Eileen Finan
December 06, 2016 01:15 PM

Three years ago, Naomi Judd faced some of her darkest days. The singer was in the grip of a deep depression and was suffering panic attacks despite heavy medication, multiple therapies and two stays in psychiatric wards. Suicide seemed the only way out and Judd began to plan how she might jump from a bridge near her Tennessee home.

“Nobody can understand it unless you’ve been there,” the singer, one half of Grammy-winning mother-daughter duo The Judds, tells PEOPLE. “Think of your very worst day of your whole life – someone passed away, you lost your job, you found out you were being betrayed, that your child had a rare disease – you can take all of those at once and put them together and that’s what depression feels like.”

The illness took hold, Judd says, soon after The Judd’s Last Encore tour ended in 2012, leaving her feeling empty. Into that void, long-suppressed memories of childhood trauma re-emerged, including sexual abuse by a great uncle.

During her depression, “I literally couldn’t leave the house for weeks. I was completely immobilized and every single second was like a day,” says Judd, 70, who had to install an elevator in her home because her legs became so weak from lack of exercise. “It’s so beyond making sense but I thought, ‘Surely my family will know that I was in so much pain and I thought they would have wanted me to end that pain [through suicide].'”

Courtesy Naomi Judd

Stopped only by the thought of a family member finding her body, the singer slowly found effective ways to heal: new medications, new therapies, stronger relationships with friends and family, including daughters Ashley and Wynonna, alternative treatments like massage and acupuncture.

“I’m still recovering myself,” says Judd, who chronicles her battle with depression in her new memoir, River of Time: My Descent into Depression and How I Emerged with Hope. “I’m still trying desperately trying to help myself. There’s never going to be a pill for it all. I read up on all the scientific literature, I go to courses. I try so hard to stay up on everything that I possibly can to get rid of this horrible curse.” Today, she says, “Those thoughts of suicide don’t come anymore. But I’m vulnerable. I know I can backslide.”

For more on Judd’s battle with mental illness — and for an exclusive excerpt of her book, River of Time, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

And, she says, she still struggles with the serious side effects of the medication she needs. “I still have to take a whole lot of pills,” she says. As a result, “my face is swollen. I don’t have any hair. My right hand shakes real bad from lithium. I look horrible. But I can’t be anything else after what I’ve gone through.”

Judd says she has to wear wigs and hairpieces when she goes out. “It’s a drag. I’m always afraid I’m going to leave my wig in the car or at home. And I’ll sew hair inside across the back of my hats, so it looks like real hair.”

Brien Foy

Despite her insecurities, she knows she needs to get off her couch and out into the world to stay healthy.

“I try to get out and be around people. I’ll go to Kroger or Bed Bath & Beyond, just to be normal and smile at people,” she says. “And they do stare at me. And sometimes it hurts my feelings. But I want to say, ‘You have no idea what I’ve been through. And I pray that you don’t have to go through this someday too and know what I’ve felt.'”

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