From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
As the sunny American Idol finalist who was clueless about calamari, Kellie Pickler charmed even Simon Cowell—and the Albemarle, N.C., native's country debut, Small Town Girl, earned her a 2007 Country Music Association Award nomination. But last Nov. 7, Pickler broke down while performing "I Wonder"—her song about an absentee mother. It was a moment that betrayed a darker truth: She was struggling with depression stemming from her painful family history.

Abandoned at age 2 by her mother and left to the erratic care of her father, a convicted felon, Pickler, 22, was raised mostly by her paternal grandparents. Though she reunited with her father after his 2006 release from jail, he was sent to prison again 14 months later in July 2007. By that fall, she was also reeling from an agonizing breakup from hockey player Jordin Tootoo. "My professional life seemed great," Pickler says. "But I was crumbling." Now with a new man and a new self-titled album, Pickler speaks out for the first time to PEOPLE's Eileen Finan about battling her demons, making peace with the past and falling for a "normal" guy.

When I was 2, my mother left me. I remember going to different prisons with my grandparents to visit my father on weekends. My father did a lot of stupid things, but when I lived with him, I never had to do without. It didn't matter what he had to do, he'd make sure I went to bed with food in my stomach. When he was sober, he was a good person.

I was so excited when he was released from prison. It's hard for someone to come out of prison with no job, no money, nobody, and I tried to help him . . . but it backfired. [Pickler pauses, crying softly] We didn't talk for a long time, and then he got locked up again. I last saw him in jail a year ago. He said he was sorry. And I thought, "Wow, here we go again."

I went through a really rough patch last year. I was in a bad relationship—I stayed because I didn't want to see anything else fail. And I don't think people realize what it's like going from a Sonic waitress making $2.50 an hour plus tips—going from nobody giving a s--- to overnight having reporters at your doorstep. It's a big filtering process figuring out who you can trust.

I was lonely and depressed. I fell off the face of the earth and buried myself in work. Taylor Swift was one of the only people who knew what I was going through. I was a basket case. I was polished for the cameras, but in my dressing room, I'd crumble.

Her emotional CMA performance was the first public sign of her fragile state, but she had been battling depression for months.

I was miserable. I was on anti-depressant pills when I started touring with Brad Paisley in April. The first couple months, I could tell a difference, but they made me a zombie. Then I hit rock bottom: The pills were making me crazy. I had to quit.

The CMAs were right after I'd gone off the pills, so my body still needed them. I was an emotional wreck. Then 10 minutes before I went onstage, I got a call saying my mom was on TV. I hadn't seen her in years. I felt like, "Tonight I'm good enough?" It really hurt. My hands shook all during the song. Then I lost it.

Her mother did several press interviews about her decision to leave Kellie, but the two never made contact.

If she had said, "I was not the mom I should have been," or "Kellie, I'm sorry," that's all I wanted. I'm a forgiving person. It's not that I don't want her in my life. It kills me not to. I've never come off stage and had my mom or dad say, "That was so amazing!" But now I accept the things I cannot change: I'll never have a relationship with her or the relationship with my father that I want. You need to grieve, be hurt and angry, and cry. Then you got to get over it. I have a long list of blessings on my refrigerator: "Thank you God for my health, my friends, sunshine—and sunglasses!"

Songwriting helps too. Last year I e-mailed my producer's wife and said, "I've never hated myself like this. I should be on top of the world, but this money and fame doesn't make me happy. I'm so lonely." I ended with, "I just want somebody to love me." I hit Send, and two seconds later I got her e-mail: "We have to write that!" So I went to their house, we started drinking red wine, and we wrote "Somebody to Love Me."

A few months later, Pickler found that somebody: Nashville songwriter Kyle Jacobs, who wrote two songs with her on her new album.

I didn't know someone like Kyle existed. He makes me feel so good about being me. I hadn't seen the way a relationship should be. I'd never seen my mom and dad in the same room except in a courthouse. When I'm going through problems and saying, "I need a Xanax!" Kyle says, "No, baby, let me be your pill." It's so comforting. I'm proud to say I haven't taken any anti-depressants since last year. Kyle is so good to me. It scared me [at first] because I wasn't used to that. I'm used to craziness and he is far from that. We pray together and sit on the phone and talk about nonsense for hours. Not a day goes by where he doesn't tell me how beautiful I am.

Marriage is exciting to think about, but I won't jump the gun. Down the road, I want to marry and have a family. Is Kyle the one? I don't know! But I'm happier than I've ever been.