In her new memoir, black-ish star Jennifer Lewis talks frankly about the sex addiction and undiagnosed bipolar disorder she struggled with through young adulthood.
“We are as sick as our secrets, so I tell everything,” Lewis said in an interview with People Magazine.
Aptly titled The Mother of Black Hollywood, the actress and singer said she has proudly worked as the mom of “every black actor in the business.” In the book, Lewis writes that her sex addiction really kicked in when she moved to New York City after college and found success in the Broadway productions Eubie! and Comin’ Uptown.
“Performing on Broadway was a rush,” she writes. “The applause coming over the footlights was like a tsunami in slow motion. The crash after the show, I assure you, is just as intense. Let’s just say that post show I had a sort of habit of sex serving as a night cap. I was Cleopatra, Pam Grier, Marilyn Monroe, and Jezebel rolled into one. For me, nothing could extend the thrill of a standing ovation like great sex with a gorgeous guy.”
According to Mental Health America (formerly the National Mental Health Association), bipolar disorder affects an estimated 2.3 million Americans. And while the rate of bipolar disorder, also called manic-depressive illness, is the same among African Americans as it is among other Americans, we are less likely to receive a diagnosis and treatment for this illness. One of the contributing factors to a delayed diagnosis is that African Americans tend to focus on physical problems, rather than discuss mental symptoms, or we mask symptoms with substance abuse or other medical conditions.
Lewis said her undiagnosed bipolar symptoms worsened as she got older, and by 1989 she was heavily self-medicating with alcohol in addition to sex. Eventually she sought help, and her therapist Rachel diagnosed her as having bipolar disorder.
“Had she said, ‘you’re crazy,’ I would have agreed. I had been crazy all my life,” she writes. “When she said, ‘mental illness,’ I thought, ‘b—-, you crazy.’ I associated mental illness with people who couldn’t function, with straitjackets. I certainly knew what a depressive mood was, but this other ‘manic’ part was new. When Rachel 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.”
Therapy also helped her come to terms with her sex addiction.
“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,” she writes.
Lewis initially resisted medication. “I am Jenifer MothaF—in’ Lewis, you aren’t going to turn me into a zombie,” she writes. But eventually she realized it could help her.
“My responses were no longer as extreme. No matter what big issue or catastrophe loomed, I could say, ‘bring it’ and move forward. I was better able to listen and be present and aware of the world around me,” she writes.
Thanks to medication and continued therapy, these days the 60-year-old is much happier and healthier.
“I have peace of mind now; I’m in my skin,” Lewis told People. “It took years to get to that place, but I did it—and I have a smile on my face.”
For a list of black mental heath practitioners, contact the National Medical Association (www.nmanet.org) at (888) 662-7497.