Hayden Panettiere Opens About Abusive Relationship with Ex

“I’m trying to live in a place of forgiveness,” the actress tells PEOPLE about her turbulent on-and-off, four-year relationship with ex Brian Hickerson

Hayden Panettiere is opening up as she never has before about an abusive relationship in her past — and how she says forgiveness is helping her heal.

“It was a very dark and complicated time in my life,” says Panettiere, whose relationship with Brian Hickerson was on and off for nearly four years. “But a lot of women go through what I went through, and I want people to know it’s OK to ask for help.”

Panettiere, 32, and Hickerson, 33, began dating in 2018 while the actress was in the midst of a painful addiction to alcohol and opioids.

“I wanted to party, I wanted to do everything I wasn’t supposed to do,” recalls Panettiere, who had just come off of six seasons of Nashville. “Acting was my life, but I felt so bad about myself that I lost trust in myself. And that is very detrimental. The idea of not having a responsibility was very appealing at the time.”

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Hayden Panettiere Opens About Abusive Relationship with Ex

In May 2019, following an incident with Panettiere, Hickerson was charged with domestic violence and she was issued a protective order, though the charges were eventually dropped. A few months later, the pair were back together and then in July 2020, Hickerson was arrested on eight domestic violence charges. (In 2021 he pled no contest to two felony counts of injuring a partner — the rest of the charges were dropped — and he spent 13 days in jail.

Following the 2020 arrest, Panettiere issued a statement that read: “I am coming forward with the truth about what happened to me in the hope that my story will empower others in abusive relationships to get the help they need and deserve. I am prepared to do my part to make sure this man never hurts anyone again.”

Panettiere reflects on the statement today, saying, “I still feel the same way. None of it is OK. But I want to make sure that everybody knows that each person who goes through something like that, they’re on their own journey. No two things are exactly alike.”

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Yet last March, Panettiere and Hickerson were together in Los Angeles when they were involved in a public altercation with another group at an L.A. hotel. “It was not my best behavior, it was not anyone’s best behavior,” she says of the incident. “But it was not as insane as it was made to look, and everyone is OK.”

She says she reconnected with Hickerson as friends despite their turbulent past together. “None of it is OK, and I want to make sure that everybody knows that,” she says of his behavior. “But I am open to people who are willing to get help and make amends. He’s gone to treatment and done his time. And I’m trying to live in a place of forgiveness.”

Hayden Panettiere Opens About Abusive Relationship with Ex

These days, following months of intense trauma therapy and inpatient treatment within the last year, Panettiere is sober, single and focused on her future, including an upcoming role in the next Scream installment, and her work with Hoplon International, the charity she founded in March whose mission it is to raise funds for Ukraine, now in its fifth month of war with Russia.

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When it comes to her past, Panettiere says, “I am trying to live in a place of understanding.”

“I think [Brian] has done his time and was willing to get help. I think about the things I have done in my life that people forgave me for. Making amends is a really important thing that you learn in treatment,” she continues. “And it gives you a lot of inner peace.”

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