Jenifer Lewis explains how bipolar disorder crept into her life
If you go by what society thinks or how it is presented in TV or movies, it should be easy to tell if you have bipolar disorder – or any mental illness. However, as actor, singer, and dancer Jenifer Lewis discovered, living with bipolar disorder can be much more complicated and can affect your life in deviously subtle ways.
Lewis recently explored her experiences living with bipolar disorder in her new memoir, The Mother of Black Hollywood. While she has since been treated and takes medications to manage her bipolar disorder, the 60-year-old says she was initially shocked by her diagnosis in her twenties.
“When she said, ‘mental illness,’ I thought, ‘b—, you crazy.’ I associated mental illness with people who couldn’t function, with straitjackets.” But, Lewis recalls, “When [the therapist] explained the details, I gasped. You mean, there is a name for describing why I talk fast and walk fast and rage, create drama, and speed when I drive a car? Compulsive, you say? The doodling, the braiding and unbraiding my hair? The arguing with people and storming off? Kicking s—, throwing s—? Yeah, okay, I guess all of that describes me.”
Even after receiving her diagnosis, it took years for Lewis to understand the importance of directly addressing her disorder. As she told The Root, “I was like, “B—, please. I ain’t getting on that […] You think I’m gonna walk around like a f— zombie? And y’all take my edge?!”
It wasn’t until she began to see the effects bipolar disorder was having on her life that she realized treatment isn’t about “taking away her edge.” It is about managing the effects of a serious mental health issue.
Mania is exhausting,” Lewis said, referring to the manic episodes she experienced. “It can ruin your entire life, and your family’s life, and those who love you.”
While Lewis has since been able to manage her bipolar disorder and enjoy a successful career on both stage and screen, she says she sees how stigma surrounding mental illness has kept many other African Americans from receiving treatment.
“Stigma, fear, and just plain ignorance about mental illness, particularly among African-Americans, has taken a terrible toll on our families and communities,” she writes in her book, per People.
However, it isn’t just social ideas about mental illness keeping African-Americans from better addressing mental illness. Statistics from the 2008-2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that black Americans were half as likely to seek mental health services, with the most common reasons being the cost of services or lack of insurance.
Still, efforts like Jenifer Lewis’s show that mental illness isn’t like what you see in films like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and they go a long way towards helping others recognize that they can not only live with a mental illness – they can thrive.