When Alex Cooper was 15 years old, she came home with a hickey. The teen, who was raised Mormon, didn’t plan on telling her parents that she was gay just yet, but the obvious mark on her neck forced the conversation.
“I told my mom it was from a girl,” Cooper, now 23, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I didn’t fit into the religion being gay, but I didn’t expect my parents’ reaction to be as drastic as it was.”
Her mother kicked her out of their Southern California home. She stayed with a friend for two weeks and was then told she would be going to her grandparents’ house in Utah.
“I figured they needed time to cool off and come to terms with it,” she says, “but when we got to the neighborhood my grandparents’ lived in, it wasn’t their house.”
Cooper walked in with her parents and within minutes they were signing over their parental rights to a couple she had never met before.
“I was so shocked. I was crying and just begging my parents not to leave me there,” she says.
She quickly learned that her parents were forcing her into gay conversion therapy.
“I tried to fit in in the beginning because I thought I was much smarter than these people and there was absolutely no way I was going to stay there for longer than a week,” she says.
It ended up being an eight-month ordeal. During that time, Cooper says she endured physical and emotional abuse in an attempt to turn her straight.
“I had to face a wall for sometimes up to 18 hours a day, depending on what type of mood the couple was in,” she says.
She says she would also receive beatings and was forced to wear a backpack filled with rocks “to feel the physical burden of being gay.”
“I woke up in the morning and just tried to put on as many layers as possible so the straps didn’t dig into my shoulders,” she adds. “It was so hard to do mentally.”
In December 2016 — three months after she had arrived — Cooper turned 16 and “as a gift to myself,” she took every pill in the house, she says.
“I wanted to kill myself,” she says of the incident which resulted in her becoming ill. “Even just a few more days of being there was unbearable.”
In the beginning of Cooper’s horrendous ordeal, she wasn’t allowed to go to school, but she did leave the house with the family on occasion. During those excursions — which included trips to McDonald’s — she attempted to escape.
“I would scream, ‘Please help me’ and ‘These people are not my parents,’ but no one listened,” she recalls, “and I was always punished.”
She realized that the only way she would eventually be able to leave was if she “played along” and behaved.
For more on Alex Cooper and other conversion therapy survivors stories, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.
Being on her “best behavior” gave her the opportunity to go to school. It was there that she ended up telling a boy who sat next to her in class what was happening to her.
“He was also the president of the gay-straight alliance and he put me in touch with Salt Lake City attorney Paul Burke,” she says.
Then one night about a month later, Cooper was able to escape the home at 3 a.m. when the couple was sleeping.
After staying at a crisis center for a month, she returned to her parents.
“I wanted to go back to them,” she says, “but I didn’t want to go back to a place where I couldn’t be myself.”
A judge allowed her to go home, but ordered her parents to allow her to date girls, attend dances and join her school’s gay-straight alliance.
“My parents were happy to have me back,” she says. “They say having me in their lives is better than not.”
An estimated 700,000 Americans have undergone conversion therapy — a controversial practice that’s still promoted within certain conservative religious groups.
“The idea that homosexuality needs to be cured or fixed in the first place is misrepresentation,” says Scott McCoy of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Every major medical and mental-health organization says that conversion therapy is nonsense and psychologically harmful.”
Cooper, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, and works for the Human Rights Campaign, says that she never blamed her parents for what they did, and today they have a great relationship. A couple years ago, they even spent Christmas with Cooper and her girlfriend.
“I think my parents’ sent me to conversion therapy because they were concerned for my soul,” she says. “They wanted me to get into heaven so they though they were doing what was best for me.”
She adds: “I do hate this religion, but I have never hated my parents.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.