FOX’s hit show, Empire, is getting bigger by the week. This is evidenced by the millions of viewers that tune in every Wednesday to view the saga of the Lyon family and Empire Records. Though it’s not necessarily my cup of tea artistically, it is a highly entertaining show, especially with the crowd participation that accompanies each episode on Twitter. We crack jokes on Wednesday nights, but there’s something that draws us back every week. I think it’s the fantasy element to it all. Few among the vast sea viewers watching can relate to the lavish lifestyle and high-stakes drama of the Lyons clan.
However, Lee Daniels has made it known that he’s trying to incorporate societal issues pertinent to the Black community into the show: homophobia, interracial relationships, prison and familial bonds have been among the biggest ones so far. The last few episodes have brought up another monster for Black people: mental illness.
As a person diagnosed with manic-depression/bipolar disorder, I perked up when Andre (played by Trai Byers), son of Empire head honcho Lucious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard) started to show signs of the illness and his diagnosis was revealed. Being familiar with the symptoms, I could tell that Andre was experiencing some type of mental issues when he went and sat in the shower fully clothed after hearing of his father’s ALS.
There are two types of bipolar disorder: Bipolar I and Bipolar II. I’m Bipolar I, meaning that I have experienced episodes of mania. That’s one thing people don’t understand when it comes to bipolar disorder. It’s not as simple as “moodiness.” With Bipolar I, you cycle through times of severe depression, or lows, and times of extreme self-confidence, or highs. While manic, you feel that you can do anything and that the world is your oyster. It doesn’t stop here. Your thoughts are infinite and bouncing around in your mind like lottery balls. You experience delusions of grandeur. Many of us feel that we are the Second Coming of Christ or some other deity. It’s a feeling like you’re living a real life version of The Matrix and you’re Neo. On top of that, you can hallucinate, seeing and hearing things that aren’t really there. Mania is very intense and can drive you to do unorthodox things (I’ve run into the homes of strangers and tried to break into cars). Hopefully, people who care about you are around, so that you can get to a facility before you are arrested or killed.
The Andre character doesn’t seem to be that extreme, so it is my unprofessional opinion that he is suffering from Bipolar II. Instead of mania, Bipolar II patients experience hypomania, a turned-down form of mania. Though he is clearly “high,” his detriment is based in reality. His trigger was clearly the stress brought on by the competition among the sons for control of the company. That, coupled with Lucious’ ire towards his White wife, Rhonda and perceived preference for his more musically- inclined brothers, Jamal and Hakeem is a lot to bear.
For the most part, Empire is pretty spot on with their depiction of bipolar disorder. Similar to myself, Andre was diagnosed in his junior year of college. Most of us are diagnosed in our early twenties. The spending sprees were also accurate. When our moods are elevated, the urge to splurge intensifies and money will be blown with a higher frequency than normal. For me, I’ve been generous with my spending while manic, buying things for other people. Andre showed this during the flashback to his college days when he bought all the expensive gifts for the family. It was shown also when he went out and bought the Lamborghini.
Another aspect of having an elevated episode was the level of irritation that Andre shows during manic episodes. It built up to a boiling point when he fought people in the board room, because while you’re manic, you aren’t trying to hear anything anybody’s trying to tell you. You have big plans and everybody else is just being an impediment. Then, when he was in the Holden-James Clinic surrounded by instruments of what he lacked (musical ability), he was reclusive. This is also authentic. A mental ward is what I would imagine something close to being in jail. You’re trapped there against your will with people who are also thrown off (some cutting themselves with whatever they can) and slowly, you come to realize that, yet again, you’ve been hoodwinked by your own mind. You do feel very weak and vulnerable. Like Andre, you wouldn’t have much to say to anybody either and just want to read.
The final aspect, which I imagine to be Daniels’ main objective, is the family’s reaction to the illness. Again, the Empire production staff was on-point. Based on my experience and others I’ve read about, your family won’t understand very easily. Nobody’s implied that my bipolar was a disease that only affects White people, like Cookie did, but I did sense some anger at the diagnosis, similar to the Lyon family, and I’ve been told there’s nothing really wrong with me. There was concern, though. Like Lucious, my mother noticed immediately when I was manic and, like Cookie, she cried over me and took to her computer (and books) to learn as much about bipolar disorder as she could.
Hopefully, others can relate to what Andre has endured and go get the help they need. Don’t assume that you will end up around loved ones during manic episodes like me or Andre. Several times, I have been taken away in handcuffs during manic episodes as well, but there are cases like Tanisha Anderson, Anthony Hill, Dontre Hamilton and others that should make you want to get your mental health in order. It is unpredictable and things can get beyond your control. Get help and stay in control.