Pretty Woman

03/19/2014 11:55 am ET Updated May 12, 2014

The girl looked like nothing so much as what she was -- an awkward adolescent, with pale hair and a plump body trying to make the painful transition into adulthood. She looked nothing like what she had been -- a prostitute working the streets of LA.

This was no Pretty Woman fantasy of happily ever after for the hooker with a heart of gold. This was the cold hard reality of a young girl forced to live on the streets because the streets were safer than home, the kindness of strangers more constant and reliable than the concern of her own kin.

In testimony to the depth of the scars left by her childhood, the first place she worked was the small town where she was raised and her father served as sheriff.

"Didn't it occur to you that he was bound to find out?" I said.

"Didn't it occur to you that maybe that is why I did it?" she said.

The girl was one of a dozen I met at Children of the Night and one of thousands Lois Lee, the program's founder, has rescued from the streets. In the process, my perception of prostitution was forever changed. Until that time, I always looked down or looked away. Thanks to Lois, I came to understand the distance between us and them is not as far as it might seem.

In our own way, many of us spend our whole life prostituting ourselves. We live with the illusion that we can buy love with good behavior, good grades, success, money, or material things. Often, we become what our parents want us to be, do what our children want us to do, behave the way our friends want us to behave in the hope that they will love us or love us more.

We are responding to the subtle message of conditional love communicated to us at an early age. It comes disguised as "if." I will love you if you give me what I want, if you do what I tell you to do, if you look the way I want you to look, if you marry well, if you graduate from college, if you become a doctor or whatever.

The "ifs" populate the psychiatrists' offices, distort our self-image, and fill us with insecurity and doubt. In accumulation, the "ifs" can kill you. But in our hearts, we know love can neither be bought nor sold. To be real, love must be unconditional. Love is a gift of a willing heart or it is nothing at all.