Bebe Rexha Talks About Living With Bipolar Disorder for the First Time: ‘I Decided to Open Up and Free Myself’

On a chilly December day right before the holiday rush, I’m at Smashbox Studios in Los Angeles waiting for the singer and songwriter Bebe Rexha to finish her photo shoot for this profile. I watch Rexha go through take after take and flow through pose after pose, hip cocked, balancing in stilettos with almost impossibly thin heels. As she works through each move expertly, it occurs to me that I’m watching a young woman eager to shape her own narrative, one who may not always have felt the agency to do so. At one point in the early afternoon, when a video team prepares to get some behind the scenes B-roll, Rexha grabs her phone and just films something herself. “Look how sick this is,” she says as she plays the footage for the rest of us, grinning, owning it.

It’s early evening by the time Rexha finishes the rest of the shoot, and as I sink into a long, low-slung gray sofa at the studio and get ready to interview her, I’m nervous that after such a long day she might feel too drained to peel back the bold layers on her surface and show me something deeper. But as she sits across from me, unspooling her truth into a tale of fear and resilience, I realize I didn’t need to worry. For the first time, Bebe Rexha is ready to share the depths of her story.

She doesn’t take long to open up. A few months earlier, in April, Rexha had tweeted to her 1.6 million followers that she has bipolar disorder. It wasn’t the first time she had acknowledged her mental health—her 2018 single “I’m a Mess” touched on similar themes—but it was the first time she’d referenced her specific diagnosis. “It did kind of fuck me up for a little bit,” Rexha tells me of learning that she had bipolar disorder, explaining that she spent a couple of days having what she describes as a breakdown. “I was very fearful,” she adds. “I didn’t want to think there was something wrong with me.”

I want to hear from Rexha in her own words, to understand why she decided to open up about the most intimate details of her life, why she decided she’d had enough and it was time for her to take control. Over the course of our interview, I learn that she had only just gotten official confirmation about the diagnosis in the days before she shared it with everyone else, after years of telling her family and therapist that she didn’t want to know. For most of the hour and change I spend curled up across from her, she keeps her deep brown eyes trained watchfully on my face. But she looks down when I ask why she feels it’s important to talk more openly about her bipolar disorder. She pauses, stroking the animal-print coat she’s draped across her legs to ward off the evening chill seeping through the window next to us. Each of her long, cherry-red nails comes to a fine point.

“That was my worst fear all my life: going crazy,” she says. “I felt like me opening up to my fans was me finally saying, ‘I’m not going to be imprisoned by this.’ And maybe it’ll make somebody not feel imprisoned, in that moment, if they feel like they’re going through a rough time. That’s why I decided to really open up and to free myself from that.”

Bleta “Bebe” Rexha was born to Albanian parents on August 30, 1989, in Brooklyn, New York. Originally trained as an opera singer, she was a successful songwriter before stepping in the spotlight herself, penning hits for a list of artists that would make for a most excellent concert: Rihanna, Eminem, Selena Gomez, David Guetta, and more. In 2010 she joined forces with Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz on the musical project Black Cards, then struck out on her own shortly after. She released her debut studio album, Expectations, in 2018. That same year she earned two Grammy nominations: one for best new artist, and another for best country duo/group performance, thanks to her collaboration “Meant to Be,” featuring the duo Florida Georgia Line. In 2018 she also founded the annual Women in Harmony gathering, which brings together female musicians, producers, mixers, songwriters, and other creatives in the music industry. And late last year she wrapped up a five-month stint opening for the Jonas Brothers’ Happiness Begins tour.

Rexha says it took her awhile to be comfortable with the idea of being a performer, rather than safely behind the scenes, in part because she felt pressure to follow a more traditional path—to scale back professionally, “marry someone in the Albanian culture,” and have children. “For me it was, How do I break out of that in my head and not listen to all the noise?” she explains.

Staying true to herself in this sense is what she’s most proud of, she tells me. “Making it as a female in the music industry and being able to take care of myself…and being able to take care of my parents feels like success to me,” she says. “It allowed me to follow my dreams and believe in myself, allowed me to break the rules.”

Speaking of dreams, Rexha’s getting closer to the one at the top of her list: “I want to put out a piece of work that I’m truly proud of, start to finish,” she says. “My last album was cool. There were some incredible songs on there. But I feel like a lot of them weren’t true to who I am as an artist.”

She hopes her next album, which is due later this year, will get her closer to this goal. To accomplish it, she’s exposing her most vulnerable side yet.

Rexha’s reciting lyrics from a song, “Break My Heart Myself,” from her upcoming album. The way her voice cocoons some vowels and extends others lends melody even though she’s not quite singing.

“It goes like, ‘Hello, my name is Stevie. / Actually, I’m lying. It’s really Bebe. / It’s the meds. They make me really sleepy. / Klonopin, my friend, yeah, she numbs the feeling,’” Rexha says. “And then it’s, ‘My doctor upped my dosage. / My mom felt bad, so she sent me roses. / But without it, I get really hopeless, / and 5.7 of Americans know it.’”

That last bit is in reference to the oft-cited estimate that bipolar disorder affects 5.7 million American adults (about 2.8% of the U.S. adult population). Rexha tells me that she has bipolar I, which is characterized by manic episodes that can bring a person’s mood and energy to extreme highs, along with depressive episodes that involve severe lows, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains. People with bipolar I can also experience mixed episodes that feature both highs and lows.

“I feel like, throughout my illness, I’ve definitely broken my heart myself many times,” she says, teasing apart the lyrics for me. “I don’t need you to break my heart…I don’t need you to make me sick or make me ill. I’ve been on this carousel all my life, and if you’re not going to better my life, then don’t fucking waste my time.”

It’s a heavy subject, and Rexha knows it, which is why she chose to approach the topic in a very intentional way. “It’s important for me to laugh at myself sometimes, and also spread information, and normalize it, because it makes me feel better instead of writing a sobby ballad.” She quickly adds, “Which you totally could do—there’s not anything wrong with that. But I like to be sarcastic about things sometimes. It takes away the pain and the hurt.”

Rexha’s been through a lot of that on this journey. “Even as a little girl, I remember always [being] anxious, scared of what was going to happen. I was so worried all the time,” she says. “I still am. I’m scared of everything.”

There were other signs that something was wrong, like a menstrual cycle that brought with it crushing sadness. “My mom would call it code red,” she says. “A day before [my period started], I would feel like my world was ending, that my life went to shit…I would get into these funks and be really depressed and not want to leave my house.” She’s since been diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a condition in which hormonal fluctuations cause severe mood changes before a person’s period, like overwhelming depression.

When Rexha wasn’t experiencing depression—she describes the struggle to free herself from those depths as “trying to pull a train”—her mood and behavior would sometimes crest to disorientingly high levels. “I would get super hyper, and I would text everybody, and I’d just get sloppy. I couldn’t control my emotions, and I was always super anxious, and couldn’t sit still.” She’d spend a lot of money too, she says. These are classic symptoms of mania.

As often happens with bipolar disorder, Rexha’s mood swings could be dangerous. “It made me feel just weird feelings, weird emotions, weird thoughts all the time. Not normal thoughts,” she tells me. “I’d be in the passenger seat of the car and I would want to open the door and jump out and just get fucking squashed—which is terrible.”

After years of trying to cope with her symptoms, Rexha was fed up and wanted help, even though she was also afraid of the stigma of mental illness. “It’s the war you have inside your head: Will it affect my career? Will people judge me? Will they want to work with me? If people have been calling me crazy, are they going to be like, ‘Well, that bitch is fucking crazy’?” she says. As a child of immigrants, she also had to deal with what felt like a cultural divide between how she and her parents treated mental health. “Especially European immigrant parents, growing up when I had anxiety and depression, they’d be like, ‘Just get over it. It’s all in your head. Take a walk,’” she explains. “But for my parents it was hard because they felt like it was a sense of failure, but it’s not their failure at all. It’s just an illness.”

But Rexha’s family was supportive of her need for help, and eventually she found the right therapist and later decided to start taking medication under the guidance of a psychiatrist. “I felt very sick, and there’s only so much you can take as a human being,” she explains. “I made an adult decision to take another step to better myself.”

Here’s the thing, though: While Rexha was ready to treat her symptoms, she wasn’t ready to know the specifics of what, exactly, she was treating. “I was kind of just going with the flow,” she says. But one day she decided to ask her therapist directly. “I was like, ‘Can I ask you a question? Am I bipolar?’” She mimics her therapist’s response, leaning in, a bemused expression on her face, an empathetic hand extended: “‘Yes, hun.’”

(A quick note on that: While experts in psychology say that the field is generally moving toward the idea that it’s always important to disclose someone’s diagnosis to them so you can form a more collaborative, open relationship when it comes to treating their disorder, they also note that some mental health providers are okay not disclosing to their patients, at least for some time, if they feel that’s the best way to do no harm to their patients.)

Soon after, Rexha tweeted what she’d just found out. “That was my moment of being like, ‘Fuck this,’” she says. “I just decided to do it because I was like, ‘I’m not going to be imprisoned by my thoughts that I’m not normal or that I’m crazy. That’s bullshit.’”

There’s no doubt that stigma surrounding certain mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety, is on the decline. It now feels pretty normal (still important, but normal) for celebrities to openly talk about these conditions, and if you’re anything like me, your friends might discuss their depression and anxiety with utter nonchalance, as they should. But, unfortunately, shame and misperceptions are much more common when it comes to lesser-discussed conditions like bipolar disorder. Think about what people are trying to communicate when they call something “bipolar,” like the weather or an ex—it’s clearly not a compliment. So when someone like Rexha decides to tell the world she has bipolar disorder, it’s putting a very real, very human face to a condition that is often shrouded in shame.

Once the news was out, Rexha felt freedom tempered by fear. “It’s scary, but at a certain point you got to say, ‘Fuck it, this is who I am.’ Or you just keep it to yourself,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s nobody’s business. But, for me, I like to be very transparent with my fans…and I won’t allow it to label me. It’s something that I’m going through, but it’s not me.”

There’s a common trope that taking psychiatric medication will make it harder to create your art. Rexha says she worried about this initially, but that those fears were misplaced. “I waited a very long time until I took meds,” she says. “I was really scared that it was going to change who I was and flatten me out.” Luckily, the reality of taking medication hasn’t validated those concerns. “I’m still the same person in the studio,” she says. “[Medication has] maybe helped me be a little bit more insightful and learn things about the world and also allowed me to be a little bit more centered so that I can actually write about my feelings.”

Yes, she still has a lot of feelings. “It doesn’t take away the sadness or anxiety totally, but I feel so much better,” she says of treatment. “It’s helped me live a more balanced life, less ups and downs. When my medication started kicking in, I couldn’t believe how I felt. I couldn’t believe that’s how good people could feel.”

Rexha says that she hasn’t yet worked up to the dosage her doctor has prescribed, which experts say is a common practice for many patients with bipolar disorder—one that is not recommended, however, since you risk experiencing more intense symptoms than you might otherwise. Even so, Rexha is quick to note that she’s a big proponent of medication; she advises others to find a solution that works for them, and if that includes medication, to “stay on top of it, and don’t miss doses, and speak to your therapist,” she says. “You have to have communication. It’s your body, it’s your brain. So it can’t be just something that you take and then you disappear for three years.”

As you can imagine, being a famous musician with bipolar disorder comes with specific challenges, as it would with any kind of health condition. “[The stress of] being in the industry really magnifies it, and being in the public eye can really magnify it, especially if you’re going out,” Rexha says. “There’s certain things I have to stay away from…. I have to be really careful because it can really throw me off and it’s fucking scary.”

Then there’s the dating part. “I’m not perfect,” says Rexha. “I have my moments.”

Like?

“Imagine if you’re dating somebody and you’re on the road and you have mood swings.… Sometimes I’ll get crazy in my head and start being like, ‘Who is that girl?’ But extra, extra, like, ‘We’re broken up!’” She mimes texting furiously. “Sometimes I’ll have my moments and do it five days in a row. Unblock, block, unblock, block, unblock. Yeah, it’s intense.”

At the heart of this, Rexha explains, is some insecurity about not being accepted as her whole self, bipolar disorder and all. “But then that’s not meant to be,” she says. She knows how deeply right and fulfilling it feels to surround herself with steadfast sources of support who do accept her.

There’s her mom, for starters. “My mom left her job for a long time and came on the road with me to make sure I was okay when I changed medicines or upgraded a dosage,” Rexha says. Her mom also suggests techniques for handling the ups and downs Rexha still experiences with her bipolar disorder or her PMDD. “She’ll be like, ‘Listen, right before your period, maybe…you don’t make such a big business decision or text anybody really big.”

There’s Justin Tranter, a songwriter who helped her distill her feelings about her mental health into “I’m a Mess,” the song on Expectations that she says was the most honest to who she is as an artist. “He’s so incredible,” she says. “He’s able to take [emotions] out of me and help me make it into art. He’s never judged me, and he empowers me to be who I am and to stand up for who I am.”

There’s her best friend Wilford, a stylist she met on a shoot eight years ago. “He’s been through the whole [mental health] process with me too. I was so scared, and he was even scared. He was like, ‘So what does that mean? Are you okay?’ I got so embarrassed to tell him [about my bipolar disorder], but…he’s just treated me like the same person. Because I am.”

And, of course, there’s Rexha’s eight-pound rescue dog, Bear. “There have been moments when I’ve been so, so, so sad, and she literally jumps in the bed and will lick my tears and make sure I have no more tears left. She’s my best friend in the whole wide world.”

Rexha feels some guilt over how she’s treated people, including her loved ones, when her mental illness was at its most severe. “It made it really hard to have close relationships…because I didn’t understand what was going on, and I felt I was hurting a lot. I was not a very nice person to be around. I would hurt other people.”

Treatment has helped her curb this behavior, as has simply growing up. “I definitely think I’ve changed a lot. I’ve become more patient and kind with people, and I’m able to check myself more because I don’t want to be that person again ever,” Rexha says. “I want to go to sleep every night knowing that I didn’t do anybody wrong or I wasn’t a bitch. Unless I have to be.”

No matter her regrets, she doesn’t want any pity about having bipolar disorder. “There’s nothing to feel bad for. I’m fine, I’m healthy, I’m working on myself,” she tells me. “I’m bettering myself as a human.”

Of course, therapy and medication have been a life-saving and integral part of Rexha’s mental health regimen, but other, less-intense areas of self-care are an important component as well. On tour she played Candy Crush during her downtime (her therapist had recommended she download a game to help her decompress). She also wrote down affirmations and worked out with her trainer, Jeanette Jenkins, which wasn’t only mentally restorative but also good for her craft. “I do a lot of high-intensity interval training because that’s basically what [performing] is,” she says.

When she’s at home, Rexha likes to relax by cleaning. “I love a fucking spotless house,” she says, miming out the act of wiping down tables, nails glinting as she swipes circles in the air on an imaginary surface. She also loves cooking for friends and family. “If you come to my house, you’re eating,” she says. After describing some of her favorite foods to make (pasta Bolognese, spaghetti squash, meatballs), she exclaims, “I should have cooked tonight!” But, duty calls, and she has more work to do after our interview.

After our conversation, I think of all the different sides of Rexha I’ve been privy to: high-profile Bebe in front of a camera, comfortable Bebe surrounded by family and friends, frightened Bebe who worries about labeling her mental health, brave Bebe who wouldn’t bow to the fear. Then I remember what she told me about her Instagram bio, which reads in part, “rock star not a pop star.”

“I think being a rock star is more of the way that you live your life. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be covered in tattoos and throw up the rock ‘n’ roll sign,” she says. “A true rock star is unapologetic. You eat what you want, live what you want, say what you want. That is what I consider rock ‘n’ roll.” And it’s what she’s going for in all aspects of her life, both personal and professional.

“I just don’t like being stuck in any box,” Rexha says. “No matter what it is.”

Source: SELF

Photoshoots > 2020 > Heather Hazzan | Self Magazine USA (March 2020)
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