Edie Falco says she battled a crippling bout with mental illness before achieving stardom in The Sopranos -- and was ravaged by nervous breakdowns and panic attacks that had her fleeing the city in terror.

"There were some horrible years," the blonde actress, who plays Tony Soprano's wife Carmela in the smash HBO series, tells Newsweek

"You go to college and you go off and do some plays, and then when the dust clears, you are left alone in your crazy apartment at 4 in the afternoon with no job, no prospects and a waitressing shift to go to. 

"And real heavy-duty darkness can set in." 

Just how bad did it get for the Brooklyn-born, Long Island-raised star? 

"I had a little bit of a nervous breakdown, I suppose. Somebody got me a job at a hardware store and I started having terrible anxiety attacks," she recalls. 

"I actually went up to the person in charge and said, 'I have to leave. Something's wrong.' I walked to Penn Station in a full blown [panic] attack and -- I didn't know what else to do -- I went home to Long Island." 

She stayed at home and let her mother nurse her back to health. 

"My mother was so great. I'd try to sleep, but I'd wake with a start. And she would just sit there with me," says Falco, 39. 

"She just talked me through it. Anxiety attacks have been in my family for years. We are sort of a high-strung bunch . . . I've been in therapy a bazillion years. 

"[An attack] is like you're driving and all of sudden you see a Mack truck crossing the divider and coming at you. And you stay like that." 

But with the attacks now gone, "I feel more in control of my life than I ever have." She was even in control enough to ignore her agent's advice to threaten quitting her hit show unless she got a whopping pay hike. 

"In the middle of negotiations last year, he said to me, 'Listen, I can make this better for you, but this is what you have to do: you have to walk off the set,' " she reveals. 

"I'm like, 'The people we'd be screwing with are the [assistant directors], the directors, the writers -- the people I'm in love with." 

The years leading up to Falco's big break were lean -- she commuted around Manhattan on skates and was so broke she couldn't even afford cable TV. 

Often, she found herself landing "weirdo parts." "Yes, I took it personally and my feelings were hurt," she said. In the 1997 flick, Trouble on the Corner, Falco's character sits naked in a tub as a shrink spies on her. But that was then. The actress, who is half-Italian and half-Swedish, has since won two Emmy awards and a Golden Globe for her work on The Sopranos, which begins its fourth season this Sunday. 

In the new episodes, Carmela and Tony's marriage begins to fall apart, a development that will bring Falco further into the spotlight. 

She is also is appearing nightly on Broadway with Stanley Tucci in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune.

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