By Christina Dugan
March 20, 2019 12:13 PM

Jackie Cruz has a lot to be thankful for.

Years before Cruz landed her role on Orange Is the New Black, she was involved in a near-fatal car accident that changed her life forever — and led her to attempt suicide multiple times.

As a young, aspiring actress, Cruz, 32, moved to Hollywood as a teen with her single mother, but quickly fell in with the wrong crowd.

“I was a rebel at the time, and I just needed to experience,” Cruz tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “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 shares. “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.”

Jackie Cruz on Orange Is the New Black. Picture: JoJo Whilden/Netflix
Jackie Cruz on Orange Is the New Black. Picture: JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Before she knew it, Cruz moved out of her mom’s studio apartment at age 16.

“That’s when everything went downhill for me,” she admits.

One day, while on her way to a concert, her friend began racing a car next to them. After he lost control of the wheel, Cruz — who wasn’t wearing her seat belt — was ejected 20 feet from the windshield.

Cruz was immediately rushed to Los Robles Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, California, where they performed 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.”

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.

Jackie Cruz in the hospital. Photo: courtesy jackie cruz
Jackie Cruz in the hospital. Photo: courtesy jackie cruz

“Looking at myself in the mirror, not like recognizing myself, was scary,” she says. “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.”

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.

“There was a little girl in the hospital. She was 10 years old, and her name is Melly,” 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.”

“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.”

Now, as OITNB prepares to wrap with its seventh season, Cruz could not be more grateful for her life now.

“I don’t regret anything,” she says. “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.”

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