Even now, Lorraine Bracco can't quite put a finger on when her depression began. Somewhere between bursting onto the Hollywood scene with her Oscar-nominated performance in 1990's GoodFellas and landing the role of psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi on The Sopranos in 1997, she says, her life simply fell apart. "Things weren't great," she says. "I was so unhappy. But I always thought I'd get over it. I thought, 'I'm a strong woman, I can do this.' But I couldn't. It was like having to fight fires in five different places with one hose. You don't know where to go."

Certainly she had her share of stresses: A bitter split from actor Harvey Keitel in 1991 sparked a vicious custody battle for their daughter Stella, now 19, during which charges arose that actor Edward James Olmos, whom she married in 1994, had fondled a 14-year-old babysitter. Then came Stella's diagnosis of systemic juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a separation from Olmos and $2 million in legal fees that led to bankruptcy. "But when it comes down to it, it wasn't just one problem," says Bracco, who was also raising daughter Margaux, now 25, from an earlier marriage. "It was just a [bad] decade."

In 1997, Bracco, now 50, got help by seeing a psychiatrist and taking an antidepressant. But, having suffered for a year without treatment, she wishes she had done it sooner. "Out of my own stupidity, I lost a year of my life," she says. To keep others from making the same mistake, Bracco approached the drug manufacturer Pfizer Inc. last year to help create a Web site aimed at encouraging people suffering from depression to seek help. The site, depressionhelp.com, launches March 15. Recently, Bracco met with PEOPLE correspondent Fannie Weinstein and spoke publicly for the first time about her struggle with depression. "Millions are suffering. I don't want them to be ashamed."

Depression is very insidious, a creepy-crawly thing. From about 1991, everything in my life just seemed to feed it. Stella got sick, and there were weeks of tests: spinal taps, bone marrow, blood tests. I felt helpless. Hopeless. Then, separating from Eddie was a huge decision. I initiated it, but it was heart-breaking—another relationship that didn't work out. Meanwhile the custody battle lasted more than five years. None of us walked away unscathed.

Before then, I'd been very successful, gotten great roles. All of a sudden—zippo. I was so bogged down with problems, nobody was going to offer me a starring role in their $75 million movie. And not having money to pay the mortgage is not a fun situation. It was very stressful. I had food on the table and a roof over our heads but all the extras had to be cut out for years. I felt like a loser. My friend John, who's a social worker, said, "Lorraine, I think you should see somebody. I think maybe you need to go on medication." But I wasn't about to "see somebody." Sure, you break your arm, you go to an orthopedic surgeon. You have cancer, you go to an oncologist. But a shrink? Oh, my God! The stigma! Nobody in my immediate family ever went to a shrink. I was like, "I'll get over it."

By 1997, even after Stella was in remission and I'd been offered The Sopranos, things still felt joyless. From walking the dog to watching the girls' favorite TV show with them, I went through everything mindlessly. I can't say I never thought of suicide. But would I have gone from thinking to doing? No. Did I want to jump off the Empire State Building? No. Did I feel every other option was expired? Yes. And it wasn't affecting just me. My daughters were fed, they went to school, but they didn't have the best of me.

I did discuss it with friends—I'm a sharer. But the depression was bigger than that. Friends are great, but they're not doctors, and sometimes you need a little extra help. Here I'd been cast as a psychiatrist on The Sopranos, and I realized it was time to see one.

Later that year, I went to see a psychiatrist who confirmed that I was depressed and prescribed an antidepressant. The night before I saw him, I wrote down a million questions: Am I doing the right thing? Is there something else I'm not owning up to? My gut knew I was on the right track, but now I worried that medication would take away my emotions and make me a zombie. What if I had to stay on it forever? I'm an actor; I need my emotions!

The medication isn't a happy pill. It takes five or six weeks to kick in. But week by week things started getting easier. I was able to do a huge spring cleaning. My problems weren't owning me anymore. And, despite my worries, the medication didn't affect my acting abilities. I realized I wasn't going to change, I was just going to be a better me. Everyone could see that I was lighter, that it was easier for me to deal with whatever was coming at me. If anybody asked, I told them I was on medication. I was so happy and so grateful that I didn't care if people knew.

After about 18 months, I talked to my doctor and we agreed I could stop taking the antidepressant. I never had an "aha!" moment. I just didn't feel I was drowning in every problem. Last September, Stella left for college. I was so anxious I was thinking, "Something's wrong with me. I think I need to go back on that medication." Once I realized it was separation anxiety, I was able to kick it in a couple of weeks. I was proud of myself.

Today, I feel so blessed. I have two great kids. I'm working. I've got a great new guy in my life. Harvey and I are talking. Eddie's kids, my kids, we all speak to each other. But most of all, I'm happy in my own skin. Is it perfect skin? No. But it's mine.