The singer with the most solo number records in history has spoken for the first time about being hospitalised for her mental health and being diagnosed with bipolar. She also voiced a fear of losing an essential part of herself, the part where condition and being are inseparable. It's a fear many of us recognise, writes Mark Brown.
Being a celebrity is weird. It's a hyper-specialised meeting of an unusual person and an unusual situation; a combination of chance, hard work, sheer luck and talent. Being really good at something isn't usually enough to become a household name. There is usually a little something else: a quirk, a freakiness, a tiny spark of something within you that other people do not have.
"Hypomania is like being a constantly moving camera, interested in everything. Thoughts, plans, impressions, schemes: all pass through you like a projector."
This week world famous diva Mariah Carey, a paragon of glamour and elaborate gestures, spoke to US magazine People about finally seeking support and treatment for bipolar II disorder. Carey claims she received her diagnosis in 2001 after being hospitalised but didn't want to accept it. She told People's editor-in-chief Jess Cagle: "I didn’t want to carry around the stigma of a lifelong disease that would define me and potentially end my career. I was so terrified of losing everything, I convinced myself the only way to deal with this was to not deal with this."
Bipolar II is a condition that often takes longer to diagnose and even longer to accept. It's bipolar without mania, which means it's mostly depression - horrible, cloying, agency destroying depression - but also, as if to balance it out, a glorious, magical golden thing called hypomania. Hypomania is is like honey on the tongue to depression’s mouth full of ashes. Everything that depression is, hypomania is not. Hypomania borders mania but isn't mania. Where depression turns everything into fingernails on the blackboard irritation and lacerating self-doubt, hypomania is a bubble of confidence, a champagne of energy and optimism, fizzing with ideas and possibilities. Hypomania is glamorous, not in that it is beautiful or appealing but in the original meaning referring to magic or enchantment. It is beguiling and bewitching: a spell that allows you to convince yourself of things and in turn to convince others. It’s like what people do coke to feel but there’s no drug but yourself.
Hypomania is like being a constantly moving camera, interested in everything. Thoughts, plans, impressions, schemes: all pass through you like a projector. You may be super focused or you may be like a collage. Things will work. You'll make them work. The pieces of ideas slot together like the well oiled parts of a benign gun that fires not bullets but ideas. In your grandiosity you stride the world like a colossus. You might be all big picture or you might be all details. Those around you may not be able to see how the parts fit into the whole, may not be thinking quickly and confidently enough to see the hidden tracks your thoughts are following. But that's OK, you'll convince them. You're good at that, too.
And that's where it gets sticky. Not all of your ideas will be good ones. Not all of your positive self talk will be warranted. But it just might be that you're onto something, it just might be that you've convinced someone. And if you were right, well, that opens a whole other level of confusion. Then you have to deliver on the big things you promised. And sometimes, if you’re one of the lucky ones, you will. For every hypomanic episode of achievement there is one of embarrassment; of overestimated ability; of a pile of half finished projects, or broken relationships.
I received a diagnosis of bipolar II in 2001. I've always been a bit terrified of letting it take me where it might. There's a vertigo to embracing it with which I still wrestle. Bipolar is seductive like that. Anyone will tell you. I've always been terrified of the capacity to mess things up for other people and myself. So I have kept the shining-eyed, quick creature hidden through shame, battling for years to be like other people, trying to make up for the deficits I had while trying to ignore exactly how I was different.
Leaning into the weirdness and difference and embracing it and putting aside the doubts and the worries gives you, if you are in the right place in the right time, a grace period where everything meshes and your quirks make the running for you. You might make an early impact; impress quickly; charm the pants off all around you. Then the period of grace ends and the quirks want their due. With something like bipolar II you're like a programme that can do something pretty amazing but which collects unresolved routines that eventually mount up and crash the computer. Many of us run into a wall when the gifts and debts of the way we are become unbalanced. Eventually the non negotiables of life catch up with you and you find the gift and the curse are the same thing.
So many of the talented people I know are so good at what they do because they found a way to harness their inherent freaky difference, people whose ADHD makes them amazing at sucking up and reshaping information, people on the spectrum who harness their focus into amazing acts of creation, people who channel their trauma or their depression or their bipolar into making jumps and leaps other would not make. The common factor in harnessing the freakiness is finding a career that can accommodate the lateral exploration you need to do to make best of how you are different and rewards you enough to be able to offset your failures.
There's something horribly humbling about having to accept you have something like bipolar II. Why should I have to see a doctor when I’m feeling awesome? It’s something where you realise that that what you thought was most you, the you you use to make things happen, is really just the bleeding edge of the condition. It’s a diagnosis that makes you go back through your life and reclassify yourself and your experiences asking 'who was I? Is it the me I am now?' When Mariah talks about losing everything, she voices the fear of losing an essential part of herself, the part where condition and being are inseparable. What Mariah knows, and the rest of us who have managed to harness our atypicality know too, is that if we'd got the 'right' help early on we probably would never have been able to take the path we have. But even that certainty might be a glamourous illusion, too.