December 21, 2009 12:00 PM

Whenever she felt tempted to contact her ex-boyfriend, Alexa Ray Joel would throw herself into work. “Sometimes writing songs is the one thing that keeps me from going crazy or calling that person,” she told PEOPLE last year. But the lyrics to her new single “Invisible” sound more like an SOS than a helpful distraction: “I’m the girl you broke in two . . . You say you’re movin’ on, now I gotta let it go/And this is not healthy anymore.”

Indeed, distraught as the second anniversary of her breakup from her former bassist Jimmy Riot approached, the singer and daughter of Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley took eight pills on Dec. 5, then called 911 when she had trouble breathing. The dispatcher reported that the caller said she “wants to die” but then “feels funny. Now wants to live.” Fortunately Joel, 23, wasn’t in serious danger from ingesting Traumeel, a homeopathic aspirin alternative that is not lethal at that dosage. She left New York City’s St. Vincent’s Hospital several hours later and is currently recuperating with her parents, who split in 1994 but remain friendly. “She is looking forward to getting back on track,” says her rep. Adds a source: “This was not a suicide attempt. It was more like a cry for help.”

Friends say the incident is truly out of character. “Normally, she’s very upbeat,” says the source. Adds her friend, writer Gail Worley: “She has everything going for her. She is superclose to her parents. She is extremely talented and unbelievably poised.” Still, “Alexa has been through a lot in life,” says a friend of her father’s. With Brinkley and Joel both going through divorces recently, “she felt like the parent. She’s always tried to be solid as a rock. Recently, she’s been coming apart a little.”

But it was her own rocky love life that spurred this incident. She and Riot, 38, “have had an on-again, off-again relationship,” says a source close to the family. Joel never really got over him. (“A lot of women don’t feel complete without a man, and I won’t lie . . . I’m constantly working on that,” she told PEOPLE last year.) And like her parents, she wears her heart on her sleeve—and on her MySpace, which is filled with her musings about the breakup. (She set her mood as “crushed”; as for dating: “I HATE going out!!”) “She has moments of being despondent over her first love,” says another source. “Creative people just tend to swing the emotional pendulum more than others.”

Right now the family’s priority is making sure Alexa focuses on the positive. “She knows it’s time to deal with her own issues and will be getting help,” says her father’s friend. Adds the source close to her family: “Her parents adore her. This family can handle anything that comes along.”

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