Michelle Williams was in the fight of her life. For the singer, 2018 was a roller-coaster year that ended with her at her lowest point. After getting engaged in March to her dream guy, a pastor named Chad Johnson, she was on top of the world. Then the depression she’d battled on and off since age 13 creeped back in, and that July she announced on social media that she had “sought help from a great team of heath care professionals.” Williams appeared to be on the mend. She even starred with her fiancé in their own reality show, Chad Loves Michelle (OWN), and signed on to return to Broadway to headline Once on This Island.
While her fans thought they were counting the days until she’d say “I do,” unbeknownst to them, the ground beneath Williams had begun to shake again. In December she announced that her engagement to Johnson was off, and a week later she was forced to quit the Broadway play per doctor’s orders. “I did the opening night, and a few days after, I just kind of had a mental breakdown,” reveals Williams, who decided to put herself first and get more help. “You really have to listen to your body, and my body was saying no.” Williams has been lying low ever since, and she’s determined to use the respite to reset and heal. We checked in on the singer on her road to recovery to find out how she’s getting back to happy.
ESSENCE: You’ve been so brave and strong through so much. It’s easy to quit a job you hate, but sometimes you have to quit a job you love because it’s not good for you either.
Michelle Williams: That’s true. I knew that it was time for me to get back on Broadway. It had been a few years. I was actually filming the Chad Loves Michelle show and randomly said, “I want to get back on Broadway.” It’s like I spoke it up. I wanted to be in the season where I did everything. Why should I have to space things out? I thought. I can do everything at once. Well, I got so overwhelmed in that season that by the time I got to rehearsals for Once on This Island, I was already depleted and exhausted. But we were taught that you’d better get on that stage even when you’re sick. People paid their money to see you. That was a thing from Destiny’s Child. I think I’ve only missed one show ever in my nearly 20-year career. You just want to push, push, push until you push yourself to exhaustion. Then you have a nervous breakdown, and you can’t do anything.
ESSENCE: How did you find peace with what happened?
Williams: I had to dig deep. It took a lot of people around me to say, “Take care of yourself. The stage will be there when you get back. The same God that answered that prayer, he’ll do it again.” I had to have faith that what is for me will always be for me. Women battle their faith because faith is the evidence of things unseen—it’s the fear.
ESSENCE: When did you realize that fear was in the way?
Williams: I think after I got out of whatever that mental fog was. Right now this is my season of just sitting down somewhere, you know? This is the first time in my career that I was forced to take a seat. I have been in Atlanta this entire year. I had just moved to Los Angeles, but then I moved here. I am with my amazing cousin and her husband. I’m pouring butter over the yams that I’m cooking right now, and I cooked greens the other night. I’m going to therapy every week to talk out some things, like what has gotten me here. I go to church. I have a wonderful physical trainer.
ESSENCE: So you’ve been getting to know yourself better?
Williams: That’s right. People have been like, “Michelle, this is a season for people to love on you.” That’s hard to accept when you’re independent. It’s hard to sit down and just let somebody love on you, take care of you. I’m in a church where I’m being discipled. I don’t have to wear makeup. I can just go in and worship the Lord—go to church and just be. I’m getting back to my first love, which is God. And that had been a part of my success before. I was serving God. I’m forming that habit again.
ESSENCE: You sound happy, Michelle. Do you feel happy?
Williams: I do, but now let me tell you something. In December it was a whole ’nother story, sis. I was weak, very depressed and thinking it was the end of my life. If someone had asked me where I would be today, I didn’t think I would be alive, because I was so broken. It felt as though I had failed publicly and privately too, and that was just not like me. And I was like, God, there’s got to be more. I am in a better place now. I am not perfect. I’m not preaching. I’m just telling you what I’m doing right now—I’m sticking to my routine.
ESSENCE: How are you measuring and defining your success?
Williams: March and April have been my strongest months this year. When people say it gets better, it does. It just takes time. The days do get brighter. It’s not that I was never happy in my life. Last year, from the point of my hospitalization, I didn’t heal from that, and then I went straight into filming. After filming the show, I went to rehearsals for Broadway. I had no business doing any of that.
ESSENCE: What would you say to any woman who finds herself in over her head?
Williams: Allow yourself to feel the pain of what you’re feeling, okay? But then tell yourself you’ve got to get up. Because some people won’t tell you to get up or know what to say. I pray you find that inner strength to say, Okay, I’ve been down. I’ve been in this bed too long. I’ve got to get up. That’s what I did. You have to have it in you to tell yourself to get up. The days do get better. They really, really do. I’m a living testament of it. You have to do the work. And I strongly suggest finding a therapist to talk to.
This exclusive interview originally appears in the July/August 2019 issue of ESSENCE, on stands now.