It’s been less than three months since Melissa Schuman found the courage to share with the world what she once considered her “deepest, darkest secret” — and by doing so, she’s never felt stronger. But that wasn’t always the case. Back in November, the 33-year-old performer, best known as one fourth of the early-2000s girl group Dream, was nearly crippled by anxiety after making the bold choice to reveal in a blog post the traumatic details of the alleged sexual assault she says she suffered in 2003 at the hands of pop star Nick Carter.

In an exclusive interview with Life & Style, Melissa reflects back on her decision to come forward with her story. After Harvey Weinstein’s earth-shattering sexual assault scandal inspired women across the entertainment industry to speak out against their assailants, Melissa couldn’t help but look back on her own devastating experience. The singer’s previously suppressed memories started surfacing as a myriad of notable men were accused of misconduct — and, eventually, she had no other choice but to “exorcise” those haunting thoughts from her mind.

“I was triggered with PTSD. For so long, I felt as though I wasn’t able to speak out about the situation. But then the anxiety that I was experiencing was not leaving. So that’s when I decided to just start writing,” Melissa tells Life & Style. “It was the first time ever that I had written it. It had always been in my head internally. The first time I wrote it, I deleted it. I said to myself, ‘No one should ever have to read this. Nobody should ever because it’s just disgusting.’”

Melissa and Nick met in 2003 while filming their made-for-TV movie, The Hollow, which was released in 2004. Years prior, their respective label reps had connected them via telephone after the Backstreet Boy expressed romantic interest in Melissa, who was dating someone at the time. Still, she agreed to take his call and although their initial exchange went well — “He was very polite and the conversation was quick” — nothing ever came of it. When Melissa met Nick face-to-face during the making of The Hollow, she was single and entertained an invitation to come over to his Santa Monica apartment.

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Melissa and Nick in a scene for The Hollow.

But Melissa’s real-life interaction with Nick was anything but “polite.” Contrarily, as alleged in Melissa’s blog post, the boy bander’s actions were absolutely horrifying. Melissa, then 18, claimed that a 22-year-old Nick performed oral sex on her despite multiple refusals. He then allegedly forced Melissa to engage in a sexual act against her will before taking her into his bedroom and raping her.

Melissa luckily had brought along her best friend and roommate at the time, who helped her piece together the events of the evening. Unfortunately, the roommate was unaware of what happened as she slept in a separate room in the apartment after spending the night playing video games with a friend of Nick’s. The minute she and Melissa got into her car that following morning, something was evidently wrong. “She was very distraught and upset. She just didn’t know what to do,” Melissa’s former roommate, who spoke to Life & Style on the condition of anonymity, remembers. “She was upset and didn’t quite know how to handle it.”

Melissa didn’t immediately divulge every detail of Nick’s alleged assault to her roommate. But once she did, Melissa's roommate urged the young entertainer to speak to an adult — specifically, her mom — about what happened. So, a little while later, Melissa found herself explaining the situation to her roommate’s mother, Marlene Craig, who recounted the “distressing time” in an on-the-record interview with Life & Style.

“My daughter brought Melissa over to my house and when she arrived at my house, she was pretty much hysterical. I had never seen her in that condition before. She was always just bubbly and never emotional like she was after it happened,” says Marlene. “She explained what happened to her and I told her that it was rape and that it’s real important that she acts on it because she needs to get a rape kit [to] document what happened so that she could have some kind of recourse.”

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Melissa in 2003.

But Melissa was stuck in silence. Not only was she dealing with the emotional aftermath of losing her virginity — as a devout Christian, she had intended to save herself for marriage — but she was advised not to take legal action against Nick as it might impact her career as an actress and recording artist. During this period, Melissa was hoping to break out on her own as a solo act while continuing to pursue an acting career. Ultimately, she conceded that fighting Nick in court would do more harm than good.

Though she waited more than a decade to go public with her story, the now-mom-of-one — who shares son Elin Elijah, 7, with her husband, dancer and choreographer Brandon Henschel — made sure that those closest to her knew every single detail of her harrowing night with Nick.

“I told everybody. My husband, I told him when we first started dating because I think it happened within that year. So my husband knew because my husband was a virgin. We both had wanted to wait until marriage, so I felt like it was the right thing to tell him what happened because I was worried if that were to come out, I wanted to be forthright about what the experience was for me,” she tells Life & Style. “So I told him, I told my parents, I told my therapist, I told all of my friends. I told a lot of people.”

Of course, Melissa’s fellow Dream members — Ashley Poole, Diana Ortiz, and Holly Blake-Arnstein, with whom she reunited with in the summer of 2016 for their My2K Tour — were well aware of the alleged abuse. “Ashley knew, Diana knew, Holly knew. I don’t know one person who didn’t know because I was never quiet about it,” she says. “I was broken over it and I was so confused by it. I was tormented by it.”

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Melissa (far right) with Dream singers Ashley, Holly, and Diana in 2000.

After letting it out with her loved ones, Melissa did her best to recover both professionally and personally. In fact, she made a concerted effort to act like nothing ever occurred. “People don’t realize that I had to act like nothing happened. I worked in an industry with him,” she says. “I never, ever thought that I was going to talk about this publicly.”

Melissa thought she’d seen the last of Nick in 2003. But she was forced to face him again in 2005. After the alleged assault, Melissa had signed with Nick’s then-manager, Kenneth Crear, whose roster of clients also included Sisqo, Mary Mary, Debra Cox, and Tamia. Under her new representation, Melissa cut several tracks to sing at a showcase in front of various record label execs. One of those songs was a duet with Nick called “There for Me,” for which their parts were recorded separately.

Melissa had recorded the song, hoping it would help her land a solo record deal. However, she never expected to perform it live with Nick at the showcase — an offer she reluctantly agreed to. “I tried to justify that maybe something good [could] come out of something very bad,” Melissa wrote in her blog post. “Kenneth asked my abuser if he would be willing to sing the duet with me live at my showcase and he agreed.”

Melissa tells Life & Style that she was “petrified” to join Nick onstage. “I didn’t know what to do. Of course, it was awful that I had to see him again,” she says. “I was just hoping to get through it, hopefully get started on my solo career, and move on for good.”

She never found the success she was looking for as a solo artist — most likely because her manager, Kenneth, prioritized Nick's career over hers. But by coming clean all these years later about the alleged rape, the "He Loves U Not" songstress (who hasn’t seen or spoken to Nick since their uncomfortable showcase) has finally moved on — and for good, she assures Life & Style. With a huge weight lifted off her chest, Melissa now possesses a “new sense of freedom” she’s never felt before. “I definitely found freedom. After a few weeks, I got stronger. And I’m not scared anymore,” she proudly shares. “[Other victims] now have somebody who was there. I know what happens next and for that, I feel empowered.”

Nonetheless, reliving the incident was “horrible,” Melissa says — and she was terrified to hit the publish button on her blog post. “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what his response was going to be. I thought he was going to deny the whole thing. I didn’t know what to expect. And that was incredibly scary,” she admits. “I was in uncharted territory.”

After sharing several drafts of her blog post with family members, Melissa’s husband, Brandon, 37, gave her the extra push she needed to make it public. “It was the first time I had ever shared my story in that way. I sat on it for two weeks. I think I even put it in the trash,” says Melissa. “But it was my husband who — I had a panic attack and my husband was just like, ‘Enough is enough.’”

“He was like, ‘You’ve got to do this. Whatever happens, I’m here, and we’ll get through this together.’ And he was like, ‘If you need me to push that publish button, I will.’ And I was like, ‘I can’t do it.’ And he did it,” she recalls. “And then he said, ‘Let’s go to bed.’ And that’s when it happened, and it took four days for it to become what it became.”

After the story grabbed headlines all over the globe, Nick, now 38, denied Melissa’s accusations in a statement, claiming that their relations were completely concordant. "Melissa never expressed to me while we were together or at any time since that anything we did was not consensual,” he fired back. The boy bander’s words shook Melissa to the core. According to her, for years Nick had tried to deny they had any interaction at all. “I don’t even know how to describe the feeling [after hearing that],” she says. “That was the first time that he ever admitted to me that he did anything.”

Still in shock over Nick’s statement, Melissa’s already fragile emotional state took a particularly hard hit when she suddenly received an influx of victim-shaming social media messages from his diehard fans. “It’s painful to feel like you don’t matter, that even I don’t matter and that he matters more,” she tells Life & Style. “There’s definitely something there in regards to fans supporting men versus fans supporting other females. They’ll defend [Nick] until the end of time. I can’t understand it.”

Devotees of the one-time teen heartthrob — who was reportedly investigated for sexually assaulting a fan at a house party in 2006, an allegation he vehemently denies — went so far as to create fake victim social media accounts in an attempt to catfish Melissa, trying their best to catch her in a lie. “What they ended up doing, after DMing me, telling me, ‘I’m a victim. He did this to me too,’ I’d be like, ‘I’m here for you. If you need an attorney, I can help give you the resources,’” she says. “I was trying to help and then essentially what they did was they made this fake blog and then turned around and said, ‘Look at Melissa, it just shows that she’s trying to destroy Nick.’ And they turned their blog into ‘Nick Is Not a Rapist.’ They would Photoshop stuff and then tweet that around to create enough of a question mark for people to not believe my story.”

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Nick performing at the iHeartRadio Canada Jingle Ball on Dec. 9, 2017.

To this day, Nick has inexplicably suffered no professional repercussions in the wake of Melissa’s accusations — unlike Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and Matt Lauer, three examples of famous men whose careers practically ended overnight because of sexual assault claims in the ever-growing #MeToo movement. In stark contrast, Nick continues to tour with the Backstreet Boys, with whom he regularly sells out shows for their Las Vegas residency at Planet Hollywood.

Despite the mental agony inflicted on Melissa by Nick’s aggressive fans — who continue to harass her online — she’s soldiered on; not just for herself, but for other sexual assault victims. “It’s been amazing to come out on the other side and to feel like I now can help others who may want to come forward as well,” she tells Life & Style. “They don’t have to do it and feel alone. I want them to be brave.”

These days, Melissa feels brave enough to speak out on the behalf of others — which she plans on doing as a volunteer for RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual abuse organization. “I wish I had known about RAINN when this all happened for me so that I could have had someone to talk to and support me. I’m reading so many stories on their website and it's empowering,” she says. “These stories need to be shared so that we know that we’re not alone and that assault can happen in many different ways. There’s not just one carbon copy and there’s not just one way. It comes in all shapes and sizes.”

Indeed, Melissa’s own alleged scenario with Nick was vastly different than how she ever imagined sexual assault to appear. “I always thought that rape was what you see in the movies. It’s by a stranger, usually somebody who’s hideous, somebody who’s scary, and it’s usually done in a dark alley where they blindfold you and stick a sock in your mouth. It’s always really violent,” she says. “You don’t think about it in the context in which I experienced it. Assault is very, very, very confusing.”

For the supporters who have helped Melissa make sense of what she endured, she couldn’t be more grateful. “There are no words to describe the life that those people have given me, the strength that they’ve given me,” she says. “It’s imperative that we have people like that supporting people who are willing to speak out against any kind of abuse. Doing the right thing is hard and we need more people who are going to support, encourage, uplift, and advocate for this kind of transparency and truth. For me, those people who support me have set me free. They’re angels.”

Enfranchised from the shackles of her past, Melissa promises to be an “angel” for fellow victims now that her wings are spread and she’s free to fly. “The more I speak out, I hope that it might be that extra encouragement for someone else. And the more of us that come forward with our stories, the less scary it becomes and the stigma lessens. I want to get rid of the stigma. I’m more than just a survivor of assault,” Melissa tells Life & Style. “I believe in fighting for what’s right and I just want to be a source of light for people. I want to help people and I want people to know that they are loved and they are worthy and that they matter. I refuse to be silenced until everyone knows that they matter — just like I matter. We all matter.”

If you need support, The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-656-4673. You will be connected with a trained staff member in your area. Or visit RAINN.org to chat online one-on-one with a support specialist at any time.