Few years have come quite as full circle for Hayden Panettiere as this last trip around the sun.
Celebrating her birthday last Aug. 21, the actress was largely sheltering in place—back in her adopted city of Los Angeles following a six-season run on Nashville—and focused on putting her painful history with ex-boyfriend Brian Hickerson in her past just weeks after he was arrested on eight counts of charges ranging from domestic violence and assault to witness intimidation. (He pled no contest to two felony counts of injuring a spouse or girlfriend, the remaining six counts were dismissed.) "I am prepared to do my part to make sure this man never hurts anyone again," she wrote in a July 17, 2020, Instagram statement.
This year she, like many others, has been venturing back out into the world, hitting up West Hollywood Tex-Mex spot Justin Queso's exactly a year after delivering those strong words with a surprising companion: Her ex, fresh off his 13-day stay in county jail.
Turns out healing comes in many forms—even some your loved ones might not exactly approve of.
Because the 32-year-old's family and friends aren't thrilled she's anywhere near the guy she obtained a restraining order against following several domestic violence arrests, a source telling E! News they "have been voicing their reservations about her resuming contact with Brian."
Just 13 months ago she seemed to have put that whole chapter in the rearview, sharing in her Instagram post, "I am coming forward with the truth about what happened to me with the hope that my story will empower others in abusive relationships to get the help they need and deserve."
Now, Hickerson told E! News last month, she's giving him another chance. Just not like that.
"Hayden and I are not back together but are working on a friendship," he explained of the group outing. "We have a long history together, and the first step in my recovery as an abuser is making amends. That's exactly what Hayden has been gracious enough to allow me to do."
To be fair, Panettiere has always been big on reinvention.
Child actress, breakout star of supernatural runaway hit Heroes, then lead of her own network series, the mom to 6-year-old Kaya now devotes her time to doting on her "most amazing" little girl and maintaining the sort of solid coparenting relationship with ex-fiancé Wladimir Klitschko that's led her to label the retired Ukrainian boxing champ an "amazing man" and the "best father ever."
Years after they decided to end their engagement, "We're still respectful of each other, and we still have that friendship with each other," she told Us Weekly in 2019. "It's not a situation that you find yourself in all that often, so it's a new one. But I think we've done a really good job."
Their 2018 split was very much of the conscious uncoupling variety, a source told E! News at the time. "Hayden and Wladimir are on great terms and friendly. They are a big part of each other's lives and will continue to be."
Though, like many things, coparenting became trickier with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, the challenges of traveling making it harder for Panettiere to fly to Europe where her daughter lives with the two-time world heavyweight championship. Thankfully FaceTime exists. And Zoom. And Teams. And any number of new technologies that have cropped up to help us remain at least virtually close to our far-flung loved ones.
"The separation and distance can be tough," a source admitted to E! News, "but Hayden takes some comfort in knowing that Wlad is an incredible father and is doing a great job of caring for their daughter."
Work serves as a worthwhile distraction, the actress adding a role as an advocate to her lengthy resume.
First it was her openness about struggling after her daughter was born. "It's something a lot of women experience," Panettiere said on Live With Kelly and Michael about a month before she checked into treatment for severe postpartum depression in October 2015. "When [you are told] about postpartum depression you think it's 'I feel negative feelings towards my child; I want to injure or hurt my child.' I've never, ever had those feelings. Some women do...But you don't realize how broad of a spectrum you can really experience that on. It's something that needs to be talked about. Women need to know that they're not alone, and that it does heal."
Soon after her reveal, Panettiere realized it was confessions like hers that can aid the healing process. The star told ET at the 2016 Critics' Choice Awards that when she finally braced herself to take a peek at the reaction on social media, "People were like, 'Oh my gosh, good for you!' And I am so proud to be a spokesperson and a woman that people can look to and to know that they're not alone and they're not weak if they go and they seek help."
It was that same motivation that pushed her to come forward about her experience with Hickerson.
After the South Carolina-bred aspiring actor was arrested on a domestic violence charge in May 2019 (he pleaded not guilty to one count of felony domestic violence later that month; the case was dismissed in September 2019) and February 2020 (he reportedly pleaded not guilty to that charge that April), Panettiere made the move to obtain a restraining order last July.
Two days later, Hickerson was arrested. He was eventually sentenced to 45 days in county jail, plus four years of formal probation, after pleading no contest to two felony counts of injuring a spouse or girlfriend, a spokesperson for the L.A. District Attorney's Office told E! News at the time.
"After suffering for years as the victim of psychological, emotional and severe physical abuse, Hayden Panettiere has begun the process of taking back her life," her attorney Alan Jackson said in a statement released as news broke of Hickerson's July 2020 arrest. "Hayden has found the strength and courage to share the truth about her abuse and her abuser, and she intends to assist the prosecution to see that justice is served. As a survivor, she recognizes that her arduous journey of healing has just begun."
Indeed, at the time, a source told E! News the actress was turning her gaze inward. "Hayden has been undergoing successful treatment for alcohol abuse issues and is focused on healing, sobriety and recovery," explained the source. "This is a big step in the recovery process."
And as personal as her mission felt, the source continued, "She hopes to be honest about what happened in hopes it may help someone else who is dealing with emotional abuse or physical violence."
A year later, part of the recovery process for Panettiere means letting Hickerson atone for his sins.
Their night out at the Sunset Strip spot incited quite the frenzy last month, people assuming from images of the two line dancing together that they were ready to pair up for another go-round. But as Hickerson shared with E! News, this was more about him having the chance to apologize. (And as an important point of clarification, he noted that while he was enjoying some Miller Lite, a very much focused on her sobriety Panettiere "was not drinking.")
Taking it all in is more like it, Panettiere open to the idea that her former boyfriend may just be more than his most abhorrent behavior. Though family and friends haven't been shy about sharing their reservations given the duo's history, "Hayden is open to forgiving Brian and starting a new chapter, despite her loved ones' concerns," a source told E! News. "Hayden has a huge heart and wants to see the best in everyone."
Mostly, though, as she kicks off a new year, she's wishing for continued peace. "Hayden won't forget what he did," a source noted to People, "but she wants to forgive and move on."