Jenifer Lewis is not one to hold anything back.
“We are as sick as our secrets, so I tell everything,” says the 60-year-old singer and actress, who lived with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and a sex addiction through her 20s.
Now starring on the ABC sitcom black-ish, Lewis, who proudly says she’s worked as the mom of “every black actor in the business,” is revealing her journey to a happier, healthier life in her memoir The Mother of Black Hollywood, excerpted exclusively in the current issue of PEOPLE.
Lewis writes in her memoir 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.”
As the years passed, her undiagnosed bipolar symptoms worsened, 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.”
- For more from Lewis’s memoir — including how she escaped rape by knife-point — pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Rachel 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.
At 50, Lewis decided to open up about her sex addiction and bipolar diagnosis in a one-woman show, Bipolar, Bath and Beyond. She also talked about her journey on an episode of Oprah.
“I saw the show as an opportunity to perhaps help someone with bipolar disorder find their way out of the darkness,” she writes. “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.”
But with therapy and a medication regimen that works for her, “I have peace of mind now; I’m in my skin,” Lewis tells PEOPLE. “It took years to get to that place, but I did it—and I have a smile on my face.”