Last year, singer and Disney star Debby Ryan revealed she had been in an abusive relationship with a close friend. While she mostly received positive feedback for sharing her story, she received backlash from some of the people she loved the most – including her first boyfriend.
“My first love texted me,” Ryan tells PEOPLE. “I had been wanting to get a text from this person for a year saying that he wanted us to be okay and be friends, and the one that I get from them is, ‘How dare you speak about this abusive relationship? Because you know that people are going to think it’s about me.’ ”
Ryan, 22, says the text jarred her and made her second-guess her decision to speak out about her abuse.
“It automatically took me aback, like, Maybe I’m doing the wrong thing by being open and for sharing – and how dare I be so selfish?” she says. “Then I realized that there’s good and bad to anything that you do, [so I have] no regrets.”
Ryan’s former abuser also reached out to her to apologize, but the Jessie star has no intention of letting him back into her life.
“I have a very, very strict do-not-talk-to-me policy for this person,” she says. “He sent a five-page handwritten letter a few months after the campaign came out and was like, ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize I had affected you in this way.’ ”
Ryan – who has not publicly identified her abuser – said his actions are unforgivable: “What I realized is that when someone has a manipulative and insecure mind, that can physically hurt you, and lock you in rooms, and do things like that, it’s hard to reason with that person, and I realized that I don’t need that,” she explains. “I just don’t need this person in my life. I’ve gotten closure.”
Because of her experience with abuse, Ryan remains committed to her partnership with Mary Kay’s "Don’t Look Away" campaign, which educates people about what a healthy relationship looks like, as well as the warning signs of an unhealthy or abusive relationship.
“I know what it’s like to feel trapped, and to find the value in yourself, and to find something worth fighting for,” she says. “For me, a year later doing this campaign, not only have I seen a lot of education in myself, but also so many lives change. I couldn’t be happier to be still be going strong on this campaign.”
Through the Mary Kay "Don’t Look Away" Challenge, Ryan is calling on her friends, fans and followers to celebrate the strength of friendship and stand up against abusive relationships. Simply post a picture of yourself and two friends with the hashtag #dontlookaway.