Julie Jordan
March 03, 2017 08:30 AM

Ricki Lake is trying to let go.

More than a week after her ex-husband, jewelry designer Christian Evans, committed suicide at age 45 amid his battle with bipolar disorder, Lake was still “in disbelief,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I have some bouts of peace, but it’s hard to swallow that this was supposed to happen,” she says.

When the actress and former talk show host, 48, began dating Evans in September 2010, he was upfront about being diagnosed with the illness earlier in his life but did not like taking medication. “He would self-medicate,” Lake says. “He had a lot of self-esteem issues and a lot of demons. But I understood him, and he was someone that I think a lot of people misunderstood.”

Kate Szatmari

Married in April 2012, Lake and Evans were happy until his first manic episode in September 2014. “I didn’t know what the hell hit me, because I didn’t know what it looked like, so I didn’t see it coming,” she says. “For me, someone who has lived with him for four years and seen how hard it was for him to get out of bed and be excited for things, I saw him starting to be happy. It presented initially as him being motivated.”

  • For more from Ricki Lake, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

At its height, Evans’ mania “was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Lake adds. “He thought he could fly. He thought he could cure cancer with his hands. It was horrific — he just wasn’t the person I had been with for four years.”

Lake filed for divorce a month later. “I had to because he was giving my money away. He thought he was a god,” she says. After being hospitalized under a 5150 hold, Evans entered a treatment facility. “He didn’t want to be there, and he didn’t want to be medicated,” Lake says. “But he did it to appease me.”

The two resumed their relationship despite proceeding with their divorce, which was finalized in October 2015. Last fall, Lake began noticing signs of another manic episode coming on. “Love is blind, and I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to believe that it was happening again,” she recalls. “He was happy, going to the gym, playing basketball with my kids, meditating, eating all this healthy food. It’s very confusing for loved ones.”

Courtesy Ricki Lake

Lake’s sons, Milo, 19, and Owen, 15, from her first marriage to Rob Sussman, “were aware of the behavior change,” she says. “Both of them have been very brave and supportive during both episodes.” Amidst the mania, Evans left again. “I was upset, but I wasn’t surprised this time. I knew he was having an episode, and there was nothing I could do,” Lake recalls. “It’s like putting your oxygen mask on first. I had to save myself.”

Now that he’s gone, Lake is making it her mission to raise awareness about mental illness in hopes of helping others who might be struggling. “I never stopped loving that man,” she adds. “If only he could have believed in himself the way I believed in him.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with bipolar disorder, please call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit the National Institute of Mental Health online at nimh.nih.gov. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day. Call 1-800-273-8255.

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