Teen Mom's Leah Messer Says Opening Up About Her Sobriety Journey Has Been a 'Cathartic Experience'

"I thought I was making it. I was barely surviving," she tells PEOPLE about her addiction to pain pills

Leah Messer
Leah Messer. Photo: Backwoods Photography

As Teen Mom 2 gears up for a new season, Leah Messer is ready for fans to learn more about her difficult journey to sobriety.

In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, the reality star opens up about her past addiction to pain pills, what she wants people to know as National Recovery Month approaches, and how her family is coping with their most recent challenge — the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This entire process, from the writing of my memoir to being so open and candid about things in my life, especially addiction, has been a cathartic experience," the 28-year-old star says. "I just feel great."

It's been a long road for Messer, who has been part of the Teen Mom franchise since 2010. In May, she released her memoir, Hope, Grace, & Faith, in which she revealed her struggles with her family, shared that she'd had a secret abortion eight years ago, and explained how depression — coupled with her addiction — led to suicidal thoughts.

Messer became addicted to pills after her doctor prescribed them to manage back pain following the birth of daughter Adalynn in 2013. (Messer shares 10-year-old twins Aliannah and Aleeah with ex Corey Simms, and 7-year-old Adalynn with ex Jeremy Calvert.)

Leah Messer
The star with her girls. Backwoods Photography

At her worst, Messer says she started buying pills off the street to feed her addiction.

"I felt kind of [like a] zombie. I don't really even remember some of those times. I don't remember anyone carrying me to bed. I don't remember falling asleep with my legs crisscrossed," she says. "I thought I was making it. I was barely surviving."

About a year after Adalynn's birth, Messer's addiction and depression came to a head when she considered driving her car off a cliff. The frightening incident pushed Messer to attend a month-long drug treatment program, after encouragement from Teen Mom 2's producer Larry Musnik. She says she would have shared her struggles sooner, but was in the midst of a custody battle with Simms at the time.

"The struggle with custody of my daughters and the back and forth and uncertainty around that made it extremely difficult for me to open up," says Messer. "I was crying inside for someone to just help me...Had I been able to be open without being punished, without being ridiculed and the stigma against it, I probably could have gotten help a lot sooner and not been afraid."

When Messer sought treatment, her first thought was that she wanted to be with her daughters. But Musnik helped her realize that she needed to get sober and well in order to be the best mother she could be.

Messer was in a center in Arizona for a month and says that the routine was immensely helpful. While she still needed time to heal after rehab, she says the lessons she learned were life altering. Messer says she learned she was "playing victim to my circumstances" and realized she had to get rid of the "toxic factors" in her life.

"I had to create boundaries, whether it's family, friends, business," she says. "That's when it all started and I discovered my own identity."

Leah Messer
Leah Messer and family. Backwoods Photography

Today, Messer has a message for others battling addiction:

"[People] don't have to feel ashamed, they don't have to feel alone in their battle with addiction," she says. "The first step really is to own it and accept it. Want better for your life, want better for your community. It takes opening up and being raw, being vulnerable and allowing others to see who you truly are to begin to heal."

Messer's three girls were too little to remember that scary time, but the mom says she's shared some of her story with them.

"I could have lost them. I could have lost everything, my life," she says. "So I'm very open with them about addiction and drugs and the harm that it can cause to you, your family members and everyone involved."

The MTV star, now sober, is in a much better state, mentally and physically. But like parents across the country, she's navigating taking care of her daughters during a pandemic.

Messer says she's grateful to be in their beautiful, spacious community in West Virginia, but she's still had to make hard decisions about schooling in the fall.

Following guidance from the girls' school, Messer is cautiously sending Aleeah and Adalynn back. But she's decided that Ali, who has a rare form of muscular dystrophy, will attend school online.

"They have different needs," she says. "Ali is actually going to be doing the eLearning, because we feel that it's going to minimize her chances of possibly being infected with COVID-19. Her sisters, on the other hand, will be in school in person and making sure that they're extra cautious going into school and coming home."

Messer says, in some ways, the uncertainties surrounding Ali's rare illness have helped her prepare for the global uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.

"I handle the uncertainty and the unknown quite differently because of her rare form of muscular dystrophy," she says. "We don't ever know what to really expect from day to day. And we don't know when it's going to become more progressive."

"Some days are harder than others," she adds. "But we thrive in the face of adversity, and that's what we'll will continue to do."

The new season of Teen Mom 2 premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on MTV.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please contact the SAMHSA substance abuse helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.

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