As the seventh and final season of Orange Is the New Black wraps up, actress Jackie Cruz is reflecting on her good fortune, revealing that she nearly died in a car crash years ago, which led to multiple suicide attempts.
Cruz, 32, moved to Hollywood as a teenager with her single mother, but said she fell in with the wrong crowd.
"I was a rebel at the time, and I just needed to experience," Cruz told PEOPLE. "I saw things that a little girl shouldn't really see at that age."
"I would run away, and I just didn't want to listen and that's what kids do," she said. "I got a tattoo, I got my nose pierced, I got my belly button pierced. I was doing all these crazy things that I never did before."
After moving out of her mom's studio apartment at age 16, "everything went downhill," she said.
One day, while on her way to a concert, her friend began racing a car next to them. When the friend lost control of the wheel, Cruz, who wasn't wearing a seatbelt, was ejected 20 feet through the windshield.
She was immediately rushed to Los Robles Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, California, where doctors performed emergency brain surgery.
"They had to shave my head right away," she said through 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."
After a 72-hour coma, Cruz woke up from sedation two weeks later. She was not supposed to make it out of surgery alive.
She said she struggled greatly with her appearance, slipping into a deep depression and even attempting suicide.
"Looking at myself in the mirror, not like recognizing myself, was scary," she said. "I wanted to commit suicide at the time because all I ever wanted was to be an actress and a singer and I grew up just watching beautiful people on TV and I just felt like that was it for me."
"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 period, she said she learned to love herself again with the help of a new friend.
"There was a little girl in the hospital. She was 10 years old, and her name is Melly," she said. "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."
"Then we got to talking, and she told me I was pretty. She taught me that beauty is always from within," Cruz explained. "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."
With OITNB wrapping its final season last month, the actress, who plays Marisol "Fiaca" Gonzales, said she's extremely grateful for the way her life has played out.
"I don't regret anything," she said. "I'm so grateful to God that [it] acted and happened because I was really going in the wrong way of life and I feel like it was a slap in the face."
Jenji Kohan, the showrunner of the original Netflix series, took to Instagram last month to commemorate Litchfield Penitentiary closing its doors for the final time.0comments
"That's all she wrote... #OITNB #Bye," Kohan captioned a photo of Danielle Brooks, who plays Taystee, holding a sign that reads "That's a wrap."
Seasons 1-6 of Orange Is the New Black are currently available for streaming. Season 7 is expected to premiere sometime in 2019.