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October 15, 2012 12:00 PM

Arriving on-set for a low-budget film called Little Creeps last year, Lark Voorhies reunited with her Saved by the Bell costar Dustin Diamond for the first time in nearly a decade. “When we first saw each other, she gave me a big hug. She seemed normal: alive and great,” recalls Diamond, who had played Bell’s goofy Screech. “And as the night went on, it just went wrong.” Voorhies, he says, kept the crew waiting for long stretches while she disappeared alone, and at other points would fade away into long pauses between takes. “The person who said hi to me when she first showed up on-set was not the same person at the end of the night,” says Diamond. “It was like talking to two different people.”

She was a bubbly teen who gained fame as fashionista Lisa Turtle on the popular ’90s Saturday-morning sitcom. But at 38, Voorhies’s once-sparkling brown eyes are disturbingly vacant, and sometimes well with tears. During a PEOPLE photo shoot she keeps up a near-constant dialogue-by turns mournful, frenetic and angry-with unseen figures, and struggles to focus for even brief moments. It’s a face she has never revealed to the public, although her erratic behavior in recent years-coupled with a retreat from the spotlight-has sparked rumors that she is struggling with drug use.

The chatter grew more frenzied in May, when Voorhies resurfaced on Yahoo’s The Yo Show looking nearly unrecognizable in red hair and heavy makeup. The bizarre viral video stunned fans and former castmates alike. Says one ex-costar: “[I] thought she was on drugs.”

In a series of interviews conducted over several weeks, Voorhies denied using drugs or having mental illness. But her mother, Tricia, 64, who shares a home with her in Pasadena, says her daughter has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, for which she has been prescribed medication. “I care deeply about my daughter and I want her to resume her life,” says Tricia, adding that finding the right treatment-and getting Lark’s cooperation-is hard. “It’s frustrating.”

A few days after struggling through an initial interview, Voorhies admits she is at war with herself. “We met at a very powerful moment,” she says. “It’s like carrying on the interview in a hurricane.” When asked if she’s suffering from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or another chronic condition, she responds firmly. “Oh no. We’re alive in a major time of all-in-all prophecy,” the devout Jehovah’s Witness explains in her odd speech pattern.

For loved ones, accepting Voorhies’s condition isn’t easy. At first, her mother downplays the behavior. “Lark calls it ‘single child syndrome,'” says Tricia. Pressed, she admits there are things that have traumatized Lark, but won’t elaborate: “I don’t want to go there.”

Still, she does point to sources of strain. Voorhies’s career stalled after Bell wrapped in 1993. “There was a lot of stress with that,” says Tricia. Three years later Lark married Miguel Coleman, but they split in 2001, and “that caused a kind of break,” adds Tricia. “[But] she feels whatever challenges she has, she can handle herself.”

Several mental health experts consulted by PEOPLE say grandiose speech and delusional behavior are symptoms of severe bipolar disorder. Left untreated, “it’s like watching someone who’s having chest pains who doesn’t go to the emergency room,” says L.A. psychiatrist Dr. Soroyo Bacchus, who has not treated Voorhies. Lack of self-awareness is typical of such disorders, and an obstacle to getting help. Patients “don’t know something’s wrong so they don’t see a doctor,” says Dr. Bacchus.

Once, Voorhies’s future seemed dazzlingly bright. A shy girl raised in Pasadena by her mom-who split from Lark’s father, Wayne Holloway, when Lark was 11 months old-Voorhies found confidence in performing. “When Lark got on the stage,” says Tricia, “a whole different side of her came alive.”

Like many real-life classmates, the Saved by the Bell cast lost touch with each other when the show wrapped in 1993. After that, Voorhies landed stints on soaps and sitcoms, but with each year the roles got smaller. After her marriage to Coleman ended, her personal life unraveled. “Lark was going through some mess with her marriage,” says her mother. “The trauma was back.” Voorhies describes the divorce as “a point of great depression.”

Today Voorhies lives in an insular world: She drives but sticks close to home; she lives with her mom and has few friends; she works mostly on personal projects, including books and CDs she sells on her website. As for the voices, she remains defiant about getting psychiatric help. “They can’t explain it. They can’t treat it. They don’t know about it,” she says of talking to unseen forces that seem to pummel her with painful messages. But her mother, who has watched helplessly as Lark continues to fight an ongoing battle, hopes her daughter will someday escape the raging hurricane. “She’s trying so hard,” says Tricia. “She says she’s delayed, but she’s going to get there.”

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