looked in the mirror to see what he saw. A voice inside me said, “Just don’t drink today,” so I didn’t. I called Bob, who had been asking me to go with him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and said I’d go along to the next meeting. To this day, I have no idea why I quit drinking on that particular Saturday over three decades ago, after a chance encounter with a man in jail. I’m pretty sure it was a God thing. All I know is that without Jesus, the people who cared, and the 12 recovery steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I would not be where I am today.
Quitting a behavior isn’t complicated. Just don’t do it. The process is usually simple; it’s just not easy. Most behaviors are rooted in our belief systems; they are habits that we have learned to accept and make part of “what we do.” There are both good and bad behaviors that daily impact our life. I believe we are created in God’s image and, therefore, we were given emotions and are responsible for how we act in accordance with these emotions. That means I decide what I am going to do. I alone am responsible for the choices I make. My journey was and is one day at a time, one moment at a time.
My experience with alcohol and drugs made it obvious to me that neither of these substances ever made me brighter. Taking life one day at a time has been the best way to deal with the patterns and habits I have from the past. Having people around me who care about me and are willing to help is very significant to recovery. Learning that I matter to people despite my history helps making changes easier each day. Wisdom is having clean, safe, sober people in your life to be role models who “rub off on you.”
My sobriety allowed me to go back to school, spend six and a half years studying to be a counselor, and get a Master’s degree in human behavior. After that, I worked with the criminal justice system for 12 years, providing education and treatment to people who were on probation and parole. This included drug and alcohol education classes as well as anger management and domestic violence programs. For the last 15 years, I have been in private practice working with individuals and couples with relationship issues.
At 27 Million, we know you as a kind and empathetic person. However, you’ve talked about how that wasn’t always the case. Your relationship to others, especially women, was once full of violence. How did that change for you, and what do you think was key in making that change?
Growing up in a violent house where I was not valued taught me to treat others the same way. The simple answer to what changed is that I found out I matter as a person, and that it’s not because of my behavior. It’s because of who I am. I learned that I am incredibly magnificent, unbelievably rare, and an unrepeatable miracle, a person made in the image of God for a reason and with a purpose. I learned that I am loved by God in spite of my behaviors. God knew what I was going to do wrong and made me anyway. It’s incredible to know that you are loved, recognized, and appreciated because of who you are, that you are God’s kid. If I am designed by God and have value, so do you. When I treat myself differently, I treat others differently, too.
Jesus told us to “love your Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” How do you show the people who matter to you that you love them?
Here’s an example: During the first eleven years of my current marriage, I was still drinking. I was a liar and a thief. I lied to my wife about where I was going and when I would be home. She never knew how much money she would find in our bank account. I was verbally abusive and often drunk. I mentioned earlier that I didn’t cheat on her with another woman, but I certainly cheated on her with liquor bottles. Alcohol was more important to me than my wife, and it showed. As a result, I withheld myself from the most important person in my life. In doing so, I stole the most important thing I had to give her: me. I never spent time with her; I was “too busy.”
After I got sober and learned to value myself, I was finally able to treat my wife like she mattered, to show her how valuable she is to me. I listened to her and started doing things that she said were important to her—like buying her flowers, helping plant her garden, and cleaning up around the house before she asked. I personally don’t understand the concept of buying flowers, because by the time you buy them, aren’t they already dying? Won’t we just throw them away in a week? But my wife loves them, and they make her feel cared for, so I buy them. I do things for her (like cleaning up the kitchen before bed) even though I never actually want to, because at the end of the day, I value my wife and care about doing right by her, just like I want to do right for myself and God.
Figuring out how to value people… It’s a simple concept. “Show me where you spend your time, and I will show you what’s important to you.” How do you spend your time? With your family, with your spouse, with your friends? This speaks volumes about how much you value them.
A question you ask people frequently is, “Who are you?” How do you answer that question yourself, and why do you ask others?
I ask that question for people to reflect on their identity – who they are as opposed to what they do. It’s about person versus performance, reflecting on what defines you as a person. If you choose to define yourself based on a behavior, then who are you when you change the way you behave?
This is fundamentally important because how you see yourself is how you react to life. In considering who you are, think about how each person has ten fingerprints that are unlike anyone else’s. Around the world, government agencies run millions of fingerprints daily. That’s approximately 7.5 billion people in the world with 70.5 billion fingerprints, and there has never been a duplicate fingerprint. Moreover, each one of us has DNA that, according to science, is unlike anyone else’s. God only creates originals. We are each an original, and originals cannot be compared.
We don’t get to pick who we are. God does. Your hair color, eye color, height, skin tone, facial features, sex, and the family you’re born into are all aspects of yourself you didn’t get a vote on. When we accept that who we are depends on how God designed us, that our abilities and gifts were divinely attributed, then our world is different.
If we depend on what we do to define us, we will always end up short in the comparison game. We all start out as a pretty blank slate as a baby. As we grow, people write on it and we have to deal with what’s written. It’s how we handle what was written that makes the difference in our lives. We get to choose how we act based on how we see ourselves. It’s important to learn that the opinions of others don’t define us; only God’s opinion does. That’s what gives us freedom to change.
Today you are the program director at a nonprofit, Finding Freedom, that has provided training sessions to organizations on the frontlines of human trafficking issues. How did this organization begin, and what personal challenges did you face in helping to open and run it? Could you tell us a little bit about how your professional journey got you to this point?
I became involved with Finding Freedom International about 11 years ago when I met the organization’s founder, Tera Shatsky-Bezko, at Mariners Church. We were both invited to go with a group of mostly mental health professionals to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, to help start an alcohol recovery program through a local church. Our team attended to people dealing with trauma and addictions due to the 25-year civil war the country had experienced.
Tera had a friend in Bangkok, Thailand, who ran a safehouse for girls who had been sexually exploited. The team at that house was emotionally exhausted. I joined Tera and Finding Freedom International to help develop a training program for staff of safehouses. Our curriculum is designed to help change the environment in safehouses and build into the houses’ existing programs of healing. By teaching practical and Biblically-based key concepts and strategies, we’re able to be flexible and adapt to different cultural and ethnic groups. Because God is the ultimate healer, healing is available to everyone, with no exceptions, and we’re committed to assisting safehouses in learning how to find true healing for their staff and beneficiaries.
Moreover, developing a training program for safehouses ended up becoming part of Tera’s and my personal recoveries. Tera had been molested by her father early in her youth. This program was how Tera and I were able to put our stories into a format that transfers well to others. The entire experience was blessed by God.
Through Finding Freedom, you have recently started offering courses specifically for men. What role do you see men playing in the anti-trafficking movement?
The role of men in human trafficking needs to be addressed on a consistent basis. Most consumers of sex trafficking are men, and until we address the problem of the consumer, sex trafficking will exist. We need to get to the point where women and children being exploited is no longer a means to make money. In the end, it’s all about money.
I believe we need to focus on changing men’s perceptions of a person’s value because when we think someone matters to us, we treat them differently. As men, we are told to win battles and fight wars. We are taught to see ourselves as powerful and to take what we want because we can. Therefore, as a male, to treat people with value regardless of their story is one of the most powerful and healing actions we can do. It’s all about seeing people as worthwhile.
What’s the most important piece of advice you give to people who want to be involved in the anti-trafficking movement?
No matter what you do, show people that they matter in spite of their history. Show them that who they are is separate from their behaviors or from what has happened to them. Don’t see people primarily as victims. Look past what happened to them and treat them according to who they are, remembering that above all, they are people designed by God for a reason and with a purpose.
Jesus climbed up on the cross because He loves us, regardless of what we have done. He loves us no matter what our histories are, and there are no exceptions to this. Even when we are to blame, we are completely forgiven. Knowing this, our job is to see others this same way, to love others as Jesus loves us. It’s an incredible blessing.