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.”