After 11 years as a prisoner in the Cleveland home of her abductor, Michelle Knight wasn’t hopeful about her chances of finding love.
Knight was 20 when she was kidnapped in August 2002 by Ariel Castro. Along with two other captives, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, Knight endured unimaginable torture and sexual abuse before the trio escaped on May 6, 2013.
“The whole world had heard the story of how I had been damaged by a filthy older man,” Knight, 37, writes in her new memoir, Life After Darkness: Finding Healing and Happiness After the Cleveland Kidnappings, which is excerpted exclusively in this week’s issue of PEOPLE.
“Who would ever want me after that?”
Her ordeal seemed to follow her after she was free: Numerous sensory triggers in her daily life returned her to her trauma and she applied for jobs but got rejected by employers who said that her high profile was a distraction.
“It was all just another reminder that trying to be a normal person living a normal life was out of reach — for the moment anyway,” Knight writes in her book.
But in the ensuing years, she built up a sense of normalcy and self-esteem. She changed her name to Lily Rose Lee and began to feel worthy of love.
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Knight met Miguel Rodriguez, a 39-year-old courier, through mutual friends on Facebook. They had been speaking on the phone for a period of time until fortuitously meeting in person for the first time by running into each other at a restaurant.
“I looked up and said, ‘I’m not catfished. You’re really, really real,’ ” she recalls to PEOPLE.
As their bond grew stronger, Knight nonetheless remained anxious about physical intimacy. In addition to Castro’s sexual abuse, Knight had been abused as a child by a relative.
“I had some fears that any intimacy might feel like what Castro had done to me, what others had done to me,” she writes in Life After Darkness.
“We waited; we took our time,” she writes. “When it did happen, I realized I didn’t have anything to fear. The experience was entirely different. What made the difference was love.”
Knight and Rodriguez enjoy watching movies together and share a love of animals, including their pit bull, Peanuts, who Knight rescued after Peanuts was thrown in her yard and abandoned.
The couple married on May 6, 2016 — on the third anniversary of Knight’s freedom from Castro’s house.
While in captivity, Knight fantasized about her wedding as a survival mechanism. Castro had given her a pencil and paper, which she used to design her fantasy wedding dress.
“When you’re confined and have nothing to do except wait to be abused, imagining the details of a wedding that will never happen is a survival strategy: Focus on the impossible,” she writes.
But when the big day arrived, Knight realized she “didn’t want our wedding to be about luxury or glitz.” She was overjoyed enough that she and Rodriguez had found each other.
“Oh my gosh,” she tells PEOPLE. “My wedding was the most extraordinary and interesting, heartwarming — oh my gosh — explosive day ever.”