Hayden Panettiere is opening up about her turbulent last few years. The 32-year-old actress is now sober after privately struggling with addiction to opioids and alcohol. The Nashville star's heavy substance use coincided with her abusive relationship with Brian Hickerson, whom she dated on and off for four years.
"It was a very dark and complicated time in my life," Panettiere reflects to People. "But a lot of women go through what I went through, and I want people to know it's OK to ask for help."
Panettiere began dating Hickerson, 33, in 2018. The following year, she was issued a protective order as he was charged with domestic violence. In 2021, Hickerson went to jail stemming from a separate domestic violence incident against the actress. After he was released, they were back to hanging out. In March, they were involved in a fight outside a bar.
"It was not my best behavior, it was not anyone's best behavior," Panettiere says of the incident. "But it was not as insane as it was made to look, and everyone is OK."
Panettiere says she and Hickerson are friends.
"None of it is OK, and I want to make sure that everybody knows that," she explains. "But I am open to people who are willing to get help and make amends. He's gone to treatment and done his time. And I'm trying to live in a place of forgiveness."
Panettiere is "trying to live in a place of understanding" as she thinks "about the things I have done in my life that people forgave me for." When Nashville ended in 2018 after six seasons, the actress fell deeper into opioids and alcohol.
"I wanted to party, I wanted to do everything I wasn't supposed to do," Panettiere recalls. "Acting was my life, but I felt so bad about myself that I lost trust in myself. And that is very detrimental. The idea of not having a responsibility was very appealing at the time."
Panettiere, who started acting at age 5 on One Life to Live, says she was first offered "happy pills" by someone on her team when she was 15.
"They were to make me peppy during interviews," she recalls. "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."
The actress began drinking and occasionally taking opioids, but says her "saving grace is that I couldn't be messy while on set and working.
"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," she admits.
In 2014, Panettiere gave birth to daughter to daughter Kaya, whom she shares with her ex, Wladimir Klitschko. But she suffered from severe postpartum depression for years.
"I never had the feeling that I wanted to harm my child, but I didn't want to spend any time with her," Panettiere says, noting she was sober during her pregnancy but relapsed after Kaya's birth. "There was just this gray color in my life."
Panettiere first sought treatment for depression in 2015 but didn't stop drinking. Her relationship with Klitschko ended.
"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."
In 2018, she sent Kaya to live with Klitschko in Ukraine.
"It was the hardest thing I ever had to do," she shares. "But I wanted to be a good mom to her — and sometimes that means letting them go."
Panettiere's drinking continued — "I would have the shakes when I woke up and could only function with sipping alcohol" — and she was hospitalized with jaundice.
"Doctors told me my liver was going to give out," she remembers. "I was no longer a 20-year-old who could just bounce right back."
"I was on top of the world and I ruined it," the Heroes alum adds. "I'd think I hit rock bottom, but then there's that trap door that opens."
Panettiere went back to treatment for depression in 2020. Within the last year, she's done both trauma therapy and inpatient treatment. She's now sober and single and back on set, reprising her role as Kirby in Scream 6.
"This hasn't been easy and there were a lot of ups and downs," Panettiere says of her journey. "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."
MORE: Hayden Panettiere reunites with Brian Hickerson as they are involved in bar brawl