The country star gets real about living with anxiety, PTSD and claustrophobia in this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

By Brianne Tracy
September 02, 2020 11:00 AM
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Sara Evans will never forget June 29, 1979.

The day started out like any other, with the country star — who was 8 at the time — playing pretend with her dolls. But everything changed when she got hit by a car while crossing the highway bordering her family's farm to get the mail, ignoring her parents' rules.

"The last thing I remember was a flash of blue," Evans writes in her new memoir, Born to Fly, exclusively excerpted in this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, and out Sept. 8. "I woke up in a cold room and then came the pain. I was terrified. Both of my legs were in casts."

"My mom told me that when the car struck me, I landed 80 feet off the road," she continues. "When they found me, I was curled up in a ball with my left leg mangled and twisted and almost severed in two. They all thought I was dead."

Evans, now 49, had a severe concussion and had been unconscious for almost two days before she finally woke up in pain.

"A doctor came in and told my mom that my left leg needed pins put in immediately," Evans writes. "But since my concussion was so serious, they were afraid to put me under anesthesia. They would numb my leg and use a hand drill to get the pin into my knee. I remember the nurses holding me down. Every time Dr. Breedlove brought the drill close, I cried out, 'Wait!' Imagine someone drilling into your leg while you're wide awake. Dr. Breedlove finally just told the nurses to hold me down so he could get it over with."

Luckily, Evans writes, she passed out as soon as the drill hit her leg. When she woke up, her left leg was in traction, with pulleys, weights, and cable hanging at her feet.

"For six agonizing weeks, I remained in that hospital bed," she writes. "I'd have a sudden, overwhelming feeling of pain and panic consuming me. 'I want out of this!' I’d scream, thrashing around till someone held me down and calmed me. I felt like I was being buried alive."

It was the start of her anxiety, PTSD and claustrophobia — but much less was widely known about mental health at the time.

"I had severe PTSD and anxiety, but it was the '80s, and I didn't have a name for it,” Evans tells PEOPLE. "I don't think my mother even thought, like, 'Maybe I should take her to therapy.' I thought I could handle it because I'm tough."

Sara Evans
Lowfield

Four years later, Evans was further traumatized when her parents divorced.

"It seemed so sudden to us kids because we never saw them fighting," Evans says. "It was like one day we were an intact family: the Evanses. Then the next day, my mom said, 'Your dad moved out.'"

The only time Evans says she really "succumbed to extreme anxiety" was in December 2005, amid marital strife with ex-husband Craig Schelske. While on her way back to her tour bus in Pennsylvania from a press trip in New York, she had a debilitating panic attack.

"I couldn't get a grasp on who I was," she writes in her memoir. "It's a feeling I've struggled with my whole life anytime I am stressed. I think it's PTSD from my car accident. I have this feeling of 'who am I?' It tends to creep up on me after I've had to do a lot of interviews and be on and play the part of 'Sara Evans.' I don't even like writing about it because I am so afraid of having this feeling."

RELATED VIDEO: Country Superstar Sara Evans Talks Her Successful Marriage to Jay Barker: 'You Have to Choose [Your Partner] Wisely'

While on break from her tour during the holidays, Evans — who shares son Avery, 21, and daughters Olivia, 17, and Audrey, 15, with her ex — saw a doctor at home in Nashville about how she had been feeling.

"[The] doctor prescribed me an antidepressant (which I never took; I knew I wasn't depressed)," she writes. "He also prescribed an anti-anxiety medication that was really perfect for me. It helped calm the anxiety and panic, but I knew this was a deeper issue."

"For about 10 days I was afraid to leave my house, even to walk from one room to another," she continues. "All I did was sit in front of the fireplace with the baby girls and read my Bible. I was totally consumed with fear. And for no reason. I remember dreading the hour when Avery would get off the bus from kindergarten, because I would have to pretend that everything was fine, and it most certainly was not. The girls were both babies, so they had no idea. But I was so afraid he would catch on and start being afraid himself."

Evans says that her anti-anxiety medication "saved" her life.

"It calmed me down," she says. "Taking it also made me realize you're not going to be this way forever. I always tell my kids, 'The toll that anxiety takes on your body and on your mind, I think, is so much worse than if you have to take [medication] to calm down.'"

In 2012, Evans' mental health took another hit when a near-crash aboard a private plane whose gyroscope failed, forcing the aircraft into a terrifying nosedive and emergency landing, triggered her PTSD "and a kind of depression" that lasted for weeks.

"That was probably the most terrifying, yet soul-growing experience that ever happened to me because I completely accepted death," she says. "Our plane was going down. I knew that I was going to go to heaven. But then, when we didn't die and we miraculously got out of that situation and were able to make a landing, it hit me hard because I tried to be so brave in the moment and not even think about my kids."

"I had a lot of PTSD, a lot of anxiety, thinking, 'Oh, my God, my children could've lost their mom,'" she adds. "They would've been here years without me."

Now, Evans says she's gotten a better handle on what can trigger a spiral, like PMS or having to leave her three kids behind for work. She has also found a rock in her husband of 12 years, retired NFL pro Jay Barker.

"I still struggle," she says. "But I'm so grateful for every second of this life."

If you or someone you know needs mental health resources or help, text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

For all the details on Sara Evans' struggles with anxiety, PTSD and claustrophobia, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.