But now, the former Clueless star and Fox News pundit is opening up about her excruciating personal pain for the first time, in her book There Goes My Social Life.
“Sometimes my past is extraordinarily heavy,” Dash, 49, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “That’s when I scream and cry until I feel like I can breathe again.”
Dash was just four years old, living in South Bronx, New York, when she was molested for the first time by a 16-year-old family acquaintance. At sixteen, she was offered a line of cocaine, and quickly fell into an all-consuming addiction.
“I couldn’t find happiness,” says Dash. “It got to a point where I didn’t even want to live anymore. The voice in my head was saying, ‘There’s nothing here for you.'”
Growing up in a culture of drugs and violence instilled in Dash many of her views on social welfare programs today.
Says the actress: “When you get stuff for free, you have no self-worth. When you have no self-worth, you become depressed, addicted and either abused or an abuser. This is what perpetuates the cycle of violence in inner cities. We don’t need free stuff. We need opportunities.”
“When I say there should not be a BET channel or a Black History Month, I’m saying we deserve more,” says Dash. “I just hope people understand that I’m not judging; I’m coming from experience.”
• For exclusive photos and much more from Stacey Dash, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday
By her early 20s, Dash was still doing drugs and fell into a dangerous relationship with a man who physically abused her.
“He would punch me in my body, my legs, my chest, anything that could be covered,” says Dash. “But part of me felt like I deserved it because what I was coming from was no better. I didn’t have an identity. That’s why I fight for women and people in the inner cities today. I want them to know it will get better.”
Dash ended things with her abuser and then after entering into a relationship with musician Christopher Williams, learned she was pregnant with Williams’ child.
Reveals Dash: “When I got pregnant, I was doing a lot of drugs and I didn’t want to live. I wanted to die. I was going to have an abortion. I was crying and I said to God, ‘Please tell me what to do.’ And God told me, ‘Keep your son.’ I ripped the IV out of my arm and I said, ‘I’m keeping my son.'”
And as a mother to Austin, now 25, and daughter Lola, 12, Dash says she’ll be honest with children about her past.
“The best way to protect my children is to be honest with them,” says Dash. “I let them know that I survived. I’m not a victim. And there is nothing they can’t overcome.”