Posted June 20, 2008 – You’ll know her face before you recognize her name, but actress Jenifer Lewis, whose most recent film credits include Tyler Perry’s “Madea's Family Reunion” and “Meet the Browns,” wants you to know something else about her.
Years before Lewis knew what to call the uncontrollable emotions that would cause her want to speed down highways recklessly or cry herself to sleep, she knew something was wrong.
“All my life I knew something wasn’t right because I was so depressed every night,” Lewis says. “The drama, the extreme anger – these were some of the symptoms. The highs were very dangerous. I started feeling like I was immune to anything.”
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And then there were the lows, the most striking of which for Lewis 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 she realized that she had to “fix it herself.
That’s when she finally sought help and discovered she was bipolar.
Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness, marked by a chemical imbalance that affects one’s mood. People who have it experience dramatic mood swings, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
They switch from feeling an energetic, "high" and/or irritable then sad and hopeless, and then back again. They often have normal moods in between. The up feeling is called mania. The down feeling is depression. Bipolar disorder usually starts in late adolescence or early adulthood. Untreated, bipolar disorder can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide.
However, there are effective treatments: medicines and "talk therapy.” A combination usually works best.
“These medicines will get you someplace in the middle so you can live a life of contentment,” Lewis says.
One of the problems with being bipolar is that it’s hard to accept that you have a problem, Lewis says. 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 why am I so depressed, why am I so angry with my children, angry with my partner, … why am I depressed, or over the top?”
Denying the problem can only cause more problems, Lewis says, adding that self-medication, such as when she started drinking heavily while attending college, is a byproduct of the uncontrollable emotions bipolar people suffer.
If you think you might be bipolar, Lewis says, there’s nothing wrong with seeking help.
But, getting on top of the disease isn’t easy, Lewis says. She had to go through a series of drugs that sometimes made her sick or didn’t work before she and her therapist found the right combination. Once that happened, she said she was able to live life more fully.
Having come from a life of extreme poverty in East St. Louis, Ill., Lewis said, “Somewhere in my soul I knew there was more. I wanted that. Even this disorder wasn’t going to keep me from that dream. I was determined to find a way to live in this world. I love being alive. I’m grateful that I can handle my life and my career. I am fabulous!”
If you think you may be bipolar, tell your health care provider, experts advise. A medical checkup can rule out other illnesses that might cause mood changes. For more information on the disorder, go to Bridgetoabrightertomorrow.com.
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