The Orange Is the New Black star released her single "Melly 16" on Friday


Jackie Cruz has a lot to say and is doing so through song.

For the past 15 years, the Orange Is the New Black star, 32, has been working on a special project that sits near and dear to her heart — a song that was inspired by her ability to overcome the aftermath of a near-death experience and rediscover her beauty within.

“I’ve been wanting to share this for a long time,” Cruz tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue of her single called “Melly 16,” which was released on Friday. “But I’ve been holding it in because I know that it’s special and it just has to be right. I’ll be honest with you, people are like, ‘She sings now?’ No, actually I’ve been singing before I got my big break.”

When she was 17, Cruz was involved in a serious car accident and had to undergo emergency brain surgery.

“They had to shave my head right away,” she says, while fighting back tears. “I had a kidney contusion, a collapsed lung, and two broken vertebrae. So my eyes were crooked and my face was crooked, I couldn’t smile.”

Jackie Cruz at 17
| Credit: courtesy jackie cruz

Cruz, who was not supposed to make it out of surgery alive, was in a 72-hour coma and woke up from sedation two weeks later.

“Looking at myself in the mirror, not recognizing myself, was scary,” she tells PEOPLE. “I wanted to commit suicide at the time because all I ever wanted was to be an actress and a singer. I grew up just watching beautiful people on TV and I just felt like that was it for me.”

Says Cruz, “It didn’t look like me anymore. I didn’t know who it was. I was very depressed and I tried to kill myself a few times with pills.”

But after a seven-month recovery, Cruz learned to love herself again with the help of a special friend — Melly.

“There was a little girl in the hospital. She was 10 years old,” she says. “She will never walk again, but she is strong and happy and she would come by my room all the time and I never really paid attention.”

Spotify's Soundtrack de Mi Vida Campaign Celebration In NYC
Jackie Cruz in October
| Credit: (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Spotify)

“Then we got to talking, and she told me I was pretty. She taught me that beauty is always from within,” Cruz recalls. “It’s the way you treat someone, it’s the way you are, and she saw that. She saw the strength without … she saw the beauty in me without looking at my surface.”

For Cruz, that moment was life-changing.

“My story through music was the way to show it,” she says. “Like the best way possible because I have all my feelings in the single, all my emotions.”

Jackie Cruz
| Credit: Lelund Thompson

“I definitely focus on my music because that’s what I felt I was meant to do,” says Cruz, who’s also the face of Kat Von D Beauty’s new mascara line. “When I was in the hospital I would write — that’s what saved my life, really. That would make me feel better. I always turn to music as my savior.”

Jackie Cruz’s “Melly 16”
| Credit: Parker Hill

In her song, Cruz opens up about finding herself again.

“Stuck in between me and my dreams, felt incomplete,” she sings. “Stripped away from my own beauty, thought everyone could see through me. Didn’t wanna get used to the new me. Flashbacks take me back like a movie. Now the doors are open now, even through the ups and downs. Navigate I’m still in route. Got lost and then I found me, I found me, I found me, I found me. Free to be me.”

For more from Jackie Cruz, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.