Clean and Sober

updated 05/03/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jo Dee Messina's reputation as the hardest-working woman in country music is well-earned: The New England-born singer of the hits "I'm Alright" and "Bye, Bye" toured nonstop after her 1996 debut, while charting a dozen Top 10 singles and two platinum albums. Her fourth, Delicious Surprise, is due this summer. But belying her buoyant, life-affirming tunes, Messina, 34, was secretly battling alcoholism. It began, she says, with just a few glasses of wine before bedtime, then escalated after 9/11, when ticket sales plummeted throughout the industry. Even in good times, Messina drank to ease the pressures of life on the road. Micromanaging everything from the bookings to the lighting she even paid a band musician's mortgage. "I couldn't say no" she says. "I ended up giving so much of myself that I had nothing left for me" Then last summer Messina broke off her engagement to her beau of six years road manager Don Muzquiz "He was a good person" she says But "when I asked him when he intended to get married he got furious He always had reason why he couldn't It just wasn't a healthy relationship. It set off a lot of the triggers for why I drank" I February Messina entered a four-week alcohol-treatment program in Sundance, Utah. Now residing as an outpatient in a rustic rented cabin near the facility, Messina talked with People's Beverly Keel about how her time in rehab has changed her life.

The weird thing is, I grew up in a house in Holliston, Mass., where I there was no alcohol. I had my first drink, a glass of cabernet wine, when I was 29. I remember being at the front of the tour bus and someone saying, "Give it a shot. It tastes great." It did, and it wasn't a problem—at first. As time went on, my tolerance built up. I could drink a bottle of wine and not feel anything. I didn't go around to bars dancing on tables. I never got behind the wheel. But it got progressively worse. People on the road with me were too afraid to say anything. But on Feb. 19, a few weeks after I had gone onstage under the influence at a Super Bowl postgame party, someone said "Oh you were off during that show." I said, "Holy s—-, I can't remember it. Blackouts, that's the sign of a problem." My manager, Stuart Dill, e-mailed me: "You really need to evaluate what's going on inside you, because something is wrong."

The next day at 5 a.m, I was on a plane here. The rehab counselor had said on the phone, "If you're going to drink on the plane, then we can get you abed in a detox facility to get the alcohol out of your system." I was like, "You're gonna have a pizza the day before you go on a diet. You are damn straight I'm going to drink on that plane! Hook me up."

When I showed up at detox, they met me at the front door, took my bags, took everything I had. It was in the psychiatric ward of a hospital, so no sharp objects, nothing containing alcohol and nothing that could be made into a weapon was permitted. No cell phones, nothing but the clothes on my back—a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt—and a pair of shorts and a T-shirt to sleep in. I didn't take the medication they usually give people to come off of alcohol because it wasn't such a constant that I felt like I'd have physical withdrawals and I didn't The bed was ready for me at rehab a day and a half later.

I shared a room that had twin beds, a couple of nightstands, a bathroom and a view of the mountains. There was no TV, no phones we could use. So I wrote a lot of letters to my mother and people that I care about. I spent so much money on Fed Ex, sending two-line notes.

I was fortunate I went to a place where there were under 20 people. These are people who pretty much know your soul; you bare it all. Every day was scheduled from 8 9 p.m. with group lectures and one-on-one counseling that helped us deal with our emotions. It's a lot like college, except I was studying the disease of addiction.

The first week, I was like, "I'm doing great! I'm glad to be here." It hit me two weeks in. All the emotions you had sup-pressed start to come up. You feel sad and empty. That's what rehab is about: learning to find something else. In my case, God. It's an ongoing process. I get upset and I say my prayers, and sometimes it doesn't help, so I keep trying.

As part of the therapy, they had us leading horses around a corral. One of my exercises was keeping my horse from nudging me out of the way. The guy I was working with said, "Jo Dee, why won't you set a boundary for the horse? Stop. Let me guess. You run an organization and you don't have an easy time laying down the rules. People walk all over you, don't they?" I admitted, "I don't want to hurt the horse's feelings and I have the same problem with people. I don't want to offend anybody."

They also had us take hikes through the mountains. Being able to take that time made me realize how beautiful the world really is. I checked out of rehab on March 22.1 will go to AA and other 12-step-program meetings in Nashville or on the road. Careerwise things are going to change. I still will be the hardest-working woman in show business. But I've slowed down a little bit.

This new album will be my first in four years. One of the songs is called "Can You Hear Me," which talks about how "I fell hard and the punch knocked me to the ground/ It's not easy getting up, but I ain't staying down." It's something I feel in my gut and my soul.

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