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Recovering from Abuse and Learning to Love Again


Holly Christine Hayes

Today on the Heart of Dating Podcast, we brought on Holly Christine Hayes, who is a survivor of domestic abuse and the founder of Sanctuary Project, a nonprofit social enterprise providing meaningful employment and job training to women who have survived lives of trafficking, violence, and addiction. In this episode, Kait and Holly discuss her story and the incredible hope and joy that can be found in healing after facing trauma. 

Trigger Warning: Please be advised that this episode discusses domestic violence and abuse. These topics may be sensitive and potential triggers for some listeners. If you or someone you know is facing an abusive relationship, please call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-(800)-799-7233

Trafficking Hotline: If you or someone you know is showing signs of being trafficked, please contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1 (888) 373-7888

Would you share a bit about who you are and what you do with Sanctuary Project?

  • Sanctuary Project is a non-profit social enterprise and employs women who come out of trafficking, violence, and addiction.
  • Holly is a survivor of abuse 20 years ago and mentored other girls coming out of trafficking, violence, and addiction and encouraged them in their careers. 
  • She began the Sanctuary Project to help the victims find meaningful dignified employment and has created a safe place that helps rebuild their lives, their hearts & their resumes.

What was your upbringing and what was your story?

  • Holly grew up in a pretty normal home & childhood, from an upper-middle-class family. 
  • Growing up, Holly unfortunately experienced sexual abuse from a caretaker that she never told anyone, nor did she process until she was much older.
  • After her parents divorced and she started processing her trauma, she turned to drugs and drinking in highschool which numbed her pain and traumas.
  • For many years, Holly grew accustomed to the belief that her sexuality was her only value and by 16 she dropped out of high school and had 5 abortions.
  • By 19 years old, Holly met her trafficker which at the time made her felt understood, special, and seen.

What did the relationship with your trafficker look like?

  • Holly discusses the dynamic of her relationship with her trafficker: he was someone charismatic, charming, and made her feel like he was her soulmate
  • After a year into her “relationship” it started to become more and more violent. She discovered there were other girls as well as discovered he had some sexual perversions. 
  • Holly didn’t know he was a trafficker at the time, but did start to believe that the perverted and abusive “love” from him was what she deserved due to her promiscuous past.
  • Over time, the situation became more and more manipulative, and she stayed feeling like she was in competition for his love with other women.

Can you share a bit about the abuse cycle as you experienced it in that first year of being in a relationship with your trafficker?

  • Holly talks about how the trafficking was not the worst part of the relationship because she exited very quickly during that time, but instead it was the physical and emotional abuse.
  • The violence and abuse, the ups and downs and manipulation destroyed an identity she created for herself which made her feel lost.
  • The endorphins of feeling like she was in love consistently sucked her back into the abuse cycle.
  • Holly shares that following the violence, her trafficker would show remorse and sleep with her that would make her feel connected and bonded to him again.

Often for women who have been through abuse, they don’t feel like they are lovable or deserving of love. How did YOU learn to love again after this?

  • Holly talks about her journey of having to fall in love with the little things about herself again.
  • She shares how a lot of her healing happened within the context of dating and having to relearn how she should be treated again.
  • Even after being saved, she still had a hard time learning how to be in a healthy relationship as she was used to the trauma.
  • Being with someone who treats her well was something that wasn’t the norm for her. She said it felt like an “Itchy sweater” at first because she had become accustomed to the abuse cycle, chaos, and intensity.
  • To truly find someone that treats you well, you first have to start treating yourself kinder. Learning to love others comes with having to learn how to love yourself.

As your story has now impacted so many and you’ve come in contact with women out of abuse who are healing, what #1 piece of advice do you give them when they are looking to date again?

  • Self-esteem comes from doing esteemable acts. You have to ask yourself how you’re showing up in the world! Are you living with integrity? Are you showing up in the world
  • When you do esteemable acts, it helps build your own self-esteem from the inside out and is a practical way to help on the healing journey.
  • Form healthy friendships and community and practice to be the person you are looking for.
  • Give grace for yourself as you’re walking through the journey of healing as there will be moments where you feel like you’re being pulled back into the trauma headspace.
“The healthier we are, the healthier our relationships are” -Holly Christine Hayes

What is your final nugget of dating advice?

  • Date the nice guy! Let yourself try even if it feels like that “itchy sweater” and you’re not used to it.
  • We need “boring” in our relationships more than you think! We don’t need the intensity and drama we’ve become accustomed to in our relationships.
“If you can find yourself a man who is impressively kind, you are gonna be good in this world.”

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Holly Christine Hayes

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Holly Christine Hayes is Founder + CEO of Sanctuary Project, a survivor-run nonprofit social enterprise employing and empowering women who’ve survived lives of trafficking, violence and addiction in Austin,TX. Holly was rescued out of a life of trauma nearly 20 years ago and knows the path to recovery can be long and rocky. Her vision and leadership create a safe space for other survivors to grow in practical skills, unleash their creativity, embrace their femininity, and heal their hearts – all in community with other survivors. Sanctuary Project was named "Business to Watch" by Austin Woman Magazine in 2020 and has  been featured by media outlets such as Good Morning America, The Real and NBCLX. An award-winning author of the book From Basement to Sanctuary, Holly is passionate about sharing her vulnerable journey of healing. She speaks in jails, churches, recovery communities and conferences all over the globe. Holly and her husband, Jeff, enjoy life on a hobby farm and vineyard outside of Austin, with their chickens, goats, cows, dogs and their one-year-old daughter Havana.

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