From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Sitting down for an interview on a sunny afternoon in L.A., Meredith Phillips can't help but complain about those last 10 lbs. she'd like to lose. As a former model and, most notably, the star of The Bachelorette in 2004, she'll admit she's a little hard on herself. "I need to get back in the gym. I should really be taking better care of myself," she says. "But I really can only focus on one thing at a time right now."

Her primary focus has been far more challenging than logging time on a treadmill. Until six months ago, Phillips, 39, was in the throes of alcoholism. Now, she's more than 150 days sober and still struggling to maintain a healthy lifestyle. "For years I'd wake up every day feeling like I was hit by a truck," says Phillips, who, at her worst, was drinking more than 20 bottles of wine a week and blacking out daily. "But I realized I was going to kill myself," she says. "There wasn't another path for me other than to stop." Now, reflecting on her addiction, she says, "I'm finally starting to live my life again."

For years, Phillips admits, her life had been overly consumed by her desire to drink. Growing up in Portland, Ore., she'd had a curiosity about alcohol from a young age. "I'd ask for sips of my parents' wine, and they'd allow it," she says. In high school, "we'd party and we thought we were so cool." Later, as a sorority girl at Oregon State, "I prided myself on drinking 12 beer bongs by 12 p.m., even if I woke up at 10 a.m.," she says. "I thought it was cool that I was a chick and could do that."

After graduation and a stint with a modeling agency, Phillips decided on a whim to sign up for Bob Guiney's season of The Bachelor. Three months after Guiney sent her home fourth-to-last ("Bob and I were buddies, but there wasn't a romantic connection"), Phillips found herself the main attraction, standing in front of 25 eligible men as the new star of The Bachelorette. While on the show, which is notorious for its champagne-filled cocktail parties, "I was drunk every night," she admits. "But I knew my tolerance levels. Alcoholics are good at that. I figured out how much I could drink and function."

The show ended with a proposal from equities researcher Ian McKee, but their happiness was short-lived. After living together for a year, a time when a contented Phillips curbed her drinking, they split in 2005, leaving her depressed and once again reaching for the bottle. "It began with a lot of 'Sunday Fundays,'" she recalls. "I would split a bottle of champagne with friends at brunch, then move on to wine." Soon, drinking wine every night was the norm. Before long "I looked forward to going out to lunch because it meant I had an excuse to drink during the day," she recalls. "I loved that it loosened me up, made me more social."

Slowly, things started to unravel. Her beloved father, Edd, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2009, and soon after, she broke up with boyfriend Fritz Manger, in part because of her drinking. "I was a messy drinker," she admits. "I would say stupid, inappropriate things. I wasn't graceful. And every night would end in screaming or tears."

When Phillips reconnected with her high school sweetheart Michael Broady in 2010 and married him the following year, she briefly found happiness. "I remember I was relieved," she says, feeling that she had found stability at last. "I wanted to have kids and a happy life. But you can't do that when you're an alcoholic."

Just six months after the nuptials, Phillips's mother, who had been battling cancer, was hospitalized. Phillips moved into her parents' Oregon home and relied on alcohol to numb the pain. "My lowest point was when I realized my mother was in a hospital bed dying of cancer and I was at her house, drinking myself to death," she says, adding matter-of-factly, "I just didn't care."

Near rock bottom, Phillips was drinking seven nights a week, up to four bottles a night, calling her addiction a "full-time job." "I had little tricks," she says. "I'd change grocery stores; I drank red wine when white wine got too sweet, and I couldn't drink enough of it. Then I went to the boxed wine. Crushing one box saved the space of all those bottles." Days were a blur. "I was constantly in a fog. I had pounding headaches and tremors. I got nothing done." Phillips opted for hard alcohol "only when wine sounded disgusting because I had drunk so much the night before. I'd have a couple of vodkas to get me going and then switch back to wine."

As her drinking progressed, friends and family grew more and more concerned. "I realized I hadn't had a sober conversation with my sister in years," says her brother Matt, who confronted his sister late last year and helped set up and pay for a stay in rehab. Defeated, Phillips agreed to go. "I was tired of all of it," she says. "I had lost so many people in my life already, and I just knew it would end badly. I just didn't want to feel that way anymore."

During two months of inpatient treatment at Hope by the Sea in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., Phillips separated from her husband. "I needed to clear my head and focus on my recovery," she says. But after a month on her own in L.A. post-rehab, she returned to Oregon to rebuild their marriage. "I want things to work," says Phillips, who is between jobs. "I still have a lot of healing to do, but I'm feeling better every day."

These days Phillips is working hard to maintain her sobriety and looking to the future. "There are definitely times when I miss drinking," she says. "I'm not saying one day I won't want that glass of wine, but I don't right now, and that's a good start." Says Matt: "I feel like I lost my sister a long time ago. Now she's starting to come back." A humbled Phillips is ready for the road ahead. "It's not fun to start over again at 39," she says. "But life is short. And I have a second chance."