December 06, 2010 12:00 PM

As passengers squeezed onto the plane minutes before takeoff from L.A. last January, Chynna Phillips felt trapped. She’d flown countless times before, but now her palms were damp, and a pins-and-needles sensation crept over her. “I had vertigo, like I was on a cliff, looking down,” says the singer. Sick with fear and claustrophobia, she begged to be let off. “I was afraid if this escalated 25,000 feet in the air,” she says, “I wouldn’t get the help I needed.”

The panic that grounded her that day only grew worse in the days that followed, even threatening to tear apart her life with actor Billy Baldwin. So on Feb. 12, the day she turned 42, Phillips checked in to a treatment center for anxiety. “I tried to keep all my plates in the air-a pop career, being the best mom and a rockin’ wife,” she says. “But trust me, the plates fall and break.” Nine months later she’s found balance, rebuilding her marriage and reuniting with her bandmates and lifelong friends Carnie and Wendy Wilson for a new Wilson Phillips album, Christmas in Harmony. Says Phillips: “It’s been the most difficult but most cathartic year of my life.”

She traces her problems to a “perfect storm” of events last fall: the stress of leaving her kids (daughters Jameson, 10, and Brooke, 5, and son Vance, 9) for a 10-week tour to promote her Christian-music album; widening cracks in her then-14-year marriage; and, most devastating, half sister Mackenzie Phillips’ public confession about her sexual relationship with their late father, the Mamas & the Papas’ John Phillips, in Mackenzie’s memoir High on Arrival. “I knew about [the incest] but wasn’t ready for everyone to be talking about it suddenly,” says Phillips. Shaken by everything happening at once, she began having panic attacks, palpitations and breathlessness. She felt extreme isolation, even when she was around her closest friends. “I hit bottom. I couldn’t cope with my marriage and my sister,” she says. “I needed a wake-up call. [Going to treatment] was a way to have some solace.”

There she found help dealing with her racing thoughts. “Now I tell myself, ‘Quiet those voices in your head saying you’re not doing enough with your career, and turn them over to God,'” says Phillips. “That chatter is my enemy.” But she left after just two weeks because “I couldn’t bear to be away from my family.” Still, she knew she wasn’t cured. “When I got out, I realized I had to face the wreckage I created and tell Billy I was unhappy with our marriage,” she says. “I felt hopeless.”

In what she calls “an impulsive decision I regret,” she blindsided Baldwin, 47, with divorce papers. “I was rocked,” he says. “I didn’t realize Chynna was at the end of her rope.” Though she asked her lawyer to revoke the filing hours later-“I was like, ‘What am I doing? This is my family, I have to fight for it,'” she says-their marriage clearly needed help. “We took each other for granted,” says Phillips. “I met Billy at 23. You change a lot in 20 years.” She also sometimes felt domineered. “My husband has never been abusive in any way, but he’s 6’2″ and intense, so when he expresses himself, it can be very intimidating,” she says. “I shut down, like I’m a 5-year-old mentally.” Baldwin admits that the way he talks to her can be a problem. “When I first met Chynna, she’d say, ‘Why are you raising your voice?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m not,'” he says. “It’s a cultural thing-if you grew up in a big family on the East Coast, then you understand. But it triggers her anxiety.”

Counseling gave them new ways to handle conflict. “People say, ‘You can’t change things,'” he says. “But if it can save your family, you can.” They focused on communicating better. “Saying ‘Billy, I’m shut down, so give me a half hour before we talk’ is huge,” says Phillips. “Instead of interrupting, I try to listen. It’s not easy. But we’re more real with each other now.” Most of all, she’s moved by Baldwin’s refusal to give up on their relationship. “I come from a broken home and never felt that anyone fought for me,” she says. “Billy did.”

So far, victory has been sweet: On Sept. 12, three days after their 15th wedding anniversary, with their children at their side, they renewed their vows in front of their congregation. “It was the most romantic, rewarding anniversary we’ve ever had,” says Phillips. Adds Baldwin: “Grown men had tears coming down their cheeks!” With her anxiety under control, “Everything is better than ever,” he adds. Phillips couldn’t agree more. “All we’ve gone through this year was worth it,” she says. “Billy loves me no matter how angry, impatient or frustrated I get. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

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