"Last year almost broke me," King tells PEOPLE exclusively, "but I'm stronger now because of it"

By Jeff Nelson
October 17, 2018 08:30 AM
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Chloe Aftel

Elle King is unshakable.

In the past 18 months the rocker canceled her wedding to a man she had actually already secretly married; split from said husband after a tumultuous year; and battled substance abuse, depression and PTSD. Today, having made it through the darkness, King hopes to share her story on her new album, Shake the Spirit (out Friday).

“Last year almost broke me,” King, 29, says exclusively in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, “but I’m stronger now because of it.”

Elle King
Frazer Harrison/Getty

King (born Tanner Elle Schneider to comedian Rob Schneider, 54, and model London King, 52) was raised in Ohio by her mom and stepdad Justin Tesa, who nurtured her love of rock and soul music. In 2015 her rollicking, ubiquitous breakout single “Ex’s & Oh’s,” off debut album Love Stuff, shot her to fame.

A smash Dierks Bentley duet (“Different for Girls”), three Grammy nominations and a hard-partying reputation followed. And after a successful year, King was on top of the world. She then reached peak rock-star spontaneity on Feb. 14, 2016, when she secretly wed her Scottish boyfriend Andrew Ferguson three weeks after meeting him at a bar — and a week after announcing their engagement.

“We were two young, crazy people,” says King, who insists no one — not even her parents — knew she was married.

Behind the scenes, the pressure of the spotlight was taking a toll.

“Before we even met, I had started kind of losing my mind,” she says of her mentality marrying Ferguson. “I was just searching for any kind of connection and realness . . . just f—ing begging for love.”

In the following year King’s life spiraled and her marriage imploded.

Elle King with ex Andrew Ferguson
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

After she had very publicly planned her big day (even finding a wedding gown on TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress), King’s wedding date (April 15, 2017) came and went, as she said she “skipped out on my wedding” to tour with the Eagles of Death Metal.

Then on April 23, 2017, Ferguson was arrested and charged with felony domestic violence after allegedly grabbing King by the throat and threatening to kill her, TMZ reported. (The charge was later dropped.) And a month later, on Instagram, the rocker revealed the secret marriage while announcing their split.

“I was in a destructive marriage,” King — who struggled with depression and PTSD in the fallout of her breakup — tells PEOPLE. “I was at the lowest point in my life. … I was not well. I couldn’t look people in the eyes. I literally couldn’t leave my house for weeks at a time.”

After pushing friends away, the rocker says she knew she needed to talk to someone, and she sought out a PTSD specialist last summer.

“There’s two ways out. You can take the bad way out or you can get help. I got help because I knew that I have felt good in my life and I knew I could get there again,” says, King, who also leaned on friends and family, reconciling with dad Schneider after a strained past.

“If I didn’t get help, I probably wouldn’t be … I don’t know. I don’t wanna think like that,” she adds, getting emotional. “I think that reaching out saved my life. I don’t wanna think of any other outcome that could have happened. I feel like the more I talk about it, maybe it could reach somebody … reach somebody that feels alone.”

King’s journey out of darkness wasn’t easy though. Even after finding a professional to talk to, she used drugs and alcohol to “mask” the emotions she was struggling to deal with.

“I was partying so hard to numb emotions that I couldn’t handle at the time. I realized it was just prolonging the inevitable of dealing with them. And what you have to do, unfortunately, is just feel them, and that sucks,” she says. “I thought that by doing drugs it would buy me time to feeling better. And when that wasn’t working, I just realized I was in this other cycle, and that I was creating it myself. And I realized I needed to cut all the darkness out of my life.”

By September 2017, King decided to dial back her partying.

For more on Elle King, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

“I have a godson, and one of my best friends said, ‘If you keep partying like this, I won’t let you see him.’ And that was a huge moment for me. I was like, ‘Wow. My actions have repercussions,'” recalls King, who still drinks and smokes marijuana (“I have different fun now — it’s not having fun out of pain”).

Now, with her darkest days behind her, King has channeled her struggles into Shake the Spirit, her sophomore album that sets raw, candid lyrics to country-tinged rock and soul.

Elle King
Erika Goldring/FilmMagic

“It really is such emotional music. I feel much lighter, because, it’s like, if you go to therapy for a year, you feel better. Any art form is the same thing as talking it out, but I’m not just talking it out — I’m yelling it out on a lot of songs. It’s a very freeing feeling,” King says of the timeless, career-defining LP, which includes standouts “Shame,” “Naturally Pretty Girls” and “Man’s Man.” “It was a very healing experience.”

Adds the singer: “I’ve changed a lot. I’m finding my own self-love, and I’m inviting love, outwardly in. … You can go through something crazy in your life, and you can come back from it.”