By Liza Hamm
May 17, 2010 12:00 PM

Alexa Ray Joel could barely get herself out of bed the morning of Dec. 5. “I didn’t want to get dressed. I didn’t want to put on makeup,” she recalls. “I wasn’t feeling anything.” Soon she started to hyperventilate-a symptom of the panic attacks she’s suffered for years-so she took some homeopathic pills to try to calm down. After ingesting 10 to 15 pills over three hours, Joel “felt sweaty and shaky,” prompting her to dial 911. “I felt like I was in a black hole and I couldn’t see out,” says Joel. “I hit rock bottom that day….A part of me wanted people close to me to know-not the whole world.”

But that’s just not possible when your parents are superstars. On the night of Dec. 5, the world knew the daughter of Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley had been rushed by ambulance to Manhattan’s St. Vincent’s Hospital, in what media reports called a suicide attempt. “I did say, ‘I want to die’ on the 911 call,” says Joel, 24, recounting what happened that day for the first time as she sits in a quiet restaurant in downtown Manhattan. “Did I really want to? Absolutely not! I was being dramatic, and I take responsibility and apologize to everybody involved.” Though Joel was never in serious danger from taking the anti-inflammatory Traumeel at that dosage, she could no longer deny the despair she’d been trying to hide for a year. “I was in such a dark place,” she says. “My soul was shattered.”

The trigger for her depression? A very bad case of heartbreak. Joel says she never really got over her first love, her former bassist Jimmy Riot, whom she began dating at 19. They lived together for two years before breaking up in early 2008-but had fleeting reconciliations at least four times. Joel found it difficult to move on. “I only felt okay with him. I couldn’t play a show without him,” she says. “I was addicted to this man, and it spiraled out of control.” The day before the overdose, she reached out to one of Riot’s friends to see if her ex, to whom she hadn’t spoken since the summer, would accept a Christmas gift. (“I felt like I couldn’t contact him or I would get in trouble,” she says.) When Riot refused her peace offering, “my heart broke all over again,” she says. (Riot, 38, could not be reached for comment.)

Though Billy Joel, 61, has been open about his bouts of depression and 1970 suicide attempt, Alexa kept the extent of her struggle from her family. “I was embarrassed,” she says. “When you’re that depressed, you don’t feel like anybody is going to understand.” Christie Brinkley, 56, says the fact that she didn’t approve of Alexa’s attempts to get back together with Riot only added to the secrecy. “That’s something you have to be careful of in parenting,” says Brinkley. “Express your disapproval but try to keep the lines of communication open.” The night of the overdose, Brinkley persuaded her daughter to go to a psychiatric hospital for 12 days of therapy. “I wanted her to get immediate help, find the reason and try to learn from it,” she says.

Joel says that “really intense” therapy allowed her to step away from the pressures of her life and dig deep. “There was always somebody there I could talk to, who was so objective and skilled,” she says. “There was one time I tried to reach [Jimmy]. And my doctor said he had spoken to Jimmy and he can’t talk to me. Does it hurt that someone who was my love and best friend didn’t contact me after I overdosed? Absolutely. I had a breakdown, crying that night, but at the end I realized I didn’t need him.”

Joel now sees a therapist regularly and is talking more openly to her parents. “Dad always builds me up; he helped me get perspective back,” says Joel. “My mom and I have more heart-to-hearts now … I’m in a Zen good place.” The only thing that still upsets her? Tabloid reports that her overdose stemmed from a fight with Brinkley over her weight. “Do not dare attack my mother,” she says. “Nobody is more supportive of my physical appearance than her.”

Her fresh start, though, does include a new look. Last month Joel had rhinoplasty to correct a deviated septum-and to feel better about herself. “I liked everything else about my physical appearance,” she says, “but [my nose] always bothered me a bit. I had thought about it for about five years. I think I look more like me than my father’s daughter now.”

The new Alexa is also moving apartments and developing a different sound for an album due in June. “I threw everything out,” she says. For one thing, it won’t all be mopey love songs. “She’s written this happy song-I’m grinning just thinking of it,” says Brinkley. Says Joel: “You can say I have new musical influences, new apartment, attitude, life…. Everything is new.”