"I was super insecure," says Colton Underwood, who was routinely bullied through high school
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Colton Underwood admits that watching Peter Weber‘s season of The Bachelor was a little challenging.

“I had a little bit of PTSD,” Underwood, who was the Bachelor himself last year, tells PEOPLE. “It brought up a lot of emotions.”

Indeed, his stint on the show was the first time Underwood, who is happily still together with his pick, Cassie Randolph, was forced to confront head on the deep-seated issues of insecurity and anxiety that had plagued him his whole life.

  • For more from Colton Underwood, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

In his new book, The First Time (a nod to his dubious reign as the so-called “virgin Bachelor“), Underwood, 28, opens up about taking control of his life — honest and unashamed.

“There are a lot of stories and experiences that will help people understand the choices I’ve made,” says Underwood. “And I’m done hiding who I really am.”

Colton Underwood Book
The First Time

The former football pro was in grade school in the small town of Washington, Illinois, when the bullying started.

“I was called fatso, four eyes and four lips, because I used to lick my lips, so I would constantly have a red ring around them,” says Underwood. “I was a little heavy, and that, combined with being socially awkward, led to a really hard time. I didn’t believe in myself. And I was super insecure.”

By high school, the taunting became even more personal as a rumor circulated that Underwood, who credits his faith and values for why he chose to abstain from sex, was gay.

Credit: Jim Wright
Cassie Randolph and Colton Underwood
| Credit: Jim Wright

“It was one of those things where you hear something so often, you start believing it,” he says. “I thought, maybe I am gay. The captain of the football team should be having sex and drinking, right? But I wasn’t.”

These feelings of uncertainty weren’t new for Underwood, who had searched online “Am I gay?” as far back as grade school. “I didn’t know who I was,” he says. “And I come from an athletic family, so it was always, ‘Move on, you’re good.’ So that threw me off. In high school, when I was struggling with my sexuality, I’m not going to talk to my parents about it. So I internalized it.”

Ultimately, Underwood found comfort and security in his first serious relationship, with Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman. After they broke up, he signed up for Becca Kufrin’s season of The Bachelorette on a whim. Following a stint on Bachelor in Paradise, Underwood became the Bachelor — and worked to finally let go of the issues he’d had for so long.

Colton Underwood
Colton Underwood
| Credit: TheImageDirect.com

“Even while my season was airing, I battled the gay [rumors],” says Underwood. “They’d say, ‘he’s gay, he’s hiding it.’ No. But I’ve been there, done that now.”

Most importantly, “I finally found somebody I really just want to be with,” says Underwood of Randolph, who is taking care of him as he recovers from COVID-19. “I want my life to be with Cassie. I know who I am. And that’s really all that matters.”

Underwood’s book, The First Time, is available on March 31.