She came onto the Hollywood scene and stole our hearts in the 1990’s— and then she was gone. What happened to Lisa Nicole Carson? In an exclusive, the actress reveals her fight to find her happy place.
I was the belle of the ball in the late nineties, with roles on Ally McBeal and ER and in Love Jones. I’ve always been full of energy and would often be twirling around on sets. But my high-spirited moments looked like something else to one of the producers on ER. He had a family history of bipolar disorder and thought I might be exhibiting some of the symptoms. I didn’t know what he was talking about or how it could apply to me, so I just continued with my life. A year later I was in New York City catching up with loved ones when I unexpectedly had a fit in my hotel—yelling, throwing things, crying and raising enough hell that the staff called an ambulance. I ended up being hospitalized for a few weeks, and a psychiatrist gave a diagnosis: bipolar disorder. I was stunned and clueless, and so was my family. I didn’t want to believe I had any mental health issues and went into denial. I was supposed to take medicine, and I didn’t. I’m animated and exuberant, and this made it difficult to determine what was my normal and what was actually odd behavior.
After the incident at the hotel, I was in utter shock. I had thought I had it all together since people typically came to me for advice. But there I was. Professionally, I was on top of the world, and then I had the rug ripped out from under me. If I had been seeing a psychiatrist or a therapist before the breakdown, maybe somebody would have been able to detect that I was off balance. Nobody close to me had a clue, and neither did I. During my stay in the hospital, I was given medicine to stabilize my moods, and I spoke with a therapist. Upon being discharged, I returned to Los Angeles and went back to work on Ally McBeal feeling more in control. Everybody on the show was wonderful to me, but my contract wasn’t renewed for the final season. Nobody gave me an explanation, but I assumed it had to do with what had happened. I was devastated.
Memoirs of Hollywood
Once my episode became public, I was torn apart in the press, which really hurt. Up to that point, I’d led a charmed life in show business. My mother recognized my talent early, and I did my first play, Fiddler on the Roof, in the second grade. I continued doing theater and taught myself how to act by watching movies and other productions. At 23 I did a play in New York and was asked to try out for Divas, a TV movie originally produced by Quincy Jones. I auditioned for him in L.A. He said, “This girl has It. ”I could have fainted, and I have always cherished that memory. I got the part, booked Jason’s Lyric soon after and the roles kept coming.
But even if you have “It,” you can falter. Ally McBeal was my last Hollywood gig. After that I moved back to my hometown of New York City and stayed there for more than a decade. During that time I worked with many doctors to get as much control of my life as I could and experimented with various treatments including mood stabilizers and antipsychotic medications. I’ve learned to look for the symptoms in myself: getting too euphoric or overstimulated. My bipolar disorder is usually exhibited on the high-energy and manic end. Some people who have the illness are more on the depressive side.
Before my mind and moods came under scrutiny, my body and I had already gone through a journey. I was a tomboy growing up. Then puberty hit, and seemingly overnight I had a 38DD bra size. I constantly wore sweatshirts and was mad at my body. Then I fell in love as I neared my twenties. When I realized my body could turn a man to mush, it became empowering. I was often the curvy one on set, and I felt beautiful no matter my size. I still enjoy the company of men, although dating has been interesting with my mental health condition. When I was hospitalized, I was in a relationship, and he was terrific about it. We stayed together for a while afterward. I’m not dating anyone seriously now and don’t feel pressured to do so, but I hope The One comes along.
Finding My Peace
The best thing about taking a step back was spending time with my mother. She passed in 2011. What brought me through has been medicine, prayer, music and my dog, Josephine. I see a psychiatrist and a psychologist regularly and now just take anti-anxiety medication. I’ve returned to L.A. to give my career another try. I’m going on auditions and handling rejection better than I did in the past. We recently had an Ally McBeal reunion for the TV Land Awards. It was wonderful getting dressed up and seeing everyone.
I’m tackling the myth that African-American women have to be pillars of strength. We have the right to fall. We have the right not to always have our sh– together. We just have to take our mental health as seriously as we do the physical. Do not be afraid to go to a therapist or a doctor to make sure everything is fine. I am excited for my new chapter. I now am stronger and ready for what’s next, while taking care of my emotional health.
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands July 12!