04/07/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT
J.K. Rowling had already admitted that the "dementors"—Harry Potter's soul-sucking demons—sprang from her own pre-Potter struggles with depression. But it wasn't until a recent interview with a University of Edinburgh senior who first approached her at Starbucks that she revealed just how low she once sank. As a divorced, unemployed mother living on welfare and scribbling chapters on napkins in a cafe in 1994, "I went to see a [doctor] ... about my state of mind," Rowling told Adeel Amini, who published part of the interview in his school's newspaper and the full version on Facebook. "We're talking suicidal thoughts here—not 'I'm a little miserable.'... I thought, '[My daughter] cannot grow up with me in this state.'" Nine months of cognitive behavioral counseling helped. "It was clear she's so past it," says Amini, who was surprised when the suicide reference, which he calls "a throwaway comment," made headlines. The attention should help Rowling achieve her goal. "I went through a really rough time, and I'm quite proud ... that I got out," she said. "I want to tell everyone they must go and get help."