From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Tatum O'Neal was in a New York City police station on June 1, shortly after her arrest for allegedly purchasing cocaine, when her cell phone started ringing. On the line: her teenage daughter Emily, who was worried after not being able to reach her mom for a few hours. "She was saying, 'Mommy, Mommy, what are you doing?'" recalls O'Neal, who tears up at the memory. "I couldn't tell her. It was too horrible." Instead, she waited until she could sit with her daughter face-to-face the next day "and be totally truthful with her: that I was on my way to using, and I got arrested," she says. Afterward, "we hugged; it was schmaltzy," says O'Neal. "She said, 'I love you, Mommy. I'm glad you didn't use.'"

And yet her arrest—which quickly became a punch line on gossip blogs and late-night talk shows—was but the latest heartbreaking setback for the outspoken actress, 44, who chronicled her deeply turbulent life and decades-long battle with drugs and alcohol in her 2004 memoir A Paper Life. "For years I haven't done drugs," says O'Neal. She admits that she did have a drink of alcohol last summer but says she has been attending 12-step meetings regularly. "I'm sober," she says. "I have been almost a year off of alcohol." But looking back on the night of June 1, "I was trying to relapse," she says matter-of-factly. "I made a giant, horrible mistake that I regret and feel really ashamed and embarrassed about. I take full responsibility."

The actress says several factors brought her to the brink, including the recent death of her beloved Scottish terrier Lena. "I had to put her to sleep, and I didn't realize how bad that would affect me," she says. She was also stressed by tensions with her boyfriend of a couple of years, New York City architect Ron Castellano. "I had been feeling depressed," she says. "I somehow lost touch with the people who love me: my boyfriend, my sponsor. I'm an alcoholic and an addict. I was mad or upset.... I wanted to just not feel what I was feeling at that particular moment."

And so she went looking for a hit on the street near her Lower East Side home in Manhattan. "I just decided to walk a block and ask a guy if he could help me buy cocaine," she says. "A police officer was there and he arrested me. That's what happened." Why do something so reckless and in public no less? "'Cause I'm so sober!" she says. "I swear to God, I do not know one person who uses drugs anymore. And if I do, they'd never tell me where to get them, and that's the truth."

After she was booked on drug charges, O'Neal spent 18 hours in a Manhattan police station. "I was in a jail with four other women," she says, "with a toilet that didn't work and no door and no toilet paper." Ultimately, the district attorney's office recommended O'Neal attend a drug awareness program; she is due back in court on July 28. Was she scared by her time behind bars? "I really wasn't. For me, I can go through anything. I'm tough," she says. "I was really more upset at myself that again my children were going to have to go through something publicly."

In fact, it is her three children with her ex-husband John McEnroe—Emily, 17, Kevin, 22, and Sean, 20—who have long been her greatest source of joy. "Her kids are really good kids," says Denis Leary, O'Neal's costar on the FX drama Rescue Me. (Leary and the network say they stand behind the actress, who will appear on the series' upcoming season.) "They obviously love their mom. To have teenagers that obviously like being around their mom and are affectionate and all that stuff, that's an extraordinary thing."

Still, O'Neal is the first to admit that her addictions have cost her dearly when it comes to her children: In 1995 she lost custody of them due to her drug use, only winning back joint custody after numerous trips to rehab. Emily had once found a syringe, a moment O'Neal called "easily the worst thing ever in my life." But in the years since, she says her kids have grown to understand her problems. "My kids understand that it's a disease. I'm not a bad person; I'm a sick person trying to get well," she says. "I'm a nightmare to myself." She notes that the "surreal and horrendous" publicity over her arrest has been painful for her children. "People have been posting really mean things on their Facebooks," she says.

As well-known for her intensely troubled relationship with her father, actor Ryan O'Neal, 67, as she is for winning an Oscar at age 10 for Paper Moon, O'Neal says her difficult childhood continues to haunt her. "I had some things happen when I was young, and it creeps up," says the actress. (Her mom, actress Joanna Moore, died in 1997.) But, she realizes, "this is not an excuse." Though they briefly reunited following Ryan's cancer diagnosis in 2001, the father-daughter pair "haven't spoken in years and years," she says.

Yet O'Neal says she is friendly with Farrah Fawcett, her father's longtime on-and-off girlfriend. And she has finally managed to build an amicable relationship with McEnroe despite their bitter 1994 divorce; they recently attended the college graduation of their son Kevin, along with McEnroe's wife, rocker Patty Smyth. "This is the best we've all ever been," says O'Neal. "We've really come a long way."

Now she is hoping the same is true for her own life. "Before I did this, I had been doing better than I've done in years," she says. "I made a very bad decision, and I'm paying the consequences. I'm going to go back and live my life the way I live my life, which is drug- and alcohol-free. It's just better that way."

  • Contributors:
  • Rennie Dyball/New York City,
  • Liza Hamm/New York City.