For the first time, Hayden Panettiere is opening up about a secret addiction to opioids and alcohol that nearly cost her career — and her life.
"I was on top of the world and I ruined it," the former Nashville star, 32, says in the new issue of PEOPLE. She spent years battling her addiction, as well as a devastating bout with postpartum depression. "I'd think I hit rock bottom, but then there's that trap door that opens."
Eventually, Panettiere — who shares a 7-year-old daughter, Kaya, with her ex, Wladimir Klitschko — was determined to get help. "I put a lot of work into myself and I had to be willing to be incredibly honest," says the actress, who underwent both trauma therapy and inpatient treatment within the last year. Now she's returned to set to reprise her fan-favorite character Kirby Reed in the next Scream film, and she's pouring her heart into her work with Hoplon International, the charity she founded in March whose mission it is to raise funds for Ukraine as the country endures its fifth month of war with Russia.
"This hasn't been easy and there were a lot of ups and downs," says Panettiere of her journey to sobriety and happiness. "But I don't regret even the ugliest things that have happened to me. I feel incredibly accomplished. And I feel like I have a second chance."
Already a star by the age of 11 after roles on soap operas and in Remember the Titans, Panettiere says she was just 15 when someone on her team began to offer her "happy pills" before she walked the red carpets. "They were to make me peppy during interviews," says Panettiere. "I had no idea that this was not an appropriate thing, or what door that would open for me when it came to my addiction."
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Panettiere was drinking alcohol and occasionally taking opioids, but meanwhile, her career was flourishing. "My saving grace is that I couldn't be messy while on set and working," says the star, who landed the role of superpowered cheerleader Claire Bennet on Heroes when she was 16. "But things kept getting out of control [off set]. And as I got older, the drugs and alcohol became something I almost couldn't live without."
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In 2014, Panettiere was starring as troubled country singer Juliette Barnes on Nashville. The actress's real-life pregnancy was written into the show, and soon it became clear that her character's inner demons mirrored her own.
"Those were really tough years," says Panettiere, who suffered from severe postpartum depression after Kaya was born. "I could relate to a lot of those storylines like the alcoholism and postpartum depression. They hit close to home."
Panettiere sought treatment for her depression, but still found herself struggling — and increasingly independent on alcohol to get through the day.
"I never had the feeling that I wanted to harm my child, but I didn't want to spend any time with her," says Panettiere, who didn't drink during her pregnancy but fell off the wagon after Kaya was born. "There was just this gray color in my life."
The actress would sneak away to drink, and her relationship with Klitschko, whom she began dating in 2009, began to crumble. "He didn't want to be around me," she recalls. "I didn't want to be around me. But with the opiates and alcohol I was doing anything to make me feel happy for a moment. Then I'd feel worse than I did before. I was in a cycle of self-destruction."
At her lowest point, "I would have the shakes when I woke up and could only function with sipping alcohol," says Panettiere. In 2018, the year Nashville ended, the actress made the heartbreaking decision to send Kaya to live with Klitschko (from whom she had split) in Ukraine. "It was the hardest thing I ever had to do," she says. "But I wanted to be a good mom to her — and sometimes that means letting them go."
The drinking worsened and eventually Panettiere was hospitalized, suffering from jaundice. "Doctors told me my liver was going to give out," she recalls. "I was no longer a 20-year-old who could just bounce right back."
Eventually, Panettiere entered rehab for eight months. She credits her stay for giving her the tools to "get over the hump" of her addiction, but it wasn't until recently that the actress says she's finally found the peace she yearned for so long.
"It's an everyday choice, and I'm checking in with myself all the time," says Panettiere. "But I'm just so grateful to be part of this world again, and I will never take it for granted again."