Warning: this article includes details of child abuse.
A girl who spent six years of her childhood locked in a squalid cupboard, has spoken out about her quest to find happiness.
Lauren Kavanaugh, now 23, was just two years old when her mum and step-dad locked her in a cupboard for six years. When Lauren was finally saved, she weighed the same as a two year old and had a swollen belly due to malnutrition.
Speaking to Dr. Phil 15 years on from her ordeal, Lauren said that she struggles to cope with the enormity of what happened to her.
'My life’s been pretty hard,' she said. 'I’ve been struggling a lot. I hardly sleep anymore. My anxiety is terrible.
“Sometimes I have flashbacks about my past, my childhood.'
When she was born, Lauren was initially adopted by a couple who gave her a normal upbringing. But when she was eight months old, her birth mum and stepfather, Barbara and Kenneth Ray Atkinson, decided they wanted her back.
In a cruel twist of fate, due to a paperwork error, it was found that Lauren's adoption hadn't been finalised and when the little girl was two years old, she was returned to her birth mum.
Over the next six years, Lauren suffered unimaginable torture.
She was locked in a windowless closet where she was forced to eat, sleep and go to the toilet. Barely given enough food to survive on, the little girl became severely underweight and unwell.
Treated differently to her five brothers and sisters, Lauren was referred to as 'it' and was told she was in the cupboard because she was 'bad'.
'My stepdad would get the gun beside his bed, put it to my head and pull the trigger, pretending to shoot me,' said Lauren.
She was only allowed out of the closet when her parents or their friends wanted to abuse her.
'My mom would bring home guys or girls to have sex with me. If I screamed or yelled, that really made them mad. My parents thought it was hilarious for them to watch. And I had to do what they said, so I could stay alive,' said Lauren, during an earlier appearance on Dr. Phil when she was 18.
When Lauren was eventually found in 2001, she was just 11.6 kilos and had traces of faeces in her mouth.
The little girl's filthy living conditions were discovered when her stepfather, Ray Atkinson, invited a neighbour in to show them the little girl in the cupboard. It's thought he was seeking revenge as he believed his wife was having an affair.
Finally safe, little Lauren was taken from her parents and they both received life sentences for felony injury to a child. Barbara will be eligible for parole in 2031.
Little Lauren's body was so ravaged she had to have reconstructive surgery and her stomach lacked the enzymes needed to break down food.
As well as physical damage, Lauren's mental health also struggled.
When she was found, investigators noticed that her vocabulary was limited but she did use some unusual words. Eventually it was discovered that Lauren's mum had played country music to drown out Lauren's cries and that's where Lauren had picked up a small amount of words.
'I can’t listen to country music because that’s all they ever played to drown out my screaming. When I hear it, it just all comes back,' she told Dr. Phil.
In the following years, Lauren was reunited with her adoptive parents, Sabrina and Bill Kavanaugh, who welcomed her back into their lives.
Brave and determined, Lauren went on to study psychology at college and graduated in 2015.
Now 23, she is still plagued with flashbacks about her awful early life.
While on the TV show Dr. Phil, Lauren's girlfriend Jenae explained what everyday life is like for Lauren.
'I know she's having a flashback because she stops right in her tracks,' Jenae told Dr Phil, before revealing that Lauren often sleeps in the closet.
'If we are somewhere that doesn't have a closet, she will go to the shower, turn on the scalding hot water and sleep in there,' explained Jenae.
At the end of the two-part TV show, Dr. Phil gave Lauren a free stay at a world-renowned mental health facility, which she accepted.
If you are suffering from abuse and need to talk, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.