“Relieved” to have a bipolar diagnosis to “validate her lifelong pains,” this rising pop star recounts her mental health journey in her latest album, Mystic.
Mackenzie Nicole, 22, was singing operas in several languages by the age of 6 and collaborating with rap icons at age 9. She’s been contending with bipolar depression and psychotic symptoms just as long.
Finally diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder in 2018, the Kansas City, Missouri, pop singer/songwriter/producer and social media phenom explores her mental health journey on her latest album, Mystic, and in a song-studded TEDx Talk.
How did you react to getting your bipolar I diagnosis?
I was completely unsurprised. My mom thought I had either bipolar or borderline personality disorder for years before I was diagnosed with both in 2018. I was extremely relieved to have my lifelong pains validated because despite being ill to the point of having psychotic hallucinations my entire life—yes, seeing things and hearing voices—I wrote myself off as being dramatic and attention-seeking.
Why go public with your mental health challenges? Did you worry about stigma?
Before, I kept it to myself because I didn’t want to involve anyone else or hear anybody’s opinion. I hid being sick for so long.… When I got diagnosed, I finally had a name for this thing. I don’t remember caring about how talking about it might affect my career. Nothing is worth living a lie.
In your TEDx Talk, you describe striving for stability as an odyssey. What chapter are you living now?
Unfortunately, I remain in “Purgatory”—the chapter after rock bottom, “The Rabbit Hole,” and before actual peace, “Oxygen.” Purgatory is the growing pains of recovery.
What’s helping you climb upward, so to speak?
My livelihood and well-being are predicated almost entirely on a borderline religious dedication to therapy and medication. I’m on a lot of medications, and I think that’s great! The stigma surrounding psychiatric meds is so strange to me. It’s literally a binary choice—be the worst version of myself every day, or take some pills and drastically improve my entire quality of life. I also go to therapy at least three times a week.
How does that work when you’re traveling?
Nothing gets to interfere with therapy. I schedule an over-the-phone appointment once a week when I’m traveling. I will stop the session in the middle of a studio day so I can go to therapy. I’m extremely fortunate to have the flexibility to build therapy into my schedule.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given about managing your mental health?
My psychiatrist once said that life is like a jungle gym. You can’t just barrel forward in a straight path. Lateral or even backward moves are essential to get from one side to the other. Her point was to dismantle this misconception that the trajectory of progress is an unwavering incline, because it’s definitely not.
Do you see a link between your bipolar and your creativity?
No. I would’ve been creative without mental illness. I always have to explain that mental illness robbing me of very nearly my entire life isn’t poetic. It’s devastating. If I were completely mentally well, I would simply be making equally creative art about something other than being sad.
Given that your dad co-founded the record label Strange Music, your chosen creative outlet isn’t too surprising.
Music—or, rather, the creation of music—has always been a constant in my life, as vital as oxygen. Virtually every moment of my life was music-centric, whether I was attending business meetings with my father [Travis O’Guin] in the basement of my childhood home or attending opera lessons after school. In retrospect, the possibility of me not being involved in music somehow, either as an artist or an executive, did not occur to me once.
What’s next, career-wise?
Honestly, I’m still feeling that out. I took a year off due to a mental health crisis, so I thoroughly reassessed my approach to my career. I am trying to keep myself afloat, but you’ll hear from me. I’m just not sure what you’ll be hearing or when you’ll be hearing it.
Tanya Hvilivitzky has spent almost 30 years in the communications field—a career that has included stints as an investigative journalist, magazine managing editor, corporate communications director, and researcher/writer. She has been with bp Magazine and esperanza Magazine since 2016, serving in roles such as interim editor and, currently, the features editor. She also writes for the bpBUZZ section of bphope.com, where she synthesizes complex information into a format that both inspires and informs.
As an award-winning writer/editor, she received the Beyond Borders Media Award for her 2012 investigative exposé about human trafficking. Her work on this important topic also earned the Media Freedom Award “Honouring Canada’s Heroes” from the Joy Smith Foundation to Stop Human Trafficking.
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