In this week’s PEOPLE, Carson, 46, speaks in depth for the first time about the bipolar diagnosis that nearly shattered her life and career. “From the time I stepped away from show business [in 2001] until now, I’ve been on a long, very complicated and challenging journey,” says Carson. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it out.”
“I don’t really have an option to be silent about my illness, although I wanted to be for many years,” Carson reveals. “But since I had a public breakdown, it’s something I felt I had to address.”
She is now living quietly in Hollywood, where she hopes to relaunch her acting career.
She tells PEOPLE, “When you lose your mind it’s as traumatic as it sounds. It’s not anything you can imagine happening to you.”
Just before her career took off as Flockhart’s sidekick on the show, Carson had her first psychotic breakdown in 1997. For the next seven years, she says, there were “too many breakdowns to count.”
After she was first diagnosed as bipolar, “It didn’t make any sense to me, at all. I had never heard of it. I was in denial and would not take my medicine.”
In the years that followed, she experienced more mania than depression. “Sometimes it can be beautiful,” she says. “And sometimes it can be horrifying.”
In 2000, Carson had a breakdown at a Manhattan hotel that made headlines and left her terrified and confused. “I remember glass breaking, yelling, screaming and terror,” she says. “Sheer terror.”
She spent several weeks in a psychiatric ward before returning to work at Ally McBeal.
“The cast was very concerned,” she recalls. “They put together a video for me, wishing me well.”
Petrified, “I busted my butt and worked hard for a year. And then in 2001, I got the call, ‘We’re not renewing your contract.’ I cried for a week.”
Although devastated, Carson doesn’t harbor ill feelings about the situation.
“Something very weird happened to me and everybody had a reaction,” she says, “and it was more weird to me than anyone.”
For much more on Lisa Nicole Carson’s battle with bipolar disorder and her recovery, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Monday
Her last breakdown, in 2004, “was the most terrified I have ever been,” she recalls. “It was the closest everything came to collapsing for me. That’s what marked the beginning of the end of the disease for me. I decided that whatever was going on in my life, had to take second place. I had to take my medication and fight this with everything I am.”
After years of consulting with doctors and experimenting with numerous medications, Carson finally found the mood stabilizer she is currently taking. “I’ve been stable and haven’t had a breakdown in 10 years,” she says.
Since returning to Hollywood in 2014, she says, “Just being at a place where I am healthy, excited about life and auditioning is a joy. I feel very blessed.”
Carson hopes her story can help others. “It’s a risk for me to be open,” she admits. “I never wanted to breathe a world about what happened to me. But I’ve had a change of heart. It’s rare for someone who has something as severe as I’ve had to come out the other side, but I’d like to let people know that you can. You can get to the other side.”