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With the star's new memoir 'Thicker Than Water' out now, she tells PEOPLE in this week's issue: "I deserve to live fully in my truth"
These days, Kerry Washington is still surprising herself.
"I've been a very private person when it comes to the public, so I never thought that I would sit down and write a soup-to-nuts memoir about my life," the star, 46, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue of penning her memoir, Thicker Than Water, available now from Little, Brown Spark. "I can't believe I wrote it."
Indeed Washington has long been adamant about protecting her personal life, including her 10-year marriage to football star-turned-actor Nnamdi Asomugha, 42, and the lives of their three children, Isabelle, 9, Caleb, 6, and a teenage daughter from Asomugha's previous relationship.
But after learning a painful family secret — that her dad is not her biological father — Washington looked back at her past trauma and went on a journey of self-reflection. She's now pulling back the curtain as an act of radical transparency.
"There's a phrase, 'You're as sick as your secrets'," she says. "I think there's some truth in that. There's so much healing and liberation in the truth and not feeling like we have to hide."
From why her parents broke the shocking news to her just five years ago, to stories she's never told about her marriage and fertility journey, Washington is a newly open book. Here are the biggest bombshells from the star's revealing new memoir, Thicker Than Water.
Washington Experienced Terrifying Panic Attacks as a Child
In Thicker, the star, who's an only child, writes that she experienced paralyzing anxiety and panic attacks at age 7. The bouts were brought on by major arguments her parents, Valerie, a professor, and Earl, a real estate agent, both 83, would have at night when they thought she was sleeping.
"I was dizzied with terror, no ground beneath me; it was crazy-making, endless. And sad," she writes.
She also often felt that they were keeping things from her.
Later, as a teen, "I thought my parents had a terrible marriage," she tells PEOPLE. "Like, why are they together? And I remember my mom telling me, 'We had beautiful years before you were even born and during years that you can't remember.' I learned that I don't understand the fullness of their journey together."
As a Kid, She Was Repeatedly Sexually Abused by a Peer
Washington paints the picture of a supportive, tight-knit village in her childhood neighborhood of the Bronx. But she says her innocence and sense of security were all but shattered when a boy began touching her inappropriately during group sleepovers where their parents were in the other room.
"He was not a pedophile," she writes, opting not to identify the boy in the text. "The truth remains that there were things done to me — while I was sleeping, and without my consent — but the perpetrator was a child himself. It is partly my compassion for him that has kept these incidents a secret, locked in the vault of my mind."
Washington, who chose not to tell her parents, says she reflects on that trauma often. "I think about that little girl standing in the hallway deciding whether or not she should tell her mommy what was happening to her. I wish she had asked for help sooner 'cause she carried that secrecy and shame and blame for too long."
She Once Had a Same-Sex Relationship
In Thicker, Washington opens up about a time in her youth when she dated a girl. "In my adolescent years I had an ongoing romantic relationship with a girl," she writes. "My mother asked casually, 'What’s going on with you two?' But I called her bluff. 'Do you really wanna know?' I said, hoping that she didn’t. Banking on it, in fact. 'No,' she said."
"I think love comes in a lot of forms. I've had other romantic relationships," she says now of life and love before Asomugha. "I think there's always been this dialogue between learning to love myself and learning to love others and receive love."
In College, Trauma and a Need for Perfection Led to a Painful Eating Disorder
"In many ways, that was one of the darkest times of my life," says Washington, who describes in her book "a toxic cycle of self-abuse that utilized the tools of starvation, binge eating, body obsession, and compulsive exercise" while she attended George Washington University in the '90s.
Reflecting on that period now, she says "Kerry in college was a hot mess... and bit of a wild child. But it's halfway through college that I started asking for help. In some ways I'm really grateful for Kerry in college because hitting bottom the way that she did, she opened the door for a lot more healing for me."
These days her mental and physical health journey includes yoga and pilates. "I still have that messaging in my brain at times, that I'm not enough or that I should look better," she says. "But I also can choose other thought patterns now."
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Washington Reveals She's Had an Abortion
The star says she went back and forth over whether to share this detail of her journey that took place during her 20s.
"I wasn't really sure where it fit into the story of my life," she says, "but I started to feel like it was really important for me to share this story because it had so much to do with kind of my understanding of myself and the world as my career unfolded."
She writes that not long after the success of Save the Last Dance in 2001 and accepting the lead role for Spike Lee's 2003 dramedy She Hate Me, she had a relationship that led to an unplanned pregnancy. She made a difficult choice.
"When the nurse called my false name, I followed her into a small office," she writes of shielding her identity to undergo the procedure. "My body felt hot with shame."
Now she knows there was nothing to be ashamed of. "Abortion is not a bad word," she says. "I'm excavating some of my secrets because I don't want my not telling it to make anybody think that there is shame to be had about this choice."
She Shares Never-Before-Told Details of Her Secret 2013 Wedding to Nnamdi Asomugha
Washington and the former Raiders cornerback tied the knot in June of 2013 at a friend's home in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Writes the star, "For months I had been wearing my engagement ring secretly pinned inside my clothing for fear that if people knew we were engaged, it would be impossible to have a wedding away from public spectacle."
"It's strange for me, too, to have some of these details out in the world. I'm really grateful that he allowed me to put some of that in there because I think it was really pertinent to telling the story of me stepping into being a person who felt solid and independent enough that I could commit to another person."
Her Parents Revealed Their Secret After Learning She Planned to Take a DNA Test to Appear on PBS's Know Your Roots
Washington shares that her parents had all but decided to take the truth about her paternity – that they had used an anonymous sperm donor — to the grave, until they learned that her planned appearance on Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s hit celebrity genealogy show required a DNA test.
They called an unexpected family meeting. "43 years ago we were having a really hard time having a child," she writes of what her mother told her at the sitdown in 2018. She continued awkwardly, "We used sperm. We used sperm from another man."
The star says the news turned "my world upside down" but their honesty has brought them all closer than ever before. "My parents are really, really special people," she says. "At some point we have to accept that our parents do the best they can and then we have to fill in the gap by parenting ourselves and being the adults we want to be. I always knew how much they loved me."
Personally, she says, "I think I learned a lot about myself, why I struggled and felt incomplete a lot of my life."
She's currently working with a team to try and locate her birth father but says she's happy however things turn out. "I've learned to try and let that stuff go. I deserve to live fully in my truth. And with joy."
For more on Kerry Washington's life and revealing new memoir, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, out Friday, or subscribe here.
Washington's memoir, Thicker Than Water, is available now wherever books are sold.
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