Cheryl Hunter was kidnapped and raped in France at 18 years old, and says the trauma she experienced from that is similar to what people are dealing with during the coronavirus pandemic

By Rachel DeSantis
September 02, 2020 11:01 AM
Cheryl Hunter
Cheryl Hunter
| Credit: Courtesy of Cheryl Hunter

The emergence of COVID-19 and the subsequent trauma and heartbreak it has caused across the globe has brought a new way of life — one that would have been unimaginable to the average person just seven months ago.

“People keep talking about, ‘I’ve got to get back to life like it was,’ ” author and speaker Cheryl Hunter tells PEOPLE. “And I think the myth is that we can. Once something has happened that’s jarring, that’s traumatic, that’s unwanted and unexpected, there is no getting back to life the way it was. The door has been opened and can never been closed again. There’s no unringing a bell.”

Hunter would know — grief, trauma and the healing that can come from the most devastating of experiences is something she’s dealt with her entire adult life.

Hunter is a kidnapping and rape survivor; a motivational public speaker who encourages others to use forgiveness and acceptance as a means of triumphing over tragedy.

She'll be stopping by Dr. Phil on Thursday to speak at length about her harrowing experiences, and how they inspired her to devote her life to helping others overcome trauma of their own.

Hunter's story began when she was 18 years old. She and a friend set off for an adventure-filled trip to Europe, Eurail passes in hand and her tiny hometown in the Colorado Rockies thousands of miles away.

Cheryl Hunter
Cheryl Hunter on her trip to Europe
| Credit: Courtesy of Cheryl Hunter

When a man with a camera around his neck claiming to be a photographer approached her in the south of France and asked to take modeling shots, she says she didn’t hesitate — and when they met up at a café, she was drugged and whisked to an abandoned construction site.

There, she was repeatedly raped and brutally beaten before being dumped in a park in what Hunter says law enforcement speculated was a sex trafficking attempt gone awry.

“Finally, after the whole thing was over, they pushed me out of the car, onto the ground in a park. And the guy goes, ‘Darling.’ And I looked back and he snapped my photo,” she recalls.

Cheryl Hunter
Cheryl Hunter on her trip to Europe
| Credit: Courtesy of Cheryl Hunter

For more than a decade, Hunter kept her pain a secret, not even telling the friend she was traveling with or her own parents — a decision that brought on years of depression and post-traumatic stress, she tells PEOPLE.

“I was this different person,” says the former model. “And yet, I couldn’t admit that it happened. Not to me, not to anybody else. I thought I would literally lose my mind.”

Cheryl Hunter
Cheryl Hunter
| Credit: TEDx Women, TED x Santa Monica

Hunter — who is also the creator of a docuseries and podcast called RISE — eventually built up the courage to go public while leading a seminar on forgiveness, and not long after, her story was included in the 2010 documentary Discover the Gift, which she used as a means of finally letting those closest to her know of her inner turmoil.

Like many, 2020 has been a challenge: Hunter says she lost her beloved grandmother and mother in quick succession, as well as four friends, and endured a painful divorce while dealing with a crippling leg injury that put her in a wheelchair and on crutches for 18 months.

But if she’s learned anything from her past, it’s that accepting hardships is the only ways to make it through – a lesson she says absolutely applies to people experiencing similar pain due to coronavirus.

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“I keep hearing from people during COVID-19 and during this new world that we’re living in, and it’s similar to what I went through. It’s like, wait, I didn’t want this. I didn’t sign up for this nonsense. I just want to go back to life like it was,” she says. “And since there is no getting back to life as it was, what can we do now? How can we integrate whatever lessons we’ve learned from the thing that happened that we didn’t want, and as counterintuitive as it may sound, whatever gift it held, with who we’re becoming to move forward, since there is no moving back?”

Hunter says a lot of her struggles over the years boiled down to the fact that she never took time to grieve her old world, or the loss of the person she was before her attack — and now, she encourages those grappling with similar concerns to take that important step.

“We had a different world and it’s no longer here,” she says. “I don’t know what the new one’s going to look like. Nobody does, but I’ve found that it helps to actually go through the process of grieving what was.”

For more on Hunter, tune in to Rape & Escape: The Cheryl Hunter Story, airing Thursday on Dr. Phil on CBS.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.