Naomi Judd admits that sharing her story in her new memoir, River of Time, left her "terrified," but her famous daughters had two very different reactions

By Eileen Finan
December 06, 2016 03:50 PM
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Not long after she began writing a memoir about her battle with depression, Naomi Judd called her daughter Wynonna and invited her to lunch at a local restaurant. “It was just the two of us, and I said, ‘I have something to tell you’ and she got big tears in her eyes — she expected something dramatic. And I said, ‘I’m writing a book,'” Judd tells PEOPLE.

“Don’t do it, mom! Don’t do it!” Wynonna pleaded with her mother. “People will think you’re crazy and I know you’re not!” Recalls Naomi, “Wy was afraid for me, she was afraid it might make things worse.”

Both mother and daughter knew that things for Naomi in the previous few years had been in a desperate state: the singer fought suicidal thoughts and coped with panic attacks during an illness that stretched over three years.

Naomi admits that sharing her story in her new memoir, River of Time: My Descent into Depression and How I Emerged with Hope, left even her “terrified.” In the book, she details memories of a cold and distant mother, an alcoholic father and childhood sexual abuse by a great uncle that began when she was 3 ½. “There were a lot of people I was outing,” she says, noting that her mother is still alive.

Emotional drama is a familiar dynamic in the Judd family. The mother-daughter duo who won five Grammys as country superstars The Judds were once familiar faces to Oprah audiences as they hashed out their relationship on camera. And Naomi’s other daughter, actress Ashley, had shaken up the family tree herself with a 2011 memoir chronicling childhood sexual abuse and neglect.

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.

In her book, Judd doesn’t shy away from family conflict, revealing that she kept her illness a secret from Wynonna. Finally, after being released from a stay in a psychiatric ward, Naomi called her. “Wy absolutely fell apart,” Naomi tells PEOPLE. “She said, ‘Mommy? Where have you been?’ I said, ‘Well, Pop and Ashley had to take me to the psych unit at Vanderbilt.’ I could hear the phone click — we live so close, five minutes later, she was busting into my bedroom. And she was bawling.”

Judd doesn’t sugarcoat the dark days of her illness either, admitting that she was so depressed she would sometimes not wash her hair for a month and that her legs grew so weak from lying on the couch all day that she had an elevator installed in her home. At one point in the book, she describes undergoing electroconvulsive therapy and waking up from the procedure realizing that she had urinated on herself.

“It was what it was,” says Judd of sharing her painful family history and the ugliness of her illness and treatment. “How can people understand unless they can see what it was like?”

Credit: Brien Foy

For a singer who prided herself on looking like a rhinestone-studded, perfectly-coiffed star on stage, it’s a picture of imperfection she long tried to hide.

“My whole life — even as a child — I tried to be an inspiration to people,” Judd says. “I had had such a hideous life, so complicated and so truncated, and even though I was hiding way deep my own complicated messes, I wanted fans to see me with my perfect hair and my flamboyant dress.”

Now, she says, she wants to tell her full truth, even as she’s painfully aware that she’s still in the process of recovery. “There were many times writing the book, when I thought, ‘Who am I?’ and I would backslide and literally couldn’t leave the house for weeks. I kept looking around like, ‘What can I possibly contribute?'”

But, she says, she’s learned that part of her therapy is finding a way to reach out to others who are suffering the way she has. “My whole thing in life has been helping people,” says Judd, who worked as a nurse before her singing career. “As Ashley told me, ‘You cannot hug the 40 million people that have depression. There’s not enough of you. But by writing the book, you’ve given them everything they need.'”