July 14, 2003 12:00 PM

In 1999 the future looked bright indeed for Monica, the fresh-faced teen R&B queen who had just scored a Grammy and was about to star in her first movie. But in the ensuing years Monica was beset by a litany of woes—including the suicide of her ex-boyfriend, her best friend’s death and another ex-lover’s arrest on murder charges—that derailed her career and left her in a state of severe depression. “Most people I loved are either dead or in jail,” she says. “For a while it was one day at a time. I didn’t eat, didn’t sleep or drink. I wondered how I would ever heal.”

Now back from her long season in despair, Monica, 22, says inner peace came thanks to her Christian faith, her close-knit family and her music. On her new CD After the Storm—which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart—she addresses the trauma of seeing ex-boyfriend Jarvis Weems, 24, kill himself in July 2000. Weems, who Monica says was despondent over family matters, phoned her from the cemetery where his brother was buried. When she arrived he asked her to look after his two daughters and shot himself in the head while sitting in his locked car. “It hurts so bad that I had to choose,” she sings in “I Wrote This Song,” “If I want to live/Or die with you.”

Insisting she never contemplated suicide, Monica says the lyric describes a crisis of faith. “My meaning was not physically to die, but I knew I had to make a conscious choice to really live my life,” she says. The track “U Should’ve Known Betta” is about another ill-fated relationship, with rapper C Murder (Corey Miller, 32, the brother of hip-hop star Master P), whom she dated before Weems. Miller is now in jail facing second-degree murder charges for the January 2002 shooting death of a 16-year-old in Louisiana. Monica maintains his innocence, but denies that the two are still involved. “You see how she handles things, and it kind of breaks your heart,” says music mogul Dallas Austin, a friend. “The average person wouldn’t have been able to take it without totally losing themselves.”

But the singer born Monica Arnold was never average. The daughter of airline employee Marilyn Best, 51, and mechanic M.C. Arnold Jr., 55, who divorced in 1987, Monica was raised in River-dale, Ga., with her brother Montez, 19, an aspiring music producer, by their mother and stepfather, Rev. Edward Best, a Methodist minister. She joined the church choir at 2 and began touring with a local gospel group at 10; at 12 she was signed by Austin’s Rowdy Records. While still in high school Monica scored back-to-back No. 1 R&B hits off her 1995 multiplatinum debut album, Miss Thang. And in 1998 “The Boy Is Mine,” her Grammy-winning duet with Brandy, spent a record 13 weeks atop Billboard’s pop chart. “By the time I turned 19,” she says, “I was really starting to establish myself, just really becoming a woman.”

But even as she costarred with Freddie Prinze Jr. and Jason Biggs in the 2000 teen comedy Boys and Girls, real life was a far cry from the reel image. First Weems’s brother Troy, 23, died in a 1998 car wreck. Then her cousin and best friend, Selena Glenn, 25, died from a brain aneurism. “I was still dealing with those two incidents,” she says, “when Jarvis’s life took some turns that made him feel like he really didn’t want to live.”

Distraught for months afterward, she often spent as much as four hours a day at Weems’s grave, she says. The onslaught of bad news continued with the death of her grandmother and the accusations against Miller. While friends encouraged her to seek professional help, Monica says she “chose spiritual guidance,” provided in-house by her stepfather. With the support of family and friends who were happy to “live, sleep and eat with me until I got through it,” Monica recalls, she eventually emerged from her despair, eager to resume the therapeutic work of recording. “I admire her strength, but I’m also careful because no one can be so strong,” says her mother, Marilyn. “We are watchful. We just all try to be there.”

Living in a mansion near Macon, Ga., Monica now spends her free time going to movies and ferrying her friends’ children to school and soccer matches. “They’re my biggest joy,” she says. As for venturing into a new relationship, she’s understandably cautious. “I’m real comfortable with my situation and very happy,” she says, declining to name the man she’s been seeing for two years. Even so, she’s anxious to start a brood of her own. “Without question,” she says, “I’m definitely wife material.”

Steve Dougherty

Deborah Geering in Atlanta and Tina L. Redwood in New York City