"I feel like I've come out so much stronger, but it's a situation that enslaves you for a very long time," the Disney star tells PEOPLE

By Gabrielle Olya
Updated March 31, 2015 12:15 PM
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Debby Ryan seemed to have it all – starring in and producing Disney’s mega-hit Jessie while fronting her band The Never Ending – but behind closed doors she was the victim of an abusive relationship.

“It was a couple years ago, and things were seemingly amazing,” she tells PEOPLE. “Career-wise, they were great, and in general life they were great. But then I was in a friendship – kind of a working relationship – and it ended up becoming more and more destructive, and getting emotionally and mentally abusive.”

The fact that she was so successful in other spheres in her life made it hard for her to recognize that she was in fact being abused.

“I was like, ‘I’m a powerful woman and I’m a producer,’ ” says Ryan, 21. “I never thought that this was happening to me, and it was absolutely happening to me. It was kind of late in the game by the time I realized that this was not healthy, that this was not a good situation and that I was in a relationship that in nature was abusive.”

The actress recalled several frightening experiences with this individual – whom she clarifies she was not romantically involved with. In one instance, her friend physically prevented her from leaving him to spend time with her other friends.

“He chased me out of the room, grabbed me, put me back in the room, and followed me to my car and took my keys,” says Ryan. “I was like, ‘Okay, fine, get in the car, you can come with me.’ He was like, ‘No, you’re going to drive away and leave me here.’ He ended up grabbing my keys and holding on to my wrists and crawling into the passenger side from my driver’s side [so I couldn’t drive away].”

Her abuser, who is someone she had known for years before things escalated, would call her phone up to 40 times when they were not together and make accusations when she didn’t immediately answer his calls. He became so obsessed with spending time with her that Ryan resorted to buying him a nearby hotel room after he tried to move in with her.

“That was literally just for sleeping, so [we would see each other] every day, hours a day, month on month on month, and finally I was like, ‘All right, I can’t do this anymore.’ ”

The final straw came when her friend threatened to kill himself if she wouldn’t spend time with him.

“I realized I’d done everything that I could do,” she said. “It’s not my purpose to sacrifice my own happiness and sacrifice my own mental health so that this guy doesn’t overdose. I called someone and had someone go and be with him, and I removed myself from the situation and realized he’s no longer mine to deal with.”

Despite the fact that this went on for months, many of her closest friends had no idea what was happening.

“There are people in my life that couldn’t believe this story,” says Ryan. “They were like, ‘I didn t know it was this bad.’ No one did. It felt like a secret.”

The singer is now speaking out about her experience as a part of Mary Kay and Love Is Respect’s Don’t Look Away campaign, which offers 24-hour anonymous counseling services for anyone in an abusive relationship, simply by texting “loveis” to 22522.

“We believe that everyone deserves a healthy, loving relationship,” she says. “I wanted to bring awareness [to the campaign], so I started opening up about my personal story.”

Ryan is glad to have escaped her destructive friendship, and she now sees it as a learning experience about what isn’t acceptable in her future relationships.

“I feel like I’ve come out so much stronger, but it’s a situation that enslaves you for a very long time,” she says. “If I can learn anything from the scars, I don’t consider it a loss.”