Lamar Odom's Ex Liza Morales Opens Up About Struggling with Depression After Losing Their Son

“The trauma never goes away — you constantly have to work on yourself when it comes to loss and depression,” Morales tells PEOPLE

Liza Morales remembers the day everything fell apart on June 29, 2006.

At the New York home she shared with NBA star Lamar Odom — her high school sweetheart — Morales woke up and checked on their six-month-old, Jayden, the youngest of the couple's three kids. The infant was lying on his stomach and appeared to still be asleep, so she went downstairs and joined her mother in the kitchen for breakfast. But, as Morales recalls, a sudden panic washed over her. She ran back up to his room and saw Jayden's face was dark blue, and he wasn't breathing.

At the hospital a few hours later, doctors would deliver the tragic news to Morales and Odom: Jayden had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) — an unexplained death, usually during sleep, of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Liza Morales
Courtesy Liza Morales

The tragic loss of their son triggered Odom's drug addiction as well as Morales' severe depression, the Basketball Wives LA star tells PEOPLE.

"It's all connected," says Morales, who shares daughter Destiny, now 22, and Lamar Jr., now 19, with Odom. "I lost myself in trying to co-parent with an addict, trying to guide my kids through the trauma of losing their sibling, of dealing with a father who's an addict and the constant headlines."

Liza Morales
Courtesy Liza Morales

Now nearing the 15th anniversary of Jayden's death, Morales, 42, is opening up about her battle with anxiety and depression in the hopes of helping other families struggling with sudden loss or addiction.

After Jayden's death, Morales notes she was "exhausted all the time," which can be a sign of depression. But since her family didn't talk about mental health growing up, she didn't realize she could have the disorder. "I didn't know what to look out for," she recalls.

Liza Morales
Courtesy Liza Morales

In 2009, a close friend recommended Morales visit her therapist — that conversation, she notes, marked a "major turning point" in how she perceived mental health. "She seemed super successful and happy, I had no idea she was seeing a therapist," Morales recalls. "There's a major stigma when it comes to mental health, that if you're seeing a professional, you're 'crazy.' "

That therapist diagnosed Morales with depression and anxiety. She credits therapy, meditation, and CBD with helping her manage both conditions. "The trauma [of Jayden's death] never goes away," she says. "You constantly have to work on yourself when it comes to loss and depression."

Odom's public struggle with addiction intensified her anxiety and depression for years, Morales adds. While the couple had split up after Jayden's death, they remained in touch and on good terms. Odom married Keeping Up With The Kardashians star Khloé Kardashian in September 2009. By 2015, his addiction was out of control — he overdosed at a brothel in Las Vegas and nearly lost his life.

"I was embarrassed that everybody now knew about our private family issues," Morales says. "But eventually I realized that there are so many other families who have to deal with addiction."

She continues: "A lot of times, the addict sucks all the air out of room, and you lose yourself. But I learned the hard way that you can't change an addict, they have to want to get help.

Morales says that she's also learned to love her ex "from a distance."

"You cannot change somebody, you cannot pray away their addiction," she says. "I wish Lamar the best, but I can no longer force somebody to work on themselves."

Liza Morales
Courtesy Liza Morales

Addiction exists on Morales' side as well — her grandfather battled alcoholism. At first, she was hesitant to speak with her kids about their family history, as Morales says families of color are often told not to discuss mental health struggles. "For generations we've been taught to suck it up, go out there and do what you've got to do," she says. "Now we're seeing a positive change of people being more open with each other."

These days, Morales and her kids have constant conversations about mental health and addiction, she says, and she encourages them to be mindful of their emotions and drinking habits (once Lamar Jr. is of legal drinking age).

Reflecting on the traumatic experiences she's endured throughout her life, Morales describes them as a "bad dream" that's challenged her to reflect on her values and be bold in helping others dealing with similar heartaches. In addition to virtual speaking engagements, Morales is currently writing her memoir.

"I went into my cave for a while after Lamar overdosed in 2015, and then I told myself, 'You know what? You're going to go out there and share what you've been through, because a lot of people can relate,' " she says. "Talking about mental health helps other people while helping myself."

Adds Morales: "I'm still trying to figure out who I am … I don't know if I'll ever really know, but that's something I'm constantly discovering. And I'm growing throughout all of these experiences — that's a silver lining."

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

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