When you think of Jenifer Lewis, her larger-than-life personality is no doubt one of the first things that comes to mind. In virtually every role we’ve seen her in, Lewis is the boss, friend, mother, or auntie that will always say what’s on her mind and it’s that persona that almost stopped the actress from seeking treatment for her mental health issues more than 25 years ago.
“I was seeing a psychotherapist and that was very helpful, but I was hell-bent on not taking medication because I did not want it to interfere with that extra edge, that extra high that we get. A lot of people are addicted to the high,” she told us in an exclusive interview for Mental Health Awareness Month.
The “we” she spoke of are the 5.7 million adults in the United States currently living with bi-polar disorder, a mental health condition characterized by “unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks,” according to the National Institutes of Mental Health.
“Sometimes I suspected that something was not quite right,” Lewis said. “Especially during the time when the AIDS epidemic was at its height and my grief was pretty much out of control. No one was talking about bi-polar disorder and mental illness back then. I had lost so many friends and loved ones. My spiral into depression was overwhelming; I could not function. That’s when I couldn’t ignore the fact that something was wrong anymore.”
Lewis learned of her condition in 1990, but the actual diagnosis was a much easier pill to swallow than the medication she’d need to treat her disorder. It would take another four years after the diagnosis for Lewis’ therapist to help her get over the “fear that [medication] would interfere with my performing, which of course it did not and it does not,” she said. But in the early years, Lewis noted she very much adhered to the unfortunate stigma surrounding treatment for mental illness. “I didn’t want to take the medication at all. Nobody ever really does.”
It didn’t take long for Lewis to realize her “edge” was still there. As her career flourished, she even starred in her own one-woman show about living with the mental condition. “I wrote a show, just as a joke actually, and called it ‘Bipolar, Bath, & Beyond,’ just to bring some humor to it. I wasn’t saying to myself that I’ll ‘come out’ with it – I didn’t think there was anything to ‘come out’ with – I was just writing another one-woman show about my life. Having been diagnosed with bipolar was, yes a fact, but [I said] let’s have fun with it. I wrote about it, sang about it, danced about it. I never thought it was something to be ashamed of.”
Thankfully, neither did Lewis’ friends or family members who were very supportive of the entertainer’s journey and proud of her for seeking help and encouraging others to do the same.
“There was no great reaction, everybody knew I was ‘crazy’ before and after the diagnosis. I was still me. It is true that [bi-polar disorder] is a big deal, but if you learn how to manage it, it doesn’t have to be a big deal. You can learn the skills to take care of yourself – just like I did.”
Part of taking care of herself was weathering the storm of trial and error when it came to finding the right medication levels for her disorder and tolerating a number of side effects in the process, like loss of sex drive. “One has to be very patient,” Lewis warned. “Everybody’s brain is different. It’s up to you to take the time with your doctor and figure it out.”
Lewis also wants people to take the time to really listen to their bodies — and their minds– noting, as only she can, that when dealing with issues of mental health being “P.C.” is of little importance. “I don’t care how you say it; get your f-cking a– to a doctor.
“You don’t want to wait until something horrible happens to get help. Admit that something’s not right. You might not know exactly what, but you still want to go get it checked out.
“A friend of mine noticed that I wasn’t right and loved me enough to tell me. That’s what I really want to get out there, that we all need to pay attention. Pay attention to your friends, pay attention to that cousin that jumps up on the picnic table at the family reunion and goes a little too ‘nutty,’ you know what I mean? Pay attention to that aunt that’s down in the basement that never comes upstairs. We have to pay attention to our friends, pay attention to your family and offer a hand.”
Soon, Lewis will be offering more insight into her life with bi-polar disorder by way of a memoir slated for publishing by Amistad/HarperCollins in 2017, which she already said is “a tale to tell.”
“All I have to say is get ready. It’s already a best-seller to me. I’m just real excited. I’m very humbled by the fact that I do have so much to say and I just hope that my walk, my honesty will make a difference for people and maybe motivate them. Tell the children to get ready.”