To anyone who has ever felt invisible,
Since 2010, I have been traveling to Cambodia to visit young survivors of human trafficking — little girls, ages six to well into their 20’s, who have been abused and exploited. When I first went to Cambodia, I thought I would help save those girls.
But it was those little girls who saved me.
Each time I go, I am met with their lively smiles and open arms, spirits as bright as the traditional clothing they wear. We play, dance and sing. Despite going through so much horror, these girls are still able to enjoy being children. And they allow me to be a child with them. The child inside me who, for years, I couldn’t see.
A child I thought was invisible.
When I was around five years old, I began being sexually abused by someone I knew and trusted. No one noticed what was happening to me. Living with terror and pain, I hated myself. I felt as though I was put into a glass box that was painted all shades of gray and black. As I grew older, the child in me remained trapped inside. Because the box was so dark – because there was so much pain – I viewed my inner child as this dim, flickering little light. Barely alive. Unable to be seen by the world. And me, unable to see her as well.
After the abuse stopped, my memories got lost somewhere in my mind. The younger me became dead inside. My passion for acting became an escape. It felt so much safer to be someone else — anyone else. To fall deep into a character with a different name and a different past.
In 2002, when I was 15 years old, I left home and soon after, I moved to New York to study acting. Looking back, I now realize I could express myself dramatically — take the emotion written in a script and make it real. But in private, without the lights and the cameras, I couldn’t express my own emotions.
As an actress, I could cry on command. But as myself, as a person?
I couldn’t shed a single tear.
My trauma led me to dissociate from my true self. It was as if I was living someone else’s life, separate from the unworthiness I felt deep within myself. I chased my dream to be an actress with this strong exterior. It allowed me to believe I would make it and prove everyone wrong who told me I couldn’t do it. While it worked and I became successful, I was holding back all my feelings of pain and unworthiness.
I didn’t realize that those feelings were at some point going to come crashing down on top of me.
In 2008, I was one of the main characters on the CW’s 90210. The show was a hit and my character, Naomi Clark, was popular among fans. My career and my fame were on the rise. In the finale of season 2, Naomi was raped. Throughout the following season, I continued to act in many episodes where we talked about the attack. Then, one day, we were filming a scene where another character, Silver, insisted Naomi was in love with her rapist and accused her of lying about the attack. Suddenly, I wasn’t Naomi anymore. I wasn’t acting or playing a role. I was me again, and I burst into tears and started screaming and crying.
At first, my castmates thought I did a great job acting the part. But then, I took off running. I huddled in a corner of the stage all alone with my head buried into my hands, scrunched up into a ball, facing a wall, hiding from the memories that had suddenly caught up with me.
Memories not of my childhood abuse, but of a more recent incident.
When I was 18, a guy who I thought was my friend asked if he could stay at my place for a night. We sat on the bed and talked for a while and then I fell asleep. When I woke up, he was inside of me. My body froze in time as I just laid there. I literally laid there. My whole consciousness just left me.
When the shock of what was happening faded and I gained my awareness, I told the guy to stop. He did.
At first, I questioned if it was rape because he stopped when I asked. But at the same time, I was asleep when it started. I could not consent while I was passed out, which means I was raped.
As my mind struggled to make sense of this whole thing, I pretended nothing happened.
The rape went into the back of my mind, into the disassociation bubble. It became another layer of black and gray on that little glass box that held my flickering light.
Ten months later, a mutual friend of ours said to me, “I know why you don’t hang out with the group anymore.”
He went on to say that I was in love with the guy who raped me. The terror of even just his name sent my body into panic mode.
Shaken and upset, I responded, “No, no, that’s not why.”
He thought I was being defensive and started pushing it even more.
He said, “You are! Look at you! You are in love with him. You are in love with him.”
This was exactly the scene that would play out on 90210 with Naomi and Silver a few years later.
Silver kept saying, “You’re in love with him! You’re in love with him!”
That’s what hit a minefield of trigger points and made me run off in tears.
My makeup artist found me. He put a strong, protective hold on my shoulders and said. “It’s not happening anymore,” he said. “You’re safe.”
The mere sound of his voice was calming and caring.
It was as if he knew.
He brought me back to the present moment. And while I may have been safe, I still felt shame. So, I kept my story inside for a few more years.
Then, in 2013, I took my fifth trip to Cambodia. That’s when my truth came out. As part of the healing process, the program I volunteer for in Cambodia, AFESIP, allows the girls the opportunity to stand up and tell their stories. For years, I proudly watched all these brave little girls share their horrific experiences from being victims of human trafficking.
One day, in a classroom-like setting, I was sitting there listening to them and it dawned on me,
“What am I doing sitting in shame, when my girls are free of it?
Through my silence, I was saying that what they went through is shameful. I would never in a million years want them to feel that from which they have worked so hard to free themselves.
So I said to myself, I have to speak up.
That’s when I told my story for the first time.
Through tears, I told my girls what happened to me when I was 18 years old.
They responded not with shock or horror, but casually and with love, their thick accents saying, “OK, sister. You (were) raped.”
What they were saying was that I would be OK. And they could see that before I could see it myself.
After that trip, I began to lift that glass box and remove the discoloration. I began putting in the work to heal from the rape I experienced as a teenager, which took me deeper into my past and closer to my inner child. In 2018, after remaining latent in my mind for nearly 30 years, memories of the abuse I endured as a child returned.
That’s when I started to remember who I was without my pain. That is when I realized I was never dark or dim. Underneath that glass, I have been a bright light all along.
As a little girl, I can see now that I was bold, audacious, and ferocious with love. I was a child who was so open and so pure.
Today, there’s a sense of wholeness between my inner child and me. I make it a point to be her. Her qualities allow me to be brave enough to continue to share my past and open up about my mental health challenges, including my Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) diagnosis, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. People tell me by being so open, I am committing career suicide. I don’t care.
There is so much suffering in our world. Deep down, each one of us is a little kid who got wounded and somewhere, the system did us wrong and made us feel invisible.
That’s why, no matter who you are or what you have done -or had done to you -, it is my hope to hold up a mirror for you.
In that mirror, I hope you catch a glimpse of Beautiful, Little You, your inner child. You may see the pain that that little version of you has felt, but I hope you look deeper still. I hope you also see how incredibly brave you are. I hope you recognize how courageous it is to be human – to face what we face, to feel what we feel, no matter our uniquely similar stories. I hope when you take that peek within, you see not just what you’ve survived but also what you can become or what you may not realize you already are.
Wherever your journey leads, I hope you know there’s at least one person over here that is sending you a heart full of love, hope for happiness, peace and freedom from your suffering.
You matter because you exist.
P.S. As we share in this reflective moment, I hope that your heart begins to discover what was shared with me by my girls in Cambodia all those years ago, which is that you hold the key to your own personal freedom. Whether the bars on your mind’s prison are made of shame or guilt or uncertainty or fear of abandonment or loss of love, you hold the key to set yourself free. It starts with reconnecting to the little you inside of you.