While other families were celebrating the holidays last year, Linda Hogan was in her sprawling home in Clearwater, Fla., alone and crying. Her son Nick, now 18, was facing a prison sentence. Her lengthy marriage to the wrestling icon Hulk Hogan, 55, had unraveled. Her daughter Brooke, 20, was leaving town, and then in a freak accident, Foxy, her 15-year-old Chihuahua, was crushed by a van in her driveway. Life had suddenly become very dark for the platinum blonde.
"I really had a breakdown," says Linda, 49. "I could have stood up on the Skyway Bridge [in Tampa] and jumped. I thought about it a lot. I thought about jumping off a dock and into the water at night."
Now, at the Somis, Calif., home of her parents—Gail, an interior designer, and Joe, a retired Los Angeles cop—Linda is ready to discuss the emotional collapse she suffered after a string of family crises and the breakup of her 24-year marriage to Terry Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan.
For decades, as Linda Hogan, she was the de facto First Lady of professional wrestling, with the lavish lifestyle to go along with it.
"It was cool," she says. "It was cool being Hulk's wife because he was so respected and so well known. People just loved him and adored him. I was so proud to be with him and to be his wife, even with our little arguments." Though Linda admits that the marriage weathered a few rough patches, she says the biggest strain on the relationship came when the family signed up for the VH1 reality series Hogan Knows Best
, which aired from 2005 to 2007. It scored well in the ratings, but success took its toll.
"Here you are together, stuffed in this house, sometimes for 12 hours," she says of a shooting schedule that led to squabbling and tension. "At the end of a taping day, we couldn't wait to escape from each other. I could not take another minute of him, and the kids could not take a minute more of us. It disintegrated us, basically."
Linda says she also felt used by family members. "I was the sop-up woman," she says. "'Gee, Mom, can you FedEx this?' and I was handed an envelope. I called myself the camel. Just load me up. I had so much on my shoulders, and then there was Brooke entering a music career. There was going to be a tour of different cities for her, and at 17, she needed me to go with her. Meanwhile, my son was dabbling in cars."
Nick's fondness for fast automobiles would soon lead to tragedy. On Aug. 26, 2007, Nick was in a crash with his best friend, John Graziano, who was critically injured. "It was the absolute worst day of my life," Linda says, tearing up.
After pleading no contest to felony reckless driving, Nick began serving an eight-month sentence at Florida's Pinellas County Jail. (He should be released this fall.) In November Linda filed for divorce. After years of mounting unhappiness, "I finally decided to pull the trigger," she says. "I have turned that corner; I'm never going back."
But rather than feeling liberated, as the holidays approached, Linda says she sank into a depression. "I didn't have a gun, but I didn't want to live," she recalls. It didn't help when tapes of jailhouse conversations that Linda had with Nick leaked to the press, and Linda's negative comments about Graziano's mother drew sharp criticism. "I'm sorry for what I said," Linda says now. "I love John and always treated him like my own child."
Finally, rather than doing something drastic, she decided to get help. A regimen of exercise and anti-depressants, she says, helped her heal. "I started running on the treadmill, and it was like running away from the pain," she says. "I started feeling better. I wasn't super happy, but I was at least functional."
According to tabloid reports, Linda also bounced back by dating Charlie Hill, a 20-year-old who went to school with her children. Linda insists that she is no Mrs. Robinson. "We are just friends," she says of Hill, who has blond locks to rival her own. "He turned into more of a confidant type of person. There is no physical relationship. He is not a boyfriend or a boy toy either. I think he thinks I am cute. But he realizes the age difference makes it look weird, and we don't have much in common except maybe our hair."
But Linda's friendship with Hill and increasingly messy divorce proceedings ("This is going to be a war," Linda's attorney told PEOPLE in July) have led Brooke Hogan to no longer speak to her mom. "Charlie is one of the little speed bumps, something she didn't agree with," Linda says of her daughter, who now has her own reality show, Brooke Knows Best
. "Brooke and I are taking a break now; we need some space." (Brooke and Hulk declined to comment for this story.)
But Linda remains hopeful that this, too, will improve.
"There was a time I felt sorry for myself," she says, "but I am over that now. I celebrate the fact that I wake up in the morning with my eight little dogs in my bed. Life is a lot easier without the drama."