When she was 21, Ginger Zee locked herself in her bathroom and took every pill she could find in her medicine cabinet.
“I’d lost all hope,” the 36-year-old Good Morning America chief meteorologist tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue. “I just shut down. It wasn’t worth living. I was wasting people’s time and space.”
Her then-roommate and ex-boyfriend realized what she’d done and got her to the hospital. Luckily, the concoction she’d taken — mostly Benadryl and other benign substances — wasn’t lethal. But Zee was diagnosed with depression, something she opens up about at length in her new book, Natural Disaster: I Cover Them. I Am One, out now.
“Depression for me has been a couple of different things — but the first time I felt it, I felt helpless, hopeless and things I had never felt before,” she says. “I lost myself and my will to live.”
At the time, Zee, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had just graduated from Valparaiso University in Indiana and was struggling to find her footing, admitting that her career “did not kick off” in the way she expected. But looking back, she realizes the source of her depression could never explain the emotional roller coaster she found herself on.
“It doesn’t matter what’s relative to another person’s tragedy, or whatever it is that’s making you feel low,” she says. “In that moment, my brain, and probably a chemical somewhere within me, said, ‘You need to kill yourself.’ The only voices I could hear were telling me, ‘You are not worth it.’ “
“It’s very weird how that works,” she adds. “I didn’t question it. I didn’t sit there and think about it. I just went for it. It’s scary, the way your mind can overpower what is real and what is right. Now as a mother, to think that that could be my child? That is frightening.”
Zee — who has previously been open about her battle with anorexia as a young girl — had also been diagnosed with narcolepsy in college. She believes the medication she began taking, which heightened her emotions dramatically, played a part in her suicide attempt.
“It amplified everything,” she says. “Ups were amplified and downs were amplified. I’ve had to learn to live on that medication responsibly, because I can’t not have it. You have to be really, really careful with it.”
But all while weathering her own personal storms, Zee never gave up her dogged pursuit of a career in TV news.
“My professional life, in a strange way, has always been going up, up, up, while my personal life was just the complete opposite,” she says.
Zee was on air at the NBC affiliate in Chicago by the age of 25, and joined ABC’s GMA in 2011. But in the months leading up to her move to New York, her depression began rivaling that post-college low. Ten days before starting the job at ABC — and terrified her new coworkers would find out — she checked herself into a mental-health facility.
“I was in this place where I knew my personal life could affect this outstanding job and opportunity that I had,” she says. “For the first time in a long time, I wanted to live and I knew that.”
During a weeklong program, she met a therapist who “changed everything” — and has been working with him ever since.
“I think that there’s a reason that people have these jobs where they go to school to study something that all of us don’t,” she says. “That’s because they studied how to help people. You need that person who’s impartial.”
- For more on Ginger, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Zee has also benefited from an incredible support system that includes her mother, Dawn, and her husband Ben Aaron, 36.
“I’ve been lucky to find a husband who doesn’t judge my past,” says Zee of Aaron, whom she wed in 2014. “In fact, writing this book, he wanted more, which says a lot. He’s like, ‘I want to listen. I want to be a part of that.’ “
“It’s hard to just pick one thing that I am most proud of her for,” Aaron tells PEOPLE. “She’s the best mom, wife and meteorologist in the world. I often describe her as a goddess.”
“I’m now focused on not just myself, but on keeping my family happy and healthy,” she says. “You have bigger things than [your own problems]. That has helped a lot — being a mother has helped incredibly.”
Zee also says writing her book was a form of therapy.
“I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it was,” she says. “There were times where I would stop writing and get extremely emotional — like, I thought I was over this. But edit after edit after edit, I developed a sense of pride and found a bit of closure in some of these parts in my life. I am so lucky that I get to do this. I’m so lucky I get to tell my story.”
“I realize, too, that just because I’ve been in a good place for six years and I’ve gotten myself to a much healthier mental state … I don’t think that I’m cured,” she admits. “I don’t think anybody’s forever cured. But being aware of it, sharing it, talking about it, this is where I hope that the healing happens.”
And though she’s nervous — “terrified,” in fact — for the world to read it, she hopes being candid about her mental health struggles will spark a national dialogue.
“This is the anti-Instagram book,” she explains. “We get very polished on all of social media. I’m so worried, because there’s still a part of me thinking, Oh gosh, this is a lot to tell people. But I keep being fueled by the fact that there might be — and I know there is, because I’ve had them reach out to me — [someone] in the same place that I was.”
“If this doesn’t at least start the conversation in someone’s household where they say, ‘Mom, dad, sister, brother, friend, I actually feel like this sometimes. I have these moments, and it’s weird because the woman I watch for 30 seconds on TV is talking about it. I thought that she had a baby and another baby on the way and the perfect husband and the perfect life because I saw it on social media. Then she told me this story, and she’s really broken. But she still got to be where she is. That means that if I’m having these feelings, perhaps I can have that future,’ ” Zee says.
“We should all treat each other with love and respect,” she adds. “Because that glossy image you see is never the person that’s really inside there.”