For nearly a decade, Michelle Stevens only had hope for her survival, as she longed to be free of the brutal torture and sexual abuse that started when, at 8 years old, she was introduced to her stepfather.
“It was really hard to have hope,” Stevens, now 48, tells PEOPLE in an interview from her Pasadena, California, home. “I had hope when I was being abused, because I wanted out.”
“Then I was out,” she says, “and I felt so bad and I hated myself so much.”
In the opening pages of her new book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving, out March 21 and excerpted exclusively in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, Stevens describes stepfather Gary Lundquist locking her in a cage and “training” her to be a sex slave.
In order to cope with the trauma, her personalities split and she ultimately developed amnesia — trying to forget the years of rape, torture, sex rings and child pornography at Lundquist’s hands.
She finally escaped her tormentor when she left home for college at New York University.
(Though he was sentenced to three years’ probation in 1985 for engaging in sexual conduct with two girls at the school where he taught, Lundquist died in 1997 without ever answering for the years he assaulted Stevens.)
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During her time away, Stevens faced depression and panic attacks, which came daily at sunset. Sometimes, a sound or place could set her off.
She recalls one time during film school, when she and a group of male classmates rented a motel room similar to places she spent years being molested by her stepfather and other men.
“I’m in this room with five other guys and I just went nuts,” Stevens says. “I started shaking uncontrollably, and I just vomited and vomited. I had no idea why.”
She graduated from college and moved across the country to Los Angeles. It was there that her childhood memories came flooding back.
But with the help of a compassionate therapist, Stevens was able to overcome her post-traumatic stress and dissociative identity disorder, also known as multiple personalities.
“I was a victim, and I understand that now,” she tells PEOPLE. “But the stigma around mental illness is enormous. And the stigma around multiple personalities is off the chart.”
Now living in Southern California with her wife, Chris, and raising their 11-year-old son, Mikey, Stevens is looking forward to inspiring other survivors. Scared Selfless, her book, is based on her PhD dissertation in psychology; she graduated in 2012.
“As people become more sympathetic to survivors,” she says, “survivors will be more sympathetic to themselves.”