The reality star opens up to PEOPLE in an emotional interview about how she's healing from unresolved trauma four months after being hospitalized
Kendra Wilkinson’s life flashed before her eyes. She thought she was going to die.
Her chest was tight. She was short of breath and overcome with fear. “I was in a state of panic. I didn’t know what was going on in my head and my body or why I was crying. I had hit rock bottom,” she tells PEOPLE in her first interview since being hospitalized after suffering a panic attack in September.
Wilkinson's voice trails off and her hands fall slowly into her lap. “I was dying of depression,” she says, sitting in the living room of a friend's Newport Beach home, her eyes filling with tears. “I was hitting the end of my life, and I went into psychosis. I felt like I wasn’t strong enough to live anymore.”
It's been 20 years since she first rose to fame at age 18 as one of Hugh Hefner's girlfriends on the reality series Girls Next Door, but Wilkinson is only beginning to work through the damage done by her time living in his controversial Playboy world.
"It’s not easy to look back at my 20s. I’ve had to face my demons,” says Wilkinson, 38, who returned to the hospital a week after her Sept. 6 trip to the emergency room (her ex-husband, former NFL player Hank Baskett, was by her side).
During her second visit, she was placed on the antipsychotic medication Abilify. Says the star: “Playboy really messed my whole life up."
In the weeks following her hospitalizations Wilkinson also began outpatient therapy three times a week at UCLA, where professionals helped her tackle unresolved trauma largely stemming from her time living in Hefner's mansion and her painful 2019 divorce from Baskett, 41.
“It was the lowest place I’ve ever been in my life. I felt like I had no future. I couldn’t see in front of my depression,” says Wilkinson, who explains that she had been struggling to find a fresh start in real estate. “I was giving up and I couldn’t find the light. I had no hope.”
For weeks leading up to her hospitalization, Wilkinson — who has spoken in the past about being placed in a psychiatric facility as a teen after swallowing half a dozen pills — hadn’t been eating or sleeping, and her head was spinning. She kept asking herself: “How am I going to succeed?” “What am I doing wrong in my life?” “Do I give up?”
Most days she felt isolated and alone, and she still felt shame stemming from her split from Baskett. At the same time Wilkinson says she was trying to be a present mom to her two children, Hank IV, 14, and Alijah Mary, 9, with a limited support system.
Feeling like she couldn't trust anyone following her public divorce, Wilkinson had cut ties with many of her close friends. She and her mom Patti remain estranged after years of ups and downs, and she currently has no relationship with the rest of her family. (Her mom, dad Eric and brother Colin all appeared on her show Kendra on Top, which ran for six seasons until 2017).
Trying to reboot her image and build a successful full-time career in real estate at Douglas Elliman, Wilkinson was dealt another blow last year when her show, Kendra Sells Hollywood, wasn’t renewed after two seasons.
“It was so scary for me to go through it. I wasn’t focusing on myself or my mental health. Here I was a single mom and I've been alone for years now. But it's also easy to feel like the world is caving in on you. I was trying to fight it on my own. I was trying to cure it on my own and you can't do that,” she says. “I was isolating, hiding, blaming myself, blaming the world. I was spiraling out of control and I felt like I wasn't strong enough to survive."
At the height of her panic attack in September, Wilkinson finally asked for help. "There was a moment where I looked at my ex-husband and I said, ‘Take me to the hospital.’"
Wilkinson and Baskett — who announced their split in 2018 after almost 10 years of marriage — had come a long way. “To accept help that day and for Hank to drive me to the hospital was a huge day in both of our lives. It was a big day for my family and kids. I didn't realize how bad I was suffering or what people were seeing of me until I got there. I had to really look in the mirror and be like, ‘I need help,’” she says.
According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. affecting 40 million adults, while an estimated 264 million people worldwide live with depression.
For Wilkinson, depression felt like she was floating on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no one coming to save her. “I would never go out of my way to kill myself, but I was just like, ‘God, take me. God, take me,’” she recalls. “To accept medication was the hardest thing to do. It meant I had to accept that I have some mental illness, and I didn't want to have to do that.”
Reflecting on her teenage years, Wilkinson feels protective of her younger self.
“I was on drugs at age 15 and I had a lot of issues,” she says. At 18 years old she moved into the Playboy mansion and jumpstarted her career on E!'s 2005 hit reality show, which documented her relationship with Hefner — who was 60 years her senior — alongside fellow former playmates Holly Madison and Bridget Marquardt until 2010.
“I really got into deep regret [afterwards]... deep. I struggled with depression before and at the mansion. I drank a lot. I was there for the partying, okay, let's just be real. I was not there for Hugh Hefner to be my boyfriend."
While she felt sexualized from a very young age, Wilkinson says her experiences in the mansion ate at her self-esteem. Sex became all she knew, and she started to doubt herself and self-sabotage. “I hated my boobs, my body, my face. I got to that point where I started hating myself,” she says.
“Why did I have sex with Hugh Hefner at that age? Why did I do that?" she asks now. "Why did I go to the mansion in the first place? Why did I get big boobs? Why am I a sex symbol? Why did I bleach blonde my hair? Why did I do this to myself? Why did I?"
Today Wilkinson is still trying to find the answers to her questions, but more importantly she's pushing herself to leave behind the "vortex of horrible things."
“I want to let myself be," she emphasizes. She's also feeling at peace about her divorce. “Hank driving me to the hospital that day was out of care. It wasn’t out of marriage,” she says of her relationship with her ex. “We’re co-parenting really well. That’s what divorce is about. We’re doing a really good job.”
Looking back, Wilkinson had prepared for their split to be heartbreaking. But she hadn't realized it would trigger her panic attacks. What kept her awake — and woke her in the middle of the night with her heart racing and body covered in sweat — was an unshakable feeling of failure.
When they said "I do" in a fairytale wedding at the Playboy mansion in June 2009, Wilkinson thought she had finally found the stability she had long yearned for. Their romance was at the center of WE tv's Kendra on Top, which ran from 2012 to 2017. “Our whole marriage was on camera, and I don't think we ever really got a chance to know each other,” she says now.
In 2014 allegations surfaced that Baskett had cheated on Wilkinson while she was eight months pregnant with their second child. (Baskett previously acknowledged to PEOPLE that he had "messed up," but denied specific claims that he had an affair with a transgender model.
“It crushed me because I loved him so much and I never really knew what marriage and love was. I never really grew up in a home of marriage and love," she says of their split. "That's why I haven't been dating because I still am trying to shake off my divorce. That caused my depression too. I loved Hank and I still do. I will always love him. And honestly, he's the most amazing father I could have ever asked for.”
She knows a rekindling likely isn't in the cards for them, and she's ready to find love again. “I need to get out there. I've been on Raya's dating list now for two years now. That's what the universe is saying to me? What the hell?” she jokes.
She's also open to getting married again, but for now her focus is on her career and her children.
“I see loopholes in my life where I'm trying to correct now so my daughter doesn't have to experience what I did at a young age. I don’t want my daughter sexualized like I was,” she says. "As a mom I Iook back at what happened to where I felt like I had to date an older man at the age of 18. What brought me to that point? These are the things I’m trying to correct in my parenting for my daughter. What can I do to show her that she is more than that? And that’s what I am doing now in real estate. And that’s truly the gift I’m trying to give back to my children.”
After seeking help, Wilkinson feels a sense of obligation to help others who may be struggling. She's also aware she'll still have difficult days.
“Depression is something that doesn't just go away. It's something that stays with you through life. You just have to learn to work with it and accept it. And it's a part of me," she says. “What therapy did was that it built this tool system for me. So now I have the strength — I have the strength and the foundation I need to overcome my depression.”
Wilkinson is beaming on the beach for the final shot of the day. “Today was the first time in a long time that I felt like me again,” she says. “Today I am aligned. The ocean feels so good jumping in. It’s a wakeup, like a refresh button. We’re capturing the new me.”
As a wave crashes, Wilkinson trips and is almost swept underwater. But she hoists herself up, brushes the sand off her dress — and bursts out in laughter. “I’m living now. I was finally okay with my boobs today! A year ago, I was body-shaming. Now, I feel beautiful," she says. "I’m not wild as in taking my clothes off, partying, drinking tequila wild, but I really faced myself and my demons. I feel like I'm the best mom I can be. I'm giving my kids all I got. I'm giving myself all I got.”
She turns toward the ocean in front of her. “I’m so proud of myself for battling this and finding the solution and getting the treatment I needed. And it's one step at a time, she says, taking a deep breath. “I survived.”
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