It’s no question that FOX’s hit show, “Empire,” is here to stay. Created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, the drama has captivated audiences with a host of sassy, complex and outspoken characters. Cookie, Jamal and Hakeem appear to be fan favorites, but there is something about the oldest Lyon brother, Andre. He’s the quiet black sheep of the family and his struggle with bipolar disorder allows him to stand out from the talented case.
It’s almost unfortunate that Andre (played by Trai Byers) is mostly compelling because of his mental illness. Otherwise he’s a rather boring character with pedestrian traits chucked into a soap opera; he’s handsome, smart, well-educated and rich. Still, Andre brings an immensely important conversation about Black men and psychological health to the forefront. Watching Andre on screen, we’re confronted with questions like: what is bipolar disorder? What are the symptoms? How can people deal with bipolar disorder in their everyday life—whether they suffer from it or know someone else who does? Finally, does Andre’s depiction on the show cast an accurate picture of how bipolar disorder manifests in real, ordinary people?
As described by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision, bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that yields cycles of mania and depression. Bipolar disorder consists of various levels; its most extreme version is Bipolar 1 and most in the psychology field attribute the disorder to family history. Other forms include cyclothymia, a chronic, yet less intense form of the disorder that brings on hypomania and depression for at least two years.
Some also suffer from mixed episodes, another form of the disorder in which one feels mania and depression at the same time, experiencing misery and high levels of energy at the same time that can push them to engage in irresponsible behaviors, like when Andre purchased that Lamborghini on the show. Finally, there is rapid-cycling, a form of bipolar disorder in which an individual can quickly go through various episodes of mania, depression or both simultaneously in a single year. In the few episodes of “Empire,” that have aired, we’ve seen Andre go from 0-100 about being the heir to the company, we’ve seen him pimp out his wife and we’ve seen him refuse to take his meds by choosing to drink instead.
Bipolar disorder has also been linked to biological factors, such as improperly functioning neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine. Even one’s environment can bring on the disorder for someone, perhaps if they’re experiencing a major life event or are consistently in high-stress situations. Andre’s character is fixed on inheriting the Empire record label, so to say he’s stressed is an understatement. Having cyclothymia could put individuals at risk for suffering from deeper forms of bipolar disorder, as well as alcohol and substance abuse, complications from medical treatments or other psychological disorders.
“We don’t have all the answers to why this happens, but we do know that when the onset typically happens we know that its related to genetics and we know that it can cause significant damage to people’s lives if it’s left untreated,” Elana Clark-Faler, a licensed clinical social worker and the clinical director of Recovery Help Now Inc. says. She explains that the first instances of bipolarism are often very minor and hard to spot, hence the individual usually doesn’t get their diagnosis for the problem until their first maniac episode. In fact, individuals can appear so excited or euphoric from their maniac episodes that sometimes they’re mistaken for being on drugs by onlookers.
There’s a handful of symptoms that come along with this disorder: heightened self-esteem or grandiosity, minimalized sleeping patterns (i.e. feeling awake after only three hours of sleep), feeling excessively talkative, racing thoughts and ideas, decreased appetite, feelings of euphoria or anger, disorganized thoughts and speech, aggressive behaviors, being easily distracted by unimportant or irrelevant peripheral items, extreme focus and execution of goal-directed tasks and taking extremely risky behaviors like uninhibited buying sprees or unprotected, promiscuous sexual activity.
The risks and effects of bipolar disorder can be so extreme that many would consider it a disability that can hinder relationships and career paths. Ironically, many people who live with the disorder still go on to have highly successful career paths, benefiting from the onslaught of brilliant, complex ideas that they conceive of as a result of their bipolarism. There’s a long list of celebrities that have battled the disorder, including: Chris Brown, Macy Gray, Jenifer Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Jr., DMX, Delonte West and Nina Simone.
While referencing the writings of psychology expert, Dr. Xavier Amador, Dr. Clark-Faler goes on to explain that: “people with mood disorder issues such as Bipolar I disorder may have things that are happening in their brain that are actually causing them to distort reality. There’s something that’s happening in the breakdown of the brain based off of proteins.”
Bipolar disorder tends to arise in adults during their 20s. For men, this most frequently happens between the ages of 18-26 while for women, it can arise as late as their mid-30s. However, cases of bipolar disorder have been found in children as young as three-years-old. When reflecting on Andre’s presence and actions in “Empire,” Dr. Clark-Faler concedes that his character is highly representative of the symptoms ordinary people face this problem.
“His wife [Rhonda, played by Kaitlin Doubleday] is constantly asking him to take his medication. He bought a Lambo on a whim—that’s a manic episode. But if he were in a cycle of depression, you would have seen him at his house, crying, not coming out of his bedroom. There are many moments in the show where you saw him dealing with mania and depression, like when he had a gun to his head, when he got in the shower with his wife. Even on medication, you will experience highs and lows, but they won’t be so extreme.”
Despite how difficult living with bipolar disorder can be, it is by no means a death sentence. In fact, with the help of medical professionals and the support of family and friends, bipolar disorder can be diagnosed and treated with medications to balance one’s moods. The hardest part is getting the individual in question to understand that they have the disorder, as it can be hard for them to conceive of the problem when in and out of their bouts of mania, depression and delusional experiences.
Dr. Elizabeth Brondolo, a professor of psychology at St. John’s University and the author of Break the Bipolar Cycle: A Day by Day Guide to Living with Bipolar Disorder stresses having a treatment team, including a psychopharmacologist and a clinical psychologist that will work with the family and examine the scenarios that the bipolar individual is struggling with. From there, the team will work together to determine how symptoms of bipolar disorder is affecting their behavior. After assessing the client’s behavior, the psychologist can then collaborate with the psychopharmacologist to find a medication that can specifically help an individual get back in control of their behaviors and regulate their emotions.
She explains, “A common thing that happens to people with bipolar disorder when they are not doing so well is they suffer with doing tasks that require logistical thinking. That can include shopping for food and preparing meals because that’s a multi-step task or even getting your medicines picked up. And it’s important to remember that with bipolar disorder, you’re often taking four to seven medicines so they might not all come due at the same time. It might include taking care of your physical appearance. That means tolerating being organized enough to get into the shower and get started.”
“But these problems can come for lots of different reasons,” continued Dr. Brondolo. “They can come because you’re so depressed or in a mixed state that you don’t have the energy to do it. They can come because you can’t really think through what you need when you’re at the supermarket, or you can’t plan through because you have deficits in information processing and memory…Or it could be because when doing logistical tasks, you’ll encounter a problem and have too strong an emotional reaction to it. You’re not stable enough to tolerate that frustration and shift into the next solution.”
As with any serious issue, doctors emphasize the importance of talking openly about the challenges and effects of bipolarism for anyone who is impacted by the disorder—whether they’re the individual with the disorder or they’re a family member or romantic partner looking on and acting as a source of support. Dr. Brondolo stresses having this conversation for those in romantic relationships when one person is posed with having playing nurse for their partner.
“Having a place where husband and wife can sit down and talk through what happens to the relationship when one person has to play the nurse role is important. Sometimes that can really bring people together and other times it can really be disruptive.”
Recognizing how that works in your family can be very helpful. In conversations with the psychologist, couples need to speak honestly about whether having one partner help the other with the disorder emits feelings of shame and frustration or love, affection and intimacy.
In Andre’s case, the disorder seems to have brought him and his wife, Rhonda, closer together. In interviews with Hollywood Reporter, Byers and Doubleday remarked that the two have a strange, yet strong symbiotic attachment to (or dependency on) one another. What will become of Andre and his fellow characters on “Empire” remains to be seen, especially as he’s been admitted into a mental institution. Until the fateful day that the series airs its finale, we at #TeamBeautiful be tuning in week after week.