Ricki Lake didn’t want to say goodbye.
Married to jewelry designer Christian Evans in April 2012, the actress and former talk show host was devastated to learn that he had taken his life on Feb. 11. Evans’s death at age 45 compelled Lake to reveal that he had been battling bipolar disorder — and that his manic episodes had led to the couple’s divorce in 2015 even though they continued their relationship until as recently as last fall.
“I have to spread the word about recognizing this disorder and getting treatment as soon as possible,” Lake tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “Christian didn’t want to be labeled as bipolar, but he admitted he was in the note he left. That was him finally owning it. That was him giving me permission to tell his story.”
When Lake, 48, and Evans began dating in September 2010, “I felt like the luckiest girl that he chose me,” she says. “He was the funniest person. He was so charismatic.” Evans was upfront with Lake about his condition and admitted he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder earlier in life. “He had a lot of self-esteem issues and a lot of demons,” she says. “But I understood him, and he was someone that I think a lot of people misunderstood.”
Married in April 2012, the two settled into their life together. “We never fought, we never had an argument. He showed up for my kids,” recalls Lake, who has two sons, Milo, 19, and Owen, 15, from her first marriage to Rob Sussman. “He was this quiet force that was just all about love and goodness and wanting to help people.”
Lake first witnessed one of Evans’ manic episodes 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.” At the height of his mania, Evans “thought he could fly. He thought he could cure cancer with his hands,” Lake adds. “It was horrific. He just wasn’t the person I had been with for four years.”
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Following the advice of their therapist to cut off contact until Evans stabilized, Lake filed for divorce the next month. Evans was eventually hospitalized under a 5150 hold and then entered a treatment facility. “He didn’t want to be there, and he didn’t want to be medicated,” she says. “But he did it to appease me.”
After Evans was released, the two continued their relationship, despite their divorce being finalized in 2015, and eventually moved back in together. “He wasn’t stable, and he was so fragile,” Lake says. “But I was still in love with him, so there was something romantic about it. I wanted to save him.”
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Evans’ mania returned this last September and he moved out again. This time, “I was upset, but I wasn’t surprised,” the actress adds. “I knew he was having an episode, and there was nothing I could do.” Lake was working in London when she received a text on Feb. 11 from Evans’ sister saying he had emailed a suicide note. “I knew right then that he was gone. Everybody thought he was missing, but I knew.”
He was found two days later in his car with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. “The struggle was just too much for him,” Lake says through tears. “He did the best he could.”
As for the future, “I am going to try my best to honor him by living a full and happy life,” she says. “I don’t know what’s in store for me, but I’m an optimist.” She plans to scatter some of Evans’ ashes on their favorite beach in Ibiza this summer — and insists she has no regrets. “I never stopped loving that man,” she adds. “I’m so lucky I got these beautiful years with 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.