'It's Time To Finally Share My Story'

After years of suffering in silence, the music icon opens up about her battle with bipolar disorder — and why she finally got help.

People Magazine by Cliff Watts

People (US) April 23, 2018. Text by Jess Cagle. Photography by Cliff Watts.

Even though she plays a sometimes over-the-top diva in public, Mariah Carey is considerably more subdued in person — smart, savvy and reserved. She's also a serious musician. One of the most successful singer-songwriters of all time, she has sold more than 200 million records and has been instrumental in bringing hip-hop and R&B into the mainstream. But her erratic behavior over the years has also mystified her fans — and has led to speculation that she suffered from mental illness. Now, for the first time, Carey, 48, is opening up about her battle with bipolar II disorder, a disease that can cause extended periods of depression as well as manic episodes known as hypomania. After years of suffering, she recently began treatment on the heels of what she calls "the hardest couple of years I've been through" — years that included upheaval in her professional life, romantic drama that played out in public and an E! reality show.

Carey — whose parents divorced when she was 3 — has often alluded to her struggles in her music. She says the lyrics of her 1997 song "Outside" chronicle her feelings about growing up biracial: "Early on you face the realization you don't have a space where you fit in...." In 2002's "Through the Rain" she wrote about her own despair and determination: "When you keep crying out to be saved but nobody comes, and you feel so far away that you just can't find your way home, you can get there alone. It's okay...."

Writing songs and singing helped her through a painful childhood, and making music, she says, has always been "a form of therapy." But she was ill-equipped for stardom when it came to her, fast and furious, in her early 20s, with its attendant pressures, hangers-on and public scrutiny. In 2001, a decade after her first album, she was hospitalized for an emotional and physical breakdown following her 1998 divorce from Sony Music chairman and CEO Tommy Mottola and her break from his label Columbia Records. "It was one of the most difficult times of my life," she says. "I had just left a big record company with a lof of personal attachment. I was trying to overcome that and move forward. It was very, very difficult to fight the system." Carey was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at that time, but "I lived in denial." Since then her personal and professional ups and downs have been a testament to both her talent and the illness she kept private.

Now in therapy and medication, Carey is co-parenting her 6-year-old twins, Monroe and Moroccan, with ex-husband Nick Cannon. She's dating choreographer Bryan Tanaka, 34 ("We're doing great," she says), and she's back in what she calls her "element" — the recording studio, working on a new album to be released later this year. Carey spoke to People's editor-in-chief, Jess Cagle, from her home in Los Angeles.

Why do you want to share this part of your life now?
I'm just in a really good place right now, where I'm comfortable discussing my struggles with bipolar II disorder. I'm hopeful we can get to a place where the stigma is lifted from people going through anything alone. It can be incredibly isolating. It does not have to define you, and I refuse to allow it to define me or control me.... This is just one part that I felt it was time to speak about.... I've also been inspired by the courage of other public figures who have revealed their own battles.

When were you diagnosed?
I was first diagnosed when I was hospitalized in 2001. I didn't believe it. I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to carry around the stigma of a lifelong disease that would define me and potentially end my career. People who escaped the life I grew up with don't want to go backward. I was so terrified of losing everything, I convinced myself the only way to deal with this was to not deal with this. My environment as a child didn't just intensify my disease, it impacted my willingness to seek a long-term solution for it. Until recently I lived in denial and isolation and in constant fear someone would expose me. It was too heavy a burden to carry, and I simply couldn't do that anymore.... I sought and received treatment, I put positive people around me, and I got back to doing what I live — writing songs and making music. As hard as this is, I also knew it was time to finally share my story.

Can you describe what a manic episode felt like to you, as well as what a more depressive episode felt like?
For a long time I thought I had a severe sleep disorder. But it wasn't normal insomnia, and I wasn't lying awake counting sheep. I was working and working and working. I thought working and promoting for days in a row without sleeping was just part of my life. I was irritable and in constant fear of letting people down. It turns out that I was experiencing a form of mania. Eventually I would just hit a wall. I guess my depressive episodes were characterized by having very low energy. I would feel so tired, lonely and sad — even guilty that I wasn't doing what I needed to be doing for my career.

How are you being treated now?
There's a lot of different ways. I don't want to get super-specific with it. I have access to great medical care. I'm exercising, getting acupuncture, eating healthy, spending quality time with my kids and doing what I love, which is writing songs and making music. Also, I'm surrounding myself with positive influences and finally receiving the physical and emotional support that I need. It doesn't hurt to bing-watch The Office.

Are you still figuring out what kind of medication to take?
I'm actually taking medication that seems to be pretty good. It's not making me feel too tired or sluggish or anything like that. Finding the proper balance is what is most important.

When your job is to be creative, does that make finding the right balance in medication trickier?
No, I don't think so. I just think it's better with any type of thing to not go overboard with it. The problem with meds is side effects, but now I'm good. I'm in a good place.

Have you tried different kinds of treatments over the years? Have you ever been misdiagnosed?
I've been treated for depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. At this point in my life I'm not really interested in blaming anyone. That's negative and it's history. I accept responsibility, and I want to move forward and heal and do what I love — make music and write songs and all things creative.

In the early '90s you had overnight success. How difficult was that to handle given your feelings of insecurity and not belonging?
I always worked through that. I had ambition, and I wanted to make sure that I never went through the same thing where I din't have the wherewithal to take care of myself. But in doing that I allowed people to work me to the ground in a business where they sometimes take advantage of young people. ...There needed to be boundaries.

Working makes it possible to not really reflect on the problem, which doesn't go away. It just gets masked by other things.
When I first started, I was so young and naive, letting others control me. I think I'm just vulnerable to that type of thing. It wasn't healthy. I had felt lost these past few years. I really missed pouring my heard and soul into my music, and all I really wanted to do was get back in the studio and write songs and sing.

Looking back on the past few years, are there specific things you wish you had skipped?
I wish we could just erase them.

All those years?
Well, the past few years, maybe. But I believe that everything happens for a reason. So maybe it just took me going through one of the hardest couple of years that I've been through in order to come out in a positive place on the other side.

Are there things we saw you do the past few years that you wish you had not done?
Rather than blame people or throw people under the bus, I think it's more my responsibility to take care of myself, and that's an empowering thing.

After being hospitalized in 2001, you went from being very depleted to being so high-functioning that four years later you released The Emancipation of Mimi, which had a tremendous impact on music. How did you manage that when you were suffering from bipolar disorder and not being treated?
When I'm in the studio making music, I'm in my element. [For Mimi] I went to Capri. I'd work with my engineer in the studio and watch the sunrise. It's working all night, but it's creativity. I've always been more of a night person. This is a form of therapy for me.

How are your kids doing through it all?
Great. My children are amazing. They're so smart and funny. What could possible be more therapeutic than spending time with my kids and laughing and watching them enjoy childhood? I just want that for them. My relationship with Nick is very positive and we're co-parenting, and the most important thing I can do for my children is give them what I didn't really have, a chance to live in a safe and secure home surrounded by people who love and support them unconditionally.

Did motherhood have anything to do with your deciding to get treatment?
No, they're everything to me. They're never going to see me sitting around crying and being an emotional wreck in front of them. That's just never going to happen.

You were engaged to mogul James Packer recently, and a lot of people wondered what you were thinking through that. Do you want to explain?
I wonder what I was thinking as well. The whole situation was a whirlwind but I definitely wish him the best.

What makes you happy these days? What's a perfect day?
We just had an incredible day at Disneyland. So much fun. It's really about the kids and the music. Hopefully fans can read this and not be like, "Oh my God. What's wrong with Mariah?" Hopefully they'll just understand I'm doing this with the hope of helping others and also because it's going to be a freeing experience for me.