Jenifer Lewis dubs herself a triple threat on Twitter—actress, singer, dancer—a title that the black-ish star has earned after decades dazzling audiences on the stage and screen. And now that she’s talking more about her bipolar diagnosis, you can add gutsy memoirist and mental health advocate to her resume.
In her new memoir, The Mother of Black Hollywood, the 60-year-old talks about the ups and downs of her legendary life—including her experience with bipolar disorder, a condition that causes “unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks,” per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
For years, Lewis thought that her symptoms—including drastic changes in mood, addictive behavior, dramatic and erratic outbursts, and substance abuse—were just a part of her larger-than-life personality.
In the book, Lewis reveals how undiagnosed bipolar disorder impacted her life in her twenties. And, in a passage excerpted in People, Lewis describes her reaction to her therapist’s diagnosis:
“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.”
Lewis resisted medication for years after her diagnosis. She told The Root, “I was like, ‘Bitch, please. I ain’t getting on that bullshit! I’m Jenifer Lewis! You think I’m gonna walk around like a fucking zombie? And y’all take my edge?! This is what I do!’”
But taking medication for her bipolar disorder wasn’t about taking Lewis’ edge—it was about treating a serious psychiatric disorder. “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.”
There are several types of bipolar disorder and mania is just one symptom.
According to the NIMH, there are several types of bipolar disorder. That includes bipolar I (which consists of both manic and depressive episodes), bipolar II (which consists of hypomanic and depressive episodes), cyclothymic disorder (which involves numerous periods of hypomania and depression over a period of at least two years), and a sort of catch-all category that includes bipolar symptoms that don’t match one of these other three diagnoses.
That said, there’s a huge variety of possible symptoms that range in severity. If someone is experiencing mania, they may have “racing thoughts, grand ideas about things they want to accomplish, and decreased sleep,” Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D., president of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, tells SELF. They may also experience impulsiveness, irritability, and be more active than usual, according to NIMH.
In those with bipolar II, it’s the depression that tends to dominate, Dr. Borenstein explains. That means they may experience feelings of hopelessness, have very little energy, have difficulty sleeping or may sleep too much, or experience suicidal thoughts. Those with bipolar II don’t have full manic episodes, but experience hypomania, which is a less severe form of mania.
For people with bipolar I and II, their episodes of depression, mania, or hypomania last at least a week or two. Those with cyclothymic disorder, however, have episodes that are mild or moderate and don’t meet the criteria for a full manic or depressive episode. People with any form of bipolar disorder may also experience “rapid cycling,” which means that their moods are changing quickly and frequently—at least four episodes of mania, hypomania, or depression within a year. And those with cyclothymic bipolar disorder may be more likely to experience rapid cycling.
This variety of symptoms can cause bipolar disorder to be mistaken for other conditions, Kathleen Cairns, Psy.D., a Connecticut-based psychologist, tells SELF. “It presents as depression, anxiety, insomnia, substance abuse, racing thoughts,” she says. But once you have the proper diagnosis, you can get the proper treatment. For most patients dealing with some type of bipolar disorder, that usually means a combination of therapy and medication.
Lewis hopes telling her story will help dispel the social stigma surrounding mental health, particularly among people of color.
“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.
In addition, Dr. Borenstein notes that “difficulty getting access to care, like health insurance or clinical care” is another barrier people of color often face. According to statistics from the 2008-2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 16.6 percent of white adults in the U.S. reported using mental health services in the past year, but only 8.6 percent of African Americans reported the same (cost of services or lack of insurance were listed as the most common reasons for not seeking those services).
Lewis’ comments are proof that professional help is essential and life-changing for people with bipolar disorder. “The most important aspect of what it’s like to live with bipolar is that people are able to live a full, healthy life with the appropriate treatment and support,” Dr. Borenstein says. “And I think Jenifer Lewis is a great example—with help, there truly is hope.”