May 31, 2007 12:00 PM

Before she entered rehab on May 28, it looked as if nothing – not a car crash, a drunk driving charge or even sheer burnout – could derail Lindsay Lohan’s notoriously high-velocity life. Kicking off the holiday weekend on May 25, the actress and a posse of pals turned up at Hollywood restaurant and lounge Les Deux, where she smoked, chatted with fellow club-goer Paris Hilton and danced to the indie-rock playlist until closing time at 2 a.m. Says an observer: “She was in the middle of the table, laughing and trying to be noticed the whole night.”

Lohan, who at 20 is underage, was about to attract a much more serious kind of attention. Following a 5:30 a.m. crash in which her Mercedes struck a curb on Sunset Blvd., she was arrested and cited for driving under the influence. After being hospitalized for minor injuries – and after police said they found a substance tentatively identified as “a usable amount” of cocaine in connection with the accident – Lohan headed out just one night later. The destination? A private bash in a poolside room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where sources say drugs were openly used. This time, the revelry ended with the paparazzi photographing a listless Lohan being driven away.

Lohan in March 2007

It may be the last time Lohan – who had planned to celebrate her 21st birthday on July 2 with a blowout at Las Vegas hot spot Pure – is out on the town for a long while. On May 29 her rep confirmed that the actress, who completed a monthlong substance-abuse treatment program in January, had admitted herself to “an intensive medical rehabilitation facility” on Memorial Day. After she checked into the Promises treatment center in Malibu – where Britney Spears recently underwent rehab – friends and family members greeted the news with a mix of relief, worry and guarded optimism. “We are all praying for her,” says a Lohan relative, noting that Lohan’s mother, Dina, 44, “is doing the best she can.” The turning point came three weeks after Britain’s News of the World ran photos of Lohan allegedly using cocaine in a nightclub bathroom. “We’re all happy that she is where she is,” says a friend. “Everyone’s just been waiting [for something tragic to happen]. All of us thought there would be something soon.”

Many are surprised it took so long. Nine years ago, Lohan endeared herself to moviegoers as a freckle-faced child star from suburban Long Island, earning a devoted young fan base in squeaky-clean Disney fare like 1998’s The Parent Trap and 2003’s Freaky Friday. But even in those early years, home life for Lohan and her three younger siblings, brothers Michael, 19, and Dakota, 10, and sister Ali, 13, was already gravely fractured: dad Michael, 47, a former financier, spent much of Lohan’s preteen years in prison for securities fraud only to face even more prison time as his tumultuous marriage to Dina, a former dancer, crumbled in the years that followed.

July 1998: The 11-year-old Long Islander rockets to fame in Disney's The Parent Trap.

As their family splintered, Dina served as her daughter’s manager, confidante and, as Lindsay entered her teens, frequent companion on Hollywood’s party circuit. Along the way, she often raised eyebrows as to whether she was acting more like a girlfriend than a parent. Last month Dina sat close by while her daughter kissed, cuddled and shared a drink with British TV personality Calum Best, 26, at New York City nightclub Tenjune.

In the past, Dina has defended their mother-daughter partying as a way of keeping an eye on Lindsay, but friends question whether that approach has been wise. “Dina’s always been like one of the girls, talking about makeup and clothes,” says a Lohan source. “Her mom IMs her friends – it’s crazy.” The source also notes that Lohan, who has been working for more than a decade, has had little opportunity to experience life outside of showbiz. “Lindsay didn’t grow up like we all do,” says the source. “It’s not like she’s been away at college, learning to fend for herself. She’s never had that experience.” Living out of hotels in recent years, “the girl literally can’t be alone,” says another source. “She loves being out in the spotlight.”

Until her recent admission to rehab, that has meant hitting the town almost nightly with a crew that includes “very scenester people,” says a source who has been out with her several times. “A lot of nightclub fixtures.” Chief among them is Los Angeles deejay Samantha Ronson, 29, who has become one of Lohan’s closest friends and was with her during the morning of her arrest. “They’re really close,” says another source. “If Lindsay needs something, Samantha is always there. She takes care of her.”

"I would watch Lindsay to learn what it is to be a film actor." amp#8211; Mean Girls costar and screenwriter (and SNL veteran) Tina Fey

But after Lohan’s failed attempt at rehab last winter, followed by months of public partying, the question remains: Was anyone really taking care of Lindsay? In early April a witness at an L.A. club watched Lohan try to pry open a bottle of Grey Goose vodka with her teeth and later be helped into the bathroom by several friends. “They were saying, ‘It’s okay, Linds,’ ” says an observer. Those close to Lohan say that earlier attempts to change her behavior have failed. “Everyone has tried to step in,” says a good friend. “You can’t make someone get help unless they want to.” Even her estranged dad, Michael, a recovering alcoholic who plans to open a faith-based rehab program with actor Stephen Baldwin, says, “I’ve been where Lindsay is to a certain extent. But before anyone can be helped, they have to admit the truth.” Back in December, Lohan claimed to have turned a corner thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous. “I haven’t had a drink in seven days – I’m not even legal to, so why would I?” she told PEOPLE at the time. “I feel better not drinking.”

But another friend says that when Lohan entered the ultra-cushy Wonderland rehab facility in January – which she left to shop, eat out and work on her upcoming film I Know Who Killed Me – she hardly seemed serious. “Her actions suggested that it was a joke,” says a pal. “After that, a lot of her friends just kind of took it like, if she doesn’t care, why should we?”

"It was appropriate for amp#91;studio head James G. Robinsonamp#93; to scold amp#91;Lohan for missing workamp#93;. But, you know, when Lindsay showed up, she was really good. I think she's great in the movie." amp#8211; Georgia Rule costar Jane Fonda

This time friends say her commitment to getting better could prove more enduring. “The police intervening is a wake-up call,” says one. (Lohan’s arraignment for the DUI charge is tentatively set for Aug. 24; as of press time, no drug charges had been filed.) “This could be the best thing for her. I think she’ll have to do a real rehab this time, and not just a Hollywood rehab.”

Those who know Lohan also say that any threat to her career will prompt her to take serious action. “She cares about her craft and about her career,” says a source. “She wants to be a Jodie Foster, so when she does things that are affecting her progress, that makes her upset.” Although the shooting schedule for her next film Poor Things (with Shirley MacLaine) may now be in doubt, those closest to her simply hope she focuses on her own well-being. “She’s been working her whole life,” says a pal, “and I think we have to give her a big break and get her some real help this time.”

• By Michelle Tauber. Reported by Jennifer Garcia, Marisa Laudadio, Mary Margaret, Champ Clark and Jessica Herndon in Los Angeles and Mark Dagostino, Diane Herbst, Tiffany McGee, Lesley Messer and Jeffrey Slonim in New York City

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