Lindsay Ell is beloved by fans for her vulnerable songwriting and powerful presence on stage, but now the country singer is opening up about a part of her life she's long kept hidden.
In an emotional new ballad titled "make you" (off her upcoming album heart theory), the musician, 31, reveals she was sexually assaulted as a young teen.
"It's gonna make you hate yourself / When you didn't hate yourself at all / It's gonna make you build a fortress / Where you never had a wall," she sings on the track, which was co-written with country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark.
"I was raped when I was 13, and it happened again when I was 21," Ell tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "The song only talks about the first time. It's just a difficult thing to talk about, and it's something that I process every day still."
Released on World Forgiveness Day, "make you" lays bare the confusion, shame and anguish Ell felt over the last two decades — but ultimately, the track is a symbol of the strength and healing she's gained.
"I wanted to release it on Global Forgiveness Day. Forgiving people in our past is a huge thing for whatever reason, but forgiving yourself is so important," says Ell. "There's an incredible amount of healing that can happen, and it can't happen until you can truly open up that forgiveness for your own heart."
Sharing her story has also allowed her to feel something that long eluded her: a sense of freedom.
"Part of me talking about it now is liberating the little 13-year-old Lindsay and the 21-year-old Lindsay," she says. "Pain is something we can let control us if we don't deal with it, but the minute you put a voice to your story the shame has no power."
For all the details on how Lindsay Ell is turning her pain into power — and helping other survivors of sexual assault — pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Growing up in Calgary, Canada, the "i don't lovE you" singer was "always the good girl," she says.
So when a man in her church whom her family knew groomed her and eventually raped her, says Ell, "I felt like I had really messed up, that everybody was going to judge me and that the rest of my life was ruined."
It wasn't until she was 20 years old that Ell was able to confide in her parents. "They had no idea it happened, and they were absolutely horrified," she says. "I'm so grateful towards both of them because they helped me not go into any unhealthy mechanisms to cope."
With their support, Ell sought therapy for the first time. But shortly after, she was raped again. Declining to go into further detail about the assault, Ell simply says the situation was "different" and "a lot more violent."
Suffering from depression and anxiety afterwards, "I was pretty messed up emotionally," she acknowledges. "I had a weird relationship with anything about the body because I just hadn't felt safe."
But nearly three years ago, Ell had a breakthrough moment while visiting Youth for Tomorrow — an organization based in northern Virginia that supports young victims of sexual abuse — to help launch their music program.
"I sat down at this conference table with 12 girls and told my story. As I told more of my story, they felt more inclined to share theirs. I remember walking out of there just feeling so empowered and like I was 10 feet tall."
Inspired to use her past — and her voice — to create hope and change for other survivors, Ell has wielded the courage she felt that day to also dig deep into her own healing.
"I still carry shame and guilt, but I'm taking the hand of my 13-year-old self and my 21-year-old self and fighting every day together," she says.
She's also launching the Make You Movement under the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee to support at-risk youth, domestic abuse and sexual assault survivors. As the movement's first partner, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) will be receiving proceeds from "make you."
"I felt so alone for so long, like 'This only happened to me.' But it's not true," says Ell of wanting to build a connection with fellow survivors. "If I would've known that when I was 13, I would have felt such a deep feeling of relief."
Now, she's encouraging other little girls and boys who have been hurt to embrace themselves — and their future. "I hear you and I see you. You're not broken," says Ell. "And you are worthy of incredible things."
If you suspect child abuse, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or 1-800-422-4453, or go to www.childhelp.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.