Britney in Crisis

Britney in Crisis
JANUARY 3: "Britney [being taken from her home by ambulance] is a very sick girl," says a Spears family source.

01/10/2008 AT 12:00 PM EST

By now, sadly, it is a familiar sight: Britney Spears, driving around L.A. in the pitch dark with her lights off, engulfed by a meteor shower of paparazzi flashbulbs. On Jan. 7, hobbled by a flat tire and wreaking mayhem on L.A. traffic, a smiling Spears – in a slinky silk top and red boots – and her assistant Karla finally ditched their Mercedes on the street (police later impounded it) and hitched a ride home in a lensman's car. After listening to Timbaland's Shock Value on the drive back, "when we got back to her house, she took her sunglasses off, and she just seemed normal," says Fabricio Mariotto, a photographer for X17 agency. "She has pictures of her and the kids in the living room. She handed me her keys and asked me to please take care of her car. She was very nice."

So went another round in the unsettling life of Britney Spears, where in paparazzi serve as both cavalry and companions, the road is often dark and the shockingly unexpected lurks at every turn. Just four nights earlier, amid another lightning storm of flashbulbs, a far more dire scenario had played out before the world: a wild-eyed Spears, 26, being carried out of her Studio City home on a gurney, her bare feet strapped down. In those raw moments, Spears – a mother, a daughter and a once-blazing pop star who has sold more than 70 million albums – appeared, above all else, to be a woman in crisis. "The images of her from the ambulance startled everyone who knows her," says a source. "She looked manic." Her family "is terrified," says a Spears family friend. With the singer continuing to shun longtime friends and relatives, "everyone has been worried for some time," says the source. "Her world has been crumbling around her."

As the unfolding drama rapidly made the rounds everywhere from blogs to beauty shops, the questions seemed to be: How did the once [DASH] sparkling singer with the homespun charm and earnest enthusiasm fall so far, and so hard – and what can be done to help her? Several sources tell PEOPLE that the ordeal and its dramatic aftermath – Spears has been stripped of all visitation rights to her children until at least Jan. 14 – are the results of a long-gestating mental illness. "She's suffered from a psychological disease for years," says a source close to the singer. Two separate sources close to Spears believe she has been diagnosed as bipolar, while additional sources confirm she has been prescribed at least one antidepressant/antianxiety drug. Dr. Mark Goulston, a Santa Monica-based psychiatrist who has not treated Spears, says her erratic actions both in the past week and in recent years suggest "classic bipolar behavior, including hypersexuality, poor judgment and impulsivity." Mi or behaviors that once seemed merely quirky – the hot [DASH] pink wigs, occasional British accent, barefoot bathroom pit stops, as well as major incidents such as shaving her head in early 2007 – take on new context when viewed through a prism of possible mental illness. Yet "she does not think she has a problem," says a source close to Spears. Dr. Goulston points out that "manic behavior is when you don't have any sense of rules. There's a grandiosity: 'I play by my own rules.' "
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