The powerful voice. The attitude. The smile. All things that we recognize about Jenifer Lewis, even if we may not recognize her name. The well-known actress has been in many memorable roles and continues to thrill audiences on the big and small screen in over 60 major films like What’s Love Got To Do With It, Think Like A Man, Sparkle, and countless roles on shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and recently on the award-winning sitcom, black-ish. But after 17 years of therapy and 10 years of being medicated for bipolar disorder, the beautiful actress decided to stop hiding her mental illness from others and tell her story.
Jenifer was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1990, but she says she knew for years before, that something was wrong. Her addiction to sex and alcoholism spiraled things out of control. Jenifer says she deals with her mental health issues every day, but she’s happy with her life thanks to really loving herself.
As the years of being a sought after actress and performer passed, her undiagnosed bipolar symptoms worsened, and by 1989 she was heavily self-medicating with alcohol in addition to sex.
“I was Cleopatra, Pam Grier, Marilyn Monroe, and Jezebel rolled into one,” admits Lewis. “For me, nothing could extend the thrill of a standing ovation like great sex with a gorgeous guy.”
“Just as alcoholism isn’t really about the liquor, my addiction wasn’t really about the sex. It was about the unresolved psychological problems that caused me pain. Sex was simply my painkiller,” continues Lewis.
“You have to look in the mirror … and say—before you can go or grow into anything—you have to say you love yourself,” she professes.
One of the key triggers for her disease came 20 years ago when her father died.
“I was overwhelmed with my grief, unable to handle my feelings,” she says. “I cried and cried, and I started to scream. I wanted to be let out of the darkness.”
But at her lowest, three years later when a girlfriend, who witnessed her screaming on the floor, said, “I don’t think this has anything to do with your father dying,” Lewis says. That’s when she finally decided to seek help and discovered she was bipolar.
People who are bipolar switch from feeling an energetic, “high” and/or irritable to feeling sad and hopeless, and then back again. They often have normal moods in between. These “up” and “down” feelings are called mania and depression. If left untreated, bipolar disorder can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide.
One of the problems with being bipolar is that, “it’s hard to accept that you have a problem,” Lewis shares. You might yell at your children or partner over something insignificant and think those reactions are normal, experts say. You might be angry with your boss and go off on him or her over something minor, or, as Lewis put it, “always find yourself at the center of some drama.”
“That’s another piece of the disease – the denial,” she says. “You think everyone cries themselves to sleep. You should ask yourself…