Sexual abuse against children can be life-changing, terrifying and humiliating -- especially if the abuser is a family member.
Erin Merryn is a 21-year-old college sophomore who wrote a book, "Stolen Innocence: Memoir," about her struggles after she claims she was molested by her first cousin. ABC News agreed to use her pen name and a false name for the man she says abused her.
"It's something that is going to be with me the rest of my life," Erin said. "So I decided to turn it into something positive, instead of negative."
Erin was back at her old high school in the Chicago suburbs the other day to give a speech about her story and how she finally found the courage to move on.
Erin's said she had a happy childhood, "playing with dolls, lemonade stands, you know, going to water parks."
Erin was raised with cousins living nearby. She had a big family that celebrated holidays together and saw each other all the time.
One night when she was just 11, everything changed.
"I had gone to bed before everyone else, and woke up at about two or three in the morning to my older teenage cousin sexually abusing me," she said.
The book is a collection of Erin's diary entries from when she said she was experiencing the abuse and struggling to deal with the aftermath.
"I felt something moving around in my pants," she read from the book. "I realized it was my cousin Brian's hands moving all around. I panicked."
Shame and Fear
Erin said she didn't tell because she was too scared that no one would believe her. She thought it would never happen again -- but said it did, more than a dozen times over two years.
"He pushed me on the bean-bag chair and held me down," she read from her book. "He hurts me and I can't scream. He tells me no one will believe me."
When Erin looks at photos of herself as a 12-year-old, she sees a young girl masking her fear.
"It's Christmas Eve and I'm sitting there holding my present, and just in the back of my head wondering, 'Am I going to make it through the night without being hurt or abused?'" she said.
Later Erin said her sister told her she, too, was being abused by their cousin.
Together, they decided to tell their mother. But coming forward didn't erase the pain.
Through junior high and high school, Erin was haunted by flashbacks and nightmares. She struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide.
"Each day goes by the pain builds up more," she read from her book. "And the nightmares add up and each step I take in life is so very careful."
Erin sought help from professionals and went on anti-depressants. Then, in her junior year, she decided to take her life back.
"It was like, one night this light bulb went off, and it was like, if I ever want that control and power back in my life again, I had to get it back from the person that stole it from me," she said. "I had to confront him in order to take that back."
She poured her feelings into an e-mail, told her cousin that his actions "left a permanent scar" and demanded he apologize.
Seven months later, after many e-mail exchanges, he did. Erin published that e-mail in her book.
"I wish I could go back into my past and stop myself and teach myself what was wrong with my actions, but I had to learn the hard way and unfortunately you were the one I abused," he wrote. "I apologize for the past and I hope that you can forgive me."
Erin wrote back: "I will take the pain you caused me to my grave some day. As for the anger and hate, I will not, for I forgive you."
"Yeah, it was, this moment was, you know, a really defining moment for me," she said.
Erin considers herself lucky. She said unlike many victims of abuse, she was fortunate to have the chance to communicate with her abuser. She tells students not to hide and tells parents to talk with their kids.
She also talks about the power of forgiveness.
"I forgave for myself," Erin said. "You know, it was for me. I am taking another step forward and not letting this take anymore, or rob any more of my life."
Learn more about support for rape and incest victims at link The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network's Web site or call 1-800-656-HOPE.