05/03/2010 at 01:00 AM EDT
During his final week as a drug abuser last September, Jeremy London went for a walk on a rocky beach in Monterey, Calif., in hopes of clearing his head. The former Party of Five
star had a lot on his mind: In the midst of divorcing his wife, he had temporarily lost custody of their then-2-year-old son Lyrik; he had $11,000 in credit card debt and was facing foreclosure on his home; overweight and abusing prescription pills, he was struggling to find work. Taking in the ocean air, he attempted a risky leap between two rocks-and fell down a crevasse, nearly shattering both ankles. "My first thought," he recalls, "was, 'Now I can get painkillers!'"
London had hit rock-bottom. He returned to Los Angeles, obtained a Percocet prescription and says he ingested up to 16 pills a day. "There were times I didn't care if I died," he says. "I felt like I was losing everything." But on day three of his binge, London changed his mind. He flushed the rest of the pills down the toilet and capitulated to his twin brother (and fellow actor) Jason's long-standing plea to enter rehab. Now clean for six months, Jeremy, 37, is trying to rebuild his life. "I'm learning," he says, "it's much easier to deal with life with a clear head."
For much of the last two decades his head was anything but clear. Jeremy and Jason moved from DeSoto, Texas, to Hollywood in 1993-two years after they hit it big with roles in the TV series I'll Fly Away
and the Reese Witherspoon
film The Man in the Moon
, respectively. "I was treated like royalty," says Jeremy, "and it was hard for my brain to accept. I started partying and smoking pot, and it led to one thing or another," including Ecstasy and heroin. In 1995 he was cast as brooding bad-boy Griffin on FOX's hit drama Party of Five
. "He was making tons of money," remembers Jason. "It was like, 'Let's [party] until the world ends!'" But it wasn't all fun: Jeremy self-medicated with marijuana in 1992 when his sister Dedra, 16, was killed in a car accident; four years later his stepbrother Cauley died the same way at 19. "It was horrible bouts of tragedy that perpetuated smoking pot. Unfortunately," he recalls of drug use, "it made things worse."
After a brief marriage to Astrid Rossol-an actress' assistant-fell apart, Jeremy began a passionate romance with actress Melissa Cunningham while starring on the WB's squeaky-clean family drama 7th Heaven
. "When it was good, it was better than good. When it was bad, it was really, really, bad," recalls Jeremy, who was smitten nonetheless. "Somewhere along the way, pills entered the picture." The actor-who alleges in court filings that Cunningham, 39, also abused prescription pills (efforts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful; though her attorney declined to comment, she denied the allegation in a 2008 court filing)-says he obtained Vicodin and Percocet from friends and doctors. "I felt things drifting away, and it was too hard to cope," he says. Jeremy was written off 7th Heaven
in 2004; though he was not officially given an explanation, he says series creator Brenda Hampton later expressed concern that he had a drug problem.
Despite their tumultuous relationship, Jeremy and Cunningham decided to start a family and threw a lavish wedding bash in 2006. "They were like gasoline and fire," says Jason, who served as best man. "What makes me sad is, he didn't recognize it as it was happening." Cunningham-who Jeremy says was clean during her pregnancy-gave birth to Lyrik in 2007.
Even the joy of parenthood couldn't fix their marriage-or Jeremy's drug abuse. "[Pills] would become a problem, and then I would quit," he says. "We'd get into a fight, and they'd be back." As tabloid stories surfaced about his drug use, Jeremy's career foundered. So did his brother's. "I've been guilty by association," says Jason, who starred in January's Hallmark Channel film The Wishing Well
. "People don't know there are two of us." Cunningham and Jeremy blew through his savings and almost faced foreclosure on his West Hills, Calif., home (he is short-selling it). Their problems escalated in May 2008: Jeremy filed for divorce and obtained a temporary restraining order against Cunningham, claiming she endangered Lyrik (which she denies in court proceedings).
Though Jeremy later withdrew the filing in hopes of reconciling, Cunningham asked for a divorce that August and obtained a temporary restraining order of her own, alleging Jeremy was physically abusive, which he denies (no charges were ever filed). For reasons Jeremy says he cannot publicly disclose, Lyrik was placed temporarily in custody of Melissa's mother that same month. Welling up with tears, Jeremy-who has twice-weekly visitations-laments, "There was a lot of anger around this little baby. There are so many things I wish I could have done differently."
Now he's trying to change. On Sept. 24 Jeremy began a 35-day detoxification and rehabilitation program. In rehab "I realized my problem was worse than I thought," he says. "I hated myself for so long. I learned to like myself again. It was one of the best decisions of my life." At a May 7 hearing, he will make a case to regain custody of his son-but eventually hopes to share custody with Cunningham. "Lyrik deserves good parents," he says. "The nonsense that happened was linked to the insanity that comes with addiction." Jason says his brother is ready: "He's going to be a great father."
Despite the obstacles ahead, including filing for bankruptcy, the onetime star is hopeful that he can rebuild his career. No matter what happens, he is dedicated to becoming a dad again. "Lyrik is the bright light that makes all of this worth it," he says. "If I had to change one thing and it meant not having the son I have, I'd go through every bit of it again."