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(She denied the charge and they settled the dispute a month later.) “We tried to make it seem like there weren’t problems,” says Aaron, “and then when there was some sort of argument or fight, it really showed.” Looking back, Carter refuses to point fingers. To cope, he drank himself into a stupor; he also took up marijuana in his late teens before entering what he calls “my Ecstasy phase,” eventually moving on to abuse pills, particularly the prescription painkiller Vicodin.

Then, in his mid-20s, friends on the Hollywood party scene introduced him to cocaine, which he would take to get through all-night clubbing.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to end up like that either.'” In the eight months since his diagnosis, Carter has indeed taken dramatic steps to turn his life around. (see box) and—with the exception of a few slips early on—stopped drinking and doing drugs. “I don’t want to be that person people read about and think, ‘That’s sad that he couldn’t stop it and killed himself.'” Yet Carter admits that committing to a clean lifestyle remains a daily challenge, perhaps because his self-destructive behavior was a lifetime in the making.

The oldest of five children born to Robert, 56, and Jane, 49, Carter says alcohol was always around when he was growing up in Jamestown, N.

“Healthwise, I was feeling gross, getting bigger,” says the 6-ft. He recalls a particularly raucous night of partying in Hollywood that fall, during which he and a friend “did a bunch of blow” before deciding to take a bus back to his place.

In 2002 he released a solo album that went gold; a year later he embarked on a high-profile relationship with Paris Hilton.

But the night before his results were due back, “I went out and I just went nuts,” he recalls, staring out at the Pacific Ocean through the windows of his high-rise condo in Santa Monica. I felt like I was trying to kill myself—because I didn’t want to get the results.” Carter had good reason to be afraid: The years of abusing his body had left a buildup of toxins in his heart, weakening the muscle so that it had difficulty pumping blood.

This condition, known as cardiomyopathy (see box), is the same one that led to the death of singer Andy Gibb and killed actor Chris Penn—and Carter learned it could kill him as well if he didn’t get clean and sober.

And while he has not spoken to his father recently, Carter says their relationship is intact, and he is repairing the rift with his mother.

“It’s a process, and something that’s going to take years to mend,” he says, “but we’re moving forward.” Things with his younger brother have also improved, so much so that Aaron moved in with Carter last summer.

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