Recipe for Living

updated 08/22/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/2005 01:00AM

For more than 20 years, Paula Deen felt imprisoned inside her Georgia home. First, the Food Network chef lost her father, Earl Hiers, to a stroke at 40 in 1966; four years later her mother, Corrie, succumbed to cancer at 44. Deen, then 23, was married to an Albany, Ga., car dealer and the mother of two young sons. With both parents dead, she says, "I almost literally shut down mentally." Convinced she'd be the next to go, she says, "I got up, got my children off to school and sat and waited to die."

Not until her late 30s did Deen, after catching an episode of Donahue on TV, discover that the disorder that kept her housebound had a name: agoraphobia. Afflicting as many as 2 million Americans, mostly women, the phobia produces an intense fear of panicking in public places. When her panic attacks struck, "my heart would beat so hard and my arms would be numb," says Deen, who, in a rare outing to a department store, had to breathe into a paper bag to keep from hyperventilating. By 1987 she was so afraid of leaving the family's new home in Savannah that she spent two months without getting out of bed. "Unless you've experienced it, it's hard to understand how somebody could be that fearful of fear," she says.

If Deen, 58, is breathing a lot easier these days, it's because, she says, "I looked in the mirror one day and said, 'You cannot live another day like this.' It was like putting on a light switch." The transformation that resulted has indeed been dramatic. The earthy, effervescent host of Paula's Home Cooking, a Food Network hit since its debut in 2002, recently completed a 15-city tour promoting Paula Deen & Friends, her fourth bestseller. Later this year she'll tape a second appearance with President Jimmy Carter, and in October she'll make her movie debut in Elizabethtown, a love story in which she plays Orlando Bloom's strong-willed Aunt Dora.

Director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) hired the neophyte actress without even an audition after catching her show. "She's a natural," says Crowe. "All I had to do was say, 'Action!' Paula did everything else herself."

Deen admits it's not the usual route to Hollywood celebrity, but then neither was the way she beat agoraphobia. One treatment for the disease is a combination of antidepressants and behavioral therapy. Deen could not afford therapy, so she devised her own gradual cure. Son Jamie recalls getting in a car with her. "She drove slowly around the block and got back home," he says. "That was a real victory for Mom." Not long afterward, she drove to her favorite department store. Though she couldn't bring herself to ride the escalator, "I made it to the store and that was the first step," she says.

Her biggest leap was the launch of her culinary career. "When you're agoraphobic, you can become a pretty good cook," says Deen. In 1989, with a $200 start-up from her husband, Deen, then 42, launched the Bag Lady, a lunchtime service for Savannah office workers. Her sons made the deliveries. In 1991 she opened her first restaurant. She now runs two, the Lady & Sons with Jamie, 38, and Bobby, 35, and Uncle Bubba's Oyster House with her brother Earl "Bubba" Hiers Jr. Her marriage ended in 1992. "I had pulled myself out of the agoraphobia," she says, but the couple found they had grown apart.

In 1997 Deen self-published her first cookbook. TV then pushed her into the big time. Guest appearances on QVC and Food Network led to her own show. "Each dish has a story [from Paula's personal life]," says her producer, TV host Gordon Elliott. Sharing her experiences, he says, is what "makes her so endearing and truthful." And may explain why her 2004 wedding to Michael Groover, 49, a Savannah harbor docking pilot she met three years earlier, became one of Food Network's highest-rated specials.

Deen hopes her story will inspire other agoraphobics. "As you face your fears and beat them, it gets easier," she says. In her case, "I just made the commitment to work, and the harder I worked, the luckier I got. I'll go to bed tonight and see what happens tomorrow."

Mike Lipton. Linda Trischitta in Savannah

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