May 09, 2018 08:30 AM

Brantley Gilbert doesn’t like remembering the dark days of his addiction.

After seven years of sobriety, life today seems a world apart from the singer’s past when booze and pills controlled him. But in this week’s PEOPLE, Gilbert opens up about those difficult years.

“Knowing where I am now, looking back almost makes me sick to my stomach,” he says. “To go back to that frame of mind now is hard. Just what the hell was I thinking?”

Today, the 33-year-old “One Hell of An Amen” singer is a country star with back-to-back platinum albums. He’s married to the girl he pined for and — by his own admission – didn’t deserve for years and, as of November, he’s also a new dad. But back in 2011, just as his first No. 1 hit, “Country Must Be Countrywide,” was climbing the charts, Gilbert was sinking dangerously deep into an addiction that was years in the making.

Brantley Gilbert
Dina Litovsky

It began soon after graduating from high school in Jefferson, Georgia, where, despite his upbringing as the son of a Baptist preacher, he developed a fondness for Harleys and hard liquor. The pill popping — opiates — started casually, a pill or two as a salve for high school football aches, but over time became a crutch. How many each day, he doesn’t remember, but “I remember making sure I had them.”

At 19, he was a half-hearted college student, more passionate about music than school. He was making a name locally playing college shows but the drinking “was all over the place,” he says. “I was trying to figure everything out. And that’s hard to do that when you cloud your judgment.”

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One Sunday morning, he wrapped his pickup around an oak tree after a night of partying. The singer was thrown from the truck and banged his head hard enough that he still has hazy memories of his early years. “I remember thinking, ‘This can be over at any point. I want to make sure I’m at least doing what I love.”

It was the push he needed to make the move to Nashville, where he made a name as a promising songwriter, penning songs like “Dirt Road Anthem” and “My Kinda Party” that became hits for Jason Aldean.

Brantley Gilbert's wrecked car
Courtesy Brantley Gilbert

But Gilbert didn’t leave his hard-living lifestyle behind in Georgia. Once he scored a record deal and was making enough to pursue music full time, “every day was a party,” he says. He kept a black leather laptop bag filled, not with a laptop, but with bottles of Jagermeister or vodka, “at arm’s reach at all times,” he says. Throughout the day, “every hour and a half to two hours it’d be time to get two or three good pulls on the bottle. And every three or four hours it’s time for a pill or two.” At night, he’d wake periodically to reach for the bottle.

His addiction didn’t seem to hinder his success; by 2011, he had a top five album and a CMA Song of the Year nomination for writing “Dirt Road Anthem.”

“It wasn’t like I was stumbling around all day,” he says. “I was fully functioning — I wrote more songs then than I do now. That was the scary part.” But it did distance him from his on-again, off-again, hometown girl, Amber Cochran, whose mother would warn her, “You ain’t seeing that boy, he’s bad news.”  Says Gilbert now, “From the time I met her, I loved her and I wanted to be a better person for her, but I just wasn’t ready because I couldn’t be a better person for me yet.”

He did try — like the time he woke up after a night of carousing, not knowing where he was or how to get home. “That was one of the first times I got real with myself,” he says. “I said, “Look this is a problem, man, this isn’t a once every other weekend thing.’ But you try to Band-Aid it. You say, ‘Well if I can cut down a little bit, and just do it like everybody else does, it’d be fine.’”

In late 2011, after abdominal pains sent him to the hospital, he realized it wouldn’t be fine unless things changed. Hospitalized for pancreatitis, he was told that unless he gave up the bottle, he wouldn’t make it til his next birthday. And yet, “I still put it off and was trying to slow down on my own, like, ‘All right I’m only gonna let myself take two pills today. I’m only gonna drink this much of my bottle and make a mark on the bottle.’ And it would work a couple days —  and then somebody throws a party.”

Finally, in December when his single “Countrywide” hit No. 1 and a rapturous celebration turned into a night of soul searching (“I put my life under a microscope and I wasn’t real proud of it.”) he told his manager he was ready for rehab. He took his last drink on Dec. 18, 2011.

“I got to the point where I knew it was something I couldn’t do on my own,” he tells PEOPLE. “Pissed me off to no end and embarrassed me. I’m a pretty strong-willed person but that was the one thing in my life that I couldn’t get to stick.”

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Gilbert spent Christmas detoxing. When his mom visited, “I felt like she was visiting me in prison,” he says. “I put her through hell.”

There was shame – “Nobody wakes up one morning and goes, ‘I want to be a drunk and a pill addict.’ I definitely wasn’t raised that way.” – and fear: “I was building a house at the time and I remember calling my manager and going, ‘Hey man are they pouring concrete for my house today? Tell them to stop. I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to afford this house. I don’t know if I can play a show. Just the thought of being on an airplane is freaking me out.’ I didn’t remember the last time I had written a song without a bunch of liquor and stuff in me. It was terrifying.”

Brantley Gilbert, son Barrett and wife Amber Cochran Gilbert

A surprise visitor helped ease his fears. Fellow artist, and recovering addict, Keith Urban showed up at the facility for a pep talk – “one of the best things that could have happened to me in my life,” Gilbert says. “I remember him telling me, “Hey man, it’s gonna be scary, it’s gonna freak you out, but it’s gonna be beautiful.’ That was the opposite of the way I felt, and it gave me that extra kick to go, ‘I can do this.’”

Since leaving rehab, he hasn’t had a drink, but he does admit to a little recreational weed use: “I am a Willie Nelson fan and I do smoke from time to time!” he says with a laugh. “There are folks going on several years without anything at all and I’m so proud for them… but I’m not that guy.”

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And after three years of sobriety – and a brief engagement to singer and actress Jana Kramer — he reunited with his longtime love, Amber.

“There wasn’t a period of time that went by that I didn’t think of her,” he says. “If I wrote a love song, there’s a piece of her in it somewhere, even when we weren’t together.” The two married in June 2015 and had a son — “our little miracle” — Barrett Hardy-Clay, in November. For Gilbert, who’s currently out on tour, life has given him more than just a second chance: “God blessed me more than I could have ever known to ask to be blessed.”

For more from Gilbert on his addiction, recovery, music and home life with his wife and son, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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