By Angela Bronner, BlackVoices.com
The indomitable Jenifer Lewis –one for whom the word diva is made -- has been a formidable force in the world of drama and song for almost 30 years.
Lewis currently tears up the stage of the Broadway production of 'Hairspray' as Motormouth Maybelle, mother of Seaweed J. Stubbs, played by singer Tevin Campbell. Her ovation at the end is always one of the longest.
Here, Lewis opens up about a very real, very pervasive issue in our country: bi polar disorder (formerly manic depression.) Lewis, who created a one woman show about the illness – "Bipolar, Bath and Beyond" -- shares with us her Testimony.
Can you explain what bi-polar is?
Bi-polar is a mood disorder, where people will experience extreme highs and extreme lows including anger all the time, irritability and reckless behavior. It's very serious to control that manic behavior. People who need drama in their lives all the time, you know complaining and coming in a room loud, and inappropriate.
Self medicating to hide feelings. Yet the other piece is very important also -- it's the dark hours that people spend in bed. Getting too much sleep, not enough sleep, complete and utter depression and taking sometimes weeks, sometimes months to come out of these episodes.
So when did you first notice that something may be amiss, that you were maybe a little different than other people?
Well Angela, kinda like when I was a kid you know? I pretty much cried myself to sleep every night of my youth. I was diagnosed with this disease in the early '90s but it took my therapist about 4 or 5 years to convince me to medicate myself. So it was very difficult for her to even get inside of me to understand that there was something wrong, because being in show business, that edge, that manic behavior -- you feel you need it to function. But yes I knew, I always knew that something was wrong basically because of the depression.
How are you managing it?
I've been on medication now for I think about 12 years and that's why I feel experienced enough to speak about it now. I'm not pushing a certain medication. I'm pushing treatment because only your health care provider can work with you for your specific treatment. We're all different you see, and the one thing I want to stress about getting your individual treatment from your healthcare provider is when you get it, to stick to it. This is a life long journey. So we all have to take care of ourselves, you see. There is a site you can go to called, Bridge to a Brighter Tomorrow. And there you get information about the tools and the questions you can take to your doctor and ask. You know, explain what your symptoms are and you can get information. I recommend that, highly.
And how has this affected your family or loved ones, those close to you?
Well, [sigh] I'll be very honest with you, depression and manic behavior affects everyone around you. It affects your relationships, your children, you lovers, your husband, your mother and father. There are so many people that are affected by this – I knew a family of doctors and lawyers, a beautiful family and they had that one sister that was bi-polar and kept the family pretty much hostage to her reckless behavior. So she was the one sibling who would not take her meds. She would get on them, get off them and it's very dangerous to your health.
When did you know that you needed help? When did you hit that brick wall?
I hit the brick wall when I lost two very close people in my life, two days apart and my grief overwhelmed me. And with that I knew I needed help. Once again I didn't want to stay in that dark, dark place.
Did someone tell you that you might need help?
See when you're manic, you're not listening. This is a chemical imbalance in the brain so you're not listening. You're not level enough to even hear people to tell you---and you know in my case being a comedian, I would just laugh it off, anything to deny that I was sick. And I don't really want to use that word but, it's a real disease.
Did you use self medication?
Most definitely, most definitely. I drank heavily in my youth and college and all that trying to just kill the feelings that were so extreme.
I know you did your stand up act "Bi-polar Bath and Beyond." Why do you choose humor and art to speak about this? Is it easier?
Most definitely. Well when I wrote "Bi-polar Bath and Beyond" I had sort of been asked to do this show at the Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles and I raised $50,000 for the homeless children. And as I was doing the show I realized how really important it was. I simply wrote it because it's what I do. But when a girl came from Jet magazine and told me she had a sister that was bi-polar and she was a big fan of mine, and she read that I had the same disease that she had she was encouraged to stay on her medication and with that, one of the Oprah editors read the Jet magazine and asked me to come on and then of course I was able to relate to 60 million people that this disease, bi-polar, is manageable and treatable.
What do you think the most important thing a family member can do for someone they love who might be suffering from this?
Most definitely, the important thing is to let them know because a lot of bi-polar people don't know, they're just running amuck, they're in denial mostly, and you have to be real and see those warning signs and if you love somebody help them. Get them informed, tell them to go to the site....offer to go with them to a doctor's visit. It can be scary but the first step with any addiction, disease or sickness is to acknowledge that you have it.
So you're able to work now?
Girl I've done 60 films and 120 television shows, I'm doing alright. I adopted a little girl and she's in her third year of college. Life is good. I'm doing very well mainly because I stay on my meds and I have therapy once a week and I take care of myself. God is great.
Are you currently in 'Hairspray' now?
I certainly am, I want everyone to come to New York and see me on Broadway. I'm good darling, I bring down the house.
Anything else for our readers?
Just tell them, life is beautiful it really is. I know it sounds naïve but I'm very grateful and humbled by my success. And the reason I have my success -- which is very rare, mind you, but the reason I have my success is because I take care of myself. I went to a doctor, and I got on the medication and I stay in therapy.
Mental Health & African-American Health
May is Mental Health awareness month. Mental health in the Black community is an issue that is often ignored because:
- There is a stigma in the Black community
- The mental health establishment often mistreats blacks
Terrie Williams, a high-powered publicist who has serviced Janet Jackson, wrote of her depressive breakdown in the book 'Black Pain.' At what rate do black women suffer from depression as compared to white women?
- At the same rate
- Twice the rate
- Five times the rate
In addition to depression, African-American are more likely to suffer from certain psychological disorders particular to our community, such as:
- Bipolar disorder
Getting treatment for mental health is important, as suicide is the worse result of attempting to live with an untreated illness. How high is the rate of suicide for young black men versus young white men?
- It's higher for black men
- It's the same
- It's higher for white men
In addition, black Americans are often exposed to stressors that lead to higher incidences of untreated, more severe mental health problems, such as:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Job loss
- Social prejudice
With the many issues our community faces, reducing resistance to psychological treatment is of critical importance. Anti-depressant drugs may help in healing by:
- Numbing the pain of depression
- Restoring neurochemical balances in the brain
- Do they help?
What role can the black church play in mental health treatment?
- A purely positive role
- It's a mixed blessing
- There is no role for the church in mental health treatment
Therapy through professional services are important for blacks seeking mental health treatment. Yet, aside from fears and stigmas, many blacks do not receive effective professional treatment because:
- They don't have health insurance
- The medical establishment misdiagnoses African-Americans
- Both of these answers, and more
The good news is:
- There is no good news
- Black people recover at rates equal to whites with effective treatment
Mental health is an issue in our community that deserves attention and solutions. For psychological issues for ourselves and others, it is important to:
- Ignore the signals
- Create a proper treatment plan
- Wallow away in despair