Ten Questions You Always Wanted to Ask Someone with Bipolar Disorder
"The worst is when you're told that you can just snap out of depression as if it's just a matter of pulling yourself together."
Rachid Moutiq. Photo by Simon Roel
This article originally appeared on VICE Denmark.
Rachid Moutiq is 29 years old, has a BA in journalism, and lives with bipolar disorder. About 40,000 Danes and 4 million Brits have had the same or a similar diagnosis, but as is often the case with mental illness, there's still a lot of stigma around it.
Moutiq and I went to high school together, where he did exceptionally well. I always considered him a genius; he was one of the smartest and most promising people I knew. But life, so far, hasn't turned out for him the way we all expected; being bipolar has made it difficult for Moutiqto hold down a traditional job.
Recently, he moved from Copenhagen back to the countryside to be closer to his family. I spoke to Moutiq to hear how the disorder has affected every aspect of his life.
VICE: What was it like to get your diagnosis?
Rachid Moutiq: I got it about a year ago, and it was such a relief, at first. I'd been misdiagnosed so often over the years, so it felt great to finally know what was going on with me. But that feeling subsided when I realized how serious the diagnosis is. When you're bipolar, you feel like there is a pendulum swinging between being extremely self-critical and awkward, and suddenly having an immense amount of confidence. I convinced myself that I always had to feel great, confident, and energetic, and it was tough to face the fact that my mania is as harmful as the depression. In order to be healthy, I have to find balance, but that balanced state doesn't come naturally to me, and the thought of it bores me a bit.
What's it like to be manic?
Early on in my manic states, I am the best version of myself. I do everything faster and don't get tired or sad. I'm not able to sleep, but I also don't feel the need to. It's like living in an upbeat movie montage: You don’t have to think—you just do, and everything is awesome. You talk a lot and have a hard time waiting for people to answer. You're superhuman, you're hilarious, you're the center of attention and loving it. If someone isn't giving you their undivided attention, you don't take it personally—you just think they're missing out. I guess that, in many ways, it's like being on cocaine.
Why is the mania as bad as depression, then?
There are two main reasons. The first one is that if you're manic long enough, eventually the same thing happens as when you're doing coke for a few days straight—you become paranoid, and out of control. After a manic episode, my brain just snaps and the depression hits. Secondly, you do things that are out of character when you’re manic. You make important decisions about your life, money, and relationships in a split second, and that can ruin your life.
I once gambled away $2,400 and the bank closed my account. Hyper-sexuality is also a symptom—I've had manic sex in public spaces with people whose names I didn't even know. It can ruin your relationships, your friendships, and your career. It’s not uncommon for people to quit their jobs when they're manic because they don't want to be tied down, only to deeply regret it when the episode is over.
How does being bipolar affect your day-to-day?
This diagnosis affects everything. I often can't sleep—I was awake for two-and-a-half days once, and when I finally fell asleep, I slept for 20 hours straight. You lose control of your body. When I’m manic, I have to remind myself to eat—and when I do eat, I have to remind myself to stop.
When I'm depressed, I interpret everything completely differently. Simply getting up in the morning and going to work is a challenge. Your reflexes aren't great, so you can hardly drive a car. I have experienced depression so severe that I was struggling to even slice a loaf of bread. I had so little energy that it seemed impossible to hold the bread and slice it with the knife. When you feel like that, you don't have the energy to shower—you don't even think you deserve to be clean.
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How does being bipolar affect your relationship with other people?
It's difficult to be close to people because you can't give what you are expected to in social exchanges. When I’m depressed, I feel people are wasting their love on me—simply meeting someone you know on the street and saying hi can be very hard. And that's if you even manage to go outside. When you're depressed it doesn’t matter how much your friend wants you to come to a party; you're not able to leave the house regardless of how hard you try. You are dealing with very low energy and very high anxiety.
What's dating like?
When you're manic or depressed, a partner can easily take your mental state personally, by feeling like they've done something wrong. The inconsistency of your mood can make them nervous around you. People have told me, "I never know what to expect from you," which makes sense—I also don't know what to expect from me. It's understandable that your loved ones get frustrated, angry, and sad when you start shielding yourself from the outside world, but it also means that you become more isolated, which makes you feel worse.
In what way has the illness affected your career?
I have no on/off switch, so I can’t regulate how much energy I use. A lot of people with bipolar disorder are extremely creative and skilled, but they can only work in a constant creative stream that doesn't end at 6 PM—and if you don't manage your workflow, you'll burn out. A traditional workplace expects you to be consistent, to get up at the same time every day, and to handle the same amount of work. I don't think people are meant to do that every day—you don't need a mental disorder to feel that way—but it feels more trying with bipolar disorder. I'll never be able to attend work that regularly or always have the same productivity, but I can see myself in a proper job in the future—though it'll be difficult.
Are you worried that your children might have bipolar disorder?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It can be hereditary, so I'm giving a lot of thought to whether I should bring children into this world. I've felt life wasn't worth living so many times. Being born is not a choice you make yourself, so I'm always wondering whether I can justify giving life to a person who may someday resent their existence, just as I have.
What are the worst prejudices you deal with?
People tend to be quite understanding in general. But the worst is when you're told that you can just snap out of depression as if it's just a matter of pulling yourself together. I think every depressed person has internalized that idea in some way. Despite having lived with this for years, I still sometimes wonder if my depression is just a case of me being lazy.
There's a lot of that sentiment in the media, too—you hear "experts" explain how they were depressed, but then started working out and read some motivational quotes and then it all worked out. If that's what solved it, they didn't actually suffer from depression. Another specific prejudice about people with bipolar disorder is that they can't be trusted—that they're manipulative liars. When you're bipolar, you're definitely not completely reliable, but that’s not the same thing.
Can you be cured of bipolar disorder?
It's a chronic illness, so that won't happen. It's one of the most important lessons I have to learn—it never stops; it won't go away. If you think you're over it and start ignoring the signs, you run the risk of falling into a deep depression or severe mania. I'm still haunted by the idea of life being unbearable, but I’m getting better. I’m optimistic, but the most brutal aspect of being bipolar is the fact that you can be on the right path, but one single slipup can catapult you back to square one. It's like drug or alcohol abuse, in that regard.