Kim Richards, Now Sober, Reveals the Truth About Her Longtime Struggle with Alcoholism: 'I Had my First Real Drink at 24'

The reality star has been sober for nearly a year following last April's arrest

Photo: Marc Royce

Kim Richards‘ longtime struggle with alcoholism has made national headlines in recent years, most recently following an arrest for public intoxication last April, but the reality star’s issues with alcohol didn’t start until she was in her mid-20s.

“I had my first real drink at 24,” Richards tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue. The former child actress, who now stars on Lifetime’s The Mother/Daughter Experiment: Celebrity Edition, says prior to that she had “sips every now and then,” but the problem only developed during the painful end of her second marriage.

Until her split from second husband Gregg Davis in 1991 (they have two children: Whitney, 26, and Chad 24; Richards also has Brooke, 30, and Kimberly, 20, from other relationships), “I was always disciplined and driven about my body and what I put into it,” says Richards, 51. “But the pressure with the divorce and the custody battle, it got to me.”

Richards says she began drinking a glass of wine at night, which soon escalated into more. “I started noticing I was drinking a lot,” she says. “That’s when my issue started.”

For exclusive photos and much more from Kim Richards, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

The reality star struggled with her addiction for the next two decades, most recently with a 2011 stint in rehab and another stay last year following April’s arrest.

And she acknowledges that joining The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in 2010 was a “disorienting” experience that challenged her sobriety: “The drama started, and there was fighting and traveling, and I got overwhelmed,” she says.

Among that drama, the first season’s unforgettable finale reached its peak (or its lowest point for Kim) when sister Kyle outed Kim as an alcoholic during a bitter fight in the back of a limousine.

RELATED VIDEO: Does Kyle Richards Blame The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills for Her Roller Coaster Relationship with Sister, Kim?

Now, with five years behind her and sober again, Richards says she’s “in a very good place” and looking towards a healthy future. “I’m sorry for people I’ve let down,” she says. “But my concern is to myself and to my children, first and foremost. I don’t beat myself up because it makes it worse. I have to own it and accept it and move on.”

The Mother/Daughter Experiment airs Fridays (10 p.m. ET) on Lifetime.

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