'Black-ish' Star Jenifer Lewis Discusses Sex Addiction, Being Bipolar

By Britni de la Cretaz 11/03/17

The prolific actress wrote about her struggles with bipolar disorder and sex addiction in her upcoming memoir.

Jenifer Lewis

Most of the coverage of high-profile sex addiction centers around famous men. But now, in a new memoir, Black-ish star Jenifer Lewis is opening up about her bipolar disorder and sex addiction.

Out November 14, The Mother of Black Hollywood touches on Lewis’s path to being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and the 17-plus years of therapy that's helped her learn to live with the mental health issue.

Writing about it, she told People magazine, was something she had to do. “I felt it was my responsibility. Stigma, fear, and just plain ignorance about mental illness, particularly among African Americans, has taken a terrible toll on our families and communities.”

In an excerpt published in People, Lewis, 60, explains how the compulsive sexual behavior began when she was in her 20s and working on Broadway. “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 nightcap. 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.”

She also details her one-night stand with actor Jon Voight in the early 1980s. And while she has no regrets and says it was a nice night, she also recognizes that it was a symptom of her mental health issues. “I knew that was a one-night stand,” she told Page Six. “That was just some young, part of the sex addiction, part of the drama of being in my 20s … It was Midnight Cowboy, child, please. I went in!”

When Lewis was first diagnosed, she says she resisted the “mental illness” label. “Had [my therapist] said, ‘You’re crazy,’ I would have agreed. I had been crazy all my life. When she said, ‘Mental illness,’ I thought, ‘B—, you crazy,’” she writes. Lewis says she associated the term “mental illness” with “straitjackets.” 

And while she knew what it meant to be depressed, the term “mania” was new to her. “When [my therapist] 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.”

But the diagnosis wasn’t enough for Lewis to accept medication right away. She says she still struggled to come to terms with the idea, thanks to stigma and fear. “I am Jenifer Mothaf—in’ Lewis, you aren’t going to turn me into a zombie,” she writes. But over time, self-medicating with alcohol and sex wasn’t a solution, either.

“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.

Writing the book was hard. Lewis told Page Six that the book “damn near killed me.” To write it, she read through all 63 of the journals she’d been keeping since she was in seventh grade. “It was the biggest challenge of my life to write this book. There were several times I wanted to quit. It was a very difficult process, but I continued because that’s really all I really know to do.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.