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We Cannot Continue to Overlook 'High-Functioning' Depression

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I first saw a psychiatrist for my anxiety and depression as a junior in high school. During her evaluation, she asked about my classes and grades. I told her that I had a 4.0 GPA and had filled my schedule with Pre-AP and AP classes. A puzzled look crossed her face. She asked about my involvement in extracurricular activities. As I rattled off the long list of groups and organizations I was a part of, her frown creased further.

Finally, she set down her pen and looked at me, saying something along the lines of, “You seem to be pretty high-functioning, but your anxiety and depression seem pretty severe. Actually, it’s teens like you who scare me a lot.”

Now I was confused. What was scary about my condition? From the outside, I was functioning like a perfectly “normal” teenager. In fact, I was somewhat of an overachiever. I was working through my mental illnesses and succeeding, so what was the problem?

I left that appointment with a prescription for Lexapro and a question that I would continue to think about for years. The answer didn’t hit me all at once; rather, it came to me every time I heard a suicide story on the news saying, “by all accounts, they were living the perfect life.” It came to me as I crumbled under pressure over and over again, doing the bare minimum I could to still meet my definition of success. It came to me as I began to share my story and my illness with others, and I was met with reactions of “I had no idea” and “I never would have known.”

It’s easy to put depression into a box of symptoms, and though we as a society are constantly told mental illness comes in all shapes and sizes, we are stuck with a mental health stock image in our heads that many people don’t match. When we see depression and anxiety in adolescents, we see teens struggling to get by in their day-to-day lives. We see grades dropping. We see involvement replaced by isolation. People slip through the cracks.

We don’t see the student with the 4.0 GPA. We don’t see the student who’s active in choir and theater or a member of the National Honor Society. We don’t see the student who takes on leadership roles in a religious youth group. No matter how many times we are reminded that mental illness doesn’t discriminate, we revert back to a narrow idea of how it should manifest, and that is dangerous.

Recognizing that danger is what helped me find the answer to my question. Watching person after person, myself included, slip under the radar of the “depression detector” made me realize where that fear comes from. My psychiatrist knew the list of symptoms, and she knew I didn’t necessarily fit them. She understood it was the reason that, though my struggles with mental illness began at age 12, I didn’t come to see her until I was 16. Four years is a long time to deal with mental illness alone, and secondary school is a dangerous time to deal with it.

If we keep allowing our perception of what mental illness looks like to dictate how we go about recognizing and treating it, we will continue to overlook those who don’t fit the mold. We cannot keep forgetting that there are people out there who, though they may not be able to check off every symptom on the list, are heavily and negatively affected by their mental illness. If we forget, we allow their struggle to continue unnoticed, and that is pretty scary.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

The Mighty is asking the following: What is a part of your or a loved one’s disease, disability or mental illness that no one is aware of? Why is it time to start talking about it? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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What My Marriage Looks Like on a Bad Day With Depression

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author on her wedding day with her hsuband From our bed, under the covers, I hear the front door to our apartment open. It’s around five in the evening, and I’m in some semblance of pajamas. I have not showered. Maybe I didn’t shower yesterday, either. I have no makeup on, or maybe it’s remnants of mascara from days ago, transforming my bleary eyes into dark smudges reflecting the chaos I feel inside. You are home from work, and I have not worked all day. I have not touched the piles of laundry scattered across the floor, sorted during a more ambitious time. I have not thought about dinner, let alone made anything for you to eat. I have not even pulled the curtains open in our bedroom.

Upon hearing the door creak open, I instantly feel relief that you are home and I have a vague idea that it is good you are here, combined with shame that I am not dressed and have not done anything productive with my day. I roll over to face the bedroom door, and you appear, greeting me with a gentle smile. You come to sit on the edge of the bed next to me, reading my body language to make sure it’s OK. You brush the hair away from my face and kiss my forehead. You might say you’re sorry it’s a “dumb day” — our lighthearted way of referring to the monster in my head that takes over at any given moment, at least temporarily, stopping my life in its tracks. You ask if I have eaten or what I want to eat. You ask what we can do to make me feel better. I shake my head, hovering somewhere between distressed and wildly agitated. I want to tear my hair out and scream, but instead I sink into you, hiding my face in your chest, wishing tears would come but knowing they won’t.

You kick your shoes off and crawl into bed next to me, holding me if I let you and just being there if I won’t. After a little while I might pick up my phone or my Kindle, seeking distraction, or I might just sort of stare into space. You browse the Internet on your phone and sit quietly with me. I’m sure you’re hungry, or could be working, or maybe catching a game with the guys, but instead you sit. If I talk, you listen. If I don’t, you don’t force it. You might ask if I want to watch something on Netflix or offer to get some dinner for us. More likely I will fall asleep with my head nestled against your shoulder, and you will refuse to move because you know I need you there. You will do everything you can to let me sleep because you know there I will find peace. You will be quiet and still, you will pray tomorrow is a better day, and you will be there.

In the morning, you wake up ready to see who wakes up beside you — will it be the woman you married, who lives with joy, and loves to cook and plan meals and entertain friends and spend time with family? Or will it be this woman who fell asleep on you last night, who was broken and devastated by the voices in her mind who convince her that she is not OK? Whichever one awakes, you will love and protect her, making sure she feels safe, with no demonstrable bewilderment, confusion or frustration at how you came to be married to both of these people.

Our wedding vows were traditional ones, and I doubt either of us thought that “for better or for worse; in sickness and in health” meant days like this. I know it wasn’t in my rosy, optimistic, newly-wedded vision for our marriage. And while I’m sure neither of us would choose for me to experience this kind of sickness, you are able to tenderly remind me, when I need it, that the what-ifs won’t change the reality that is my illness or our marriage.

​“I love you,” you insist when I question how you live with the uncertainty, the volatility of who my depression makes me. You almost laugh when you say it, because to you it is so obvious, how you live with it. It’s because you love me. Everything you are for me, to me — your patience, your flexibility, your calm, safe presence next to me — all falls in line because that is the fact that precedes all the rest. ​

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a love letter to another person with your disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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3 Reasons I Want to Be Alone When I'm Depressed

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There’s a lot of good loved ones can do for a person who suffers from depression. Being supportive and understanding are great ways to help someone cope. Being there for them is so important, but being there can mean different things. And if you’re like me, I need my loved ones to be there for me from a distance. There are three reasons why I like to be alone during a depressive episode, and because they want to do whatever they can to help me, my friends and family oblige.

1. I don’t want to cry in front of anyone.

I know it isn’t healthy to hide my emotions, so I won’t. And I know it’s OK to cry, so I will. But crying in front of others makes me uncomfortable, and that’s not how I want to feel on top of feeling down. I have a fear of appearing weak, even when I’m assured I’m not. I have a fear of being judged, even though my friends and family promise they won’t judge. I will cry, I will get the emotion out, but I’d prefer to do it alone.

2. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

During a depressive episode, I’m easily annoyed and irritable, especially with those around me. I feel like I can’t control my emotions or how I project them, and I don’t want to take my unpleasant attitude out on those who are only trying to help me. It would make me feel so much worse were I to snap at someone and hurt their feelings, and I really don’t want to feel worse.

3. I’m not ready to talk… yet.

When I’m in the throws of depression, it’s hard for me to explain what I’m feeling to those who ask. I don’t want to keep those feelings to myself because I know they could manifest into something more, but I’d rather write about them, journal them out instead of talk right away. If my feelings get to be too much or if my thoughts turn scary, I will reach out, and I will talk. But not until I’m ready.

I know a symptom of depression is the want to be isolated, but it’s not that I want to be alone, I need to be alone. Maybe it’s just me, but that is what I need. I know this can worry those close to me, which is why I promise to reach out when I need help. This is the support I need from my friends and family when I’m depressed. Support from a distance. They can still be there for me, without being there beside me.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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When Becoming a 'Mother of Dragons' Helped Me With Depression and Anxiety

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Last October, my husband and I took our two kids to the local reptile show. It had become a yearly tradition to go; from petting zoos, venomous snake displays and breeders showing off rare morphs, it was something everyone in our family enjoyed. Both my husband and I had owned reptiles before, so to us it was a no-brainer for a fun family outing.

We had always just been to look, but this year I had put a bug in my son’s ear about maybe bringing home a new pet. My 3-year-old son was ecstatic. My husband was easily swayed, and this time we left with a starter tank with two baby bearded dragons in a deli cup. The larger one was beautifully colored with bright gold and cream markings. The other one was smaller, and scrappy; he was a bold little thing, fast and unafraid. He scratched defiantly against the deli cup the whole ride home. He wasn’t as pretty as the big one with his more muted colors, save for the bright red and orange markings on his head. He was the one I picked out of the storage tub filled with hundreds of his siblings.

Within a month, the Redhead (as we were calling him) was thriving. He fattened up and shed, his oranges and reds brightening as he grew. His tank mate, however, had rapidly declined and refused to eat. Despite our best efforts to treat him — baths, de-wormers, probiotics — he starved to death. Once it became clear the redhead had not contracted the ailment, our family decided to give him a proper name, other than just “the lizard.” We picked Drogon, like Daenerys’s dragon in “Game of Thrones.”

At this same time, I was inside a worsening episode of depression. I had been working from home more days than not; too unmotivated to get up early enough to get ready for work, too anxious to meet with clients for my job as a social worker. Not long after we got the bearded dragons, my husband left his job as an over the road truck driver to come home, because my symptoms had become too severe. Within months of his return, I had a panic attack at work and was placed on medical leave. I resigned my position so I could get help.

During the apex of my depression, I definitely wasn’t thinking much about the lizard. I could barely take care of myself, let alone any kind of pet. But after the crisis began to ebb, and I began to stabilize, I found myself in the alien position of having time to myself. With the kids at school and my husband at his new job, I was alone most days. It was in many ways a relief — a much-needed break for a working mom. But it was still challenging. Anything outside of a simple task was daunting to me. At the same time, it could be boring. Taking care of Drogon became as good of a thing as any to focus on.

Woman holding her pet bearded dragon

Reptiles are much lower-maintenance than, say a cat or dog, so it wasn’t too demanding for me while I was focusing on recovery. I would have to get up in the morning to turn off his blacklight and turn on his UV lamp. I would give him fresh water and dust vitamins over blueberries and kale; clean his tank and pour a fresh layer of sand. I would even give him warm baths and gently brush his scales with an old, soft toothbrush.

Believe it or not, bearded dragons are capable of bonding and enjoy interaction with people. Drogon went from being an enjoyable “meaningful activity,” to my companion during the days. He would nap on my shoulder and rub up against my hand to petted, like a cat. I was able to train him to step onto my hand and eat food from my fingers. He became my little buddy.

There was only one thing I didn’t like about having my scaly baby.

When bearded dragons are babies, they need to eat bugs every day to get the protein they need to grow. Now yes, there are mixes and kibbles with freeze-dried bugs you can give to your dragon, but they can’t live off of it. The bottom line is, you have to give them bugs. Live ones. Lots.

This meant that nearly every day, I had to go to the mom-and-pop pet shop up the road to buy crickets, mealworms, and dubia roaches.

While I was beginning to regain control over my mind and depression, going out into public and having to talk to people was still a live, panic-attack inducing trigger. I could take my kids to school and grocery shop (only at certain stores, at certain times, and never the one closest to the house because it is too loud and busy), but beyond that, I did not feel capable of leaving the house. But, at the same time, feeding my dragon was probably my favorite chore of the day; I would sit and watch him hunt and devour his bugs, and he would lick his chops and cock his head in an endearing way. Despite my reservations about leaving the house, I would force myself every day to make the whole five-minute trip to get bugs for my little buddy.

Slowly, the trips weren’t so hard. The clerks at the pet shop recognized me as a regular and would make conversation with me. At first I was just polite, hiding my puffy eyes and unwashed hair under sunglasses and a bandana. But gradually, I became more comfortable. As I improved, I would be able to dress and do my hair and makeup before going. Sometimes, it may have been the only place I would go all day, but just having that one, five-minute reason to get ready was reason enough.

I am still actively battling my depression. I take meds and go to therapy and groups, do homework and practice skills to battle my anxiety. But now I can go places more easily. Getting ready and taking care of myself is a priority again, and not nearly as stressful. I have amazing support from my husband and family. But sometimes, something as silly as a pet bearded dragon can be a reason to be better. By taking care of Drogon, I got to practice taking care of myself, and found something to make me smile when my day is dark. Having my little buddy helps me feel more normal again, and that makes me one proud Mother of Dragons.

The author with Drogon, her pet bearded dragon

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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What the Sadness of Depression Really Feels Like

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When depression comes up while I’m talking to a friend, I often use simple, cliched ways to describe it. I tell them I’m having a rough day, or I’m exhausted, or I’m just feeling off. It’s so much easier and less upsetting for them, I think, than explaining what’s really going on emotionally.

For a long time, my depression symptoms were primarily physical and easier to explain to friends and family. However, the emotional piece of the disease has taken a much stronger hold on me in the past couple of years, and I’ve gone from having days or weeks of simply feeling easily worn out or just plain exhausted, to being completely debilitated by a deep, aching, empty feeling that penetrated the core of who I had always known myself to be.

I honestly want to try to describe this pain without being melodramatic or overly emotional, and yet — if you have never experienced how depression can worm its way into your soul and hurt, constantly, until you’re so tired of hurting that you feel nothing — I can understand it may seem that way. All I ask is that you read with an open mind and try to understand with an unbiased heart.

Imagine you wake up in the morning and you feel as though, overnight, your heart has sunk into the pit of your stomach and stayed there, throbbing, until it becomes a dull but persistent ache that has spread to your entire body. Maybe it’s raining and you have a dentist appointment later that day, or maybe it’s a warm sunny day and you have plans to spend it in your favorite place with your best friends: it doesn’t matter. The entire world looks ominous through the lens of the depression. Whatever lurks beyond the door of the bedroom doesn’t feel safe. Sitting up and swinging your feet out of bed feels insurmountable, not because of the mind-numbing fatigue you feel but because it just hurts inside. Just pushing yourself up to turn off your alarm makes your insides clench with discomfort and fear. You dread the moment your partner wakes up or comes into the room because you know he or she will realize immediately it is a bad day. Looking at another person makes you want to burst into tears because the internal hurt you are feeling is so strong and you dread passing that on to another human being.

This kind of sickening, draining sorrow is so exhausting and so remarkably unique in its misery (often and especially because there is no discernible reason behind its appearance in your life) that it seems like you can’t possibly get through a day (never mind a week, or a month, or a year) feeling this way. Mostly you want to go to sleep and stay there, preferring unconsciousness to pain, but if you can’t do that then you start to think of ways to stop hurting. The only times I have ever had thoughts of self-harm, which thankfully last only seconds for me and upon which I have never acted, occur when I am in the depths of feeling this way. I am grateful to say that aside from these fleeting thoughts, I have not struggled with that particular manifestation of my disease. But I do understand why seeking a physical release for the internal agony can be tempting. I jiggle my legs incessantly, I scratch bug bites too hard and for too long (one of them scarred), I pick at my cuticles. I count down from 100 over and over again in my mind. And when there is no more energy for any of this, I go blank. My husband reports watching me stare at the walls, eyes glazed over, responding to nothing, for minutes at a time. I guess I would say during these times I am hurting less because I am completely shut off from caring about anything, and yet I know it’s scary and unsettling for anyone to see how deeply apathetic I feel toward everything in that moment.

This is some of what depression has been like for me over the past couple of years. A spell like this can last a few hours, a full day or several days in a row. It can be combined with intense anxiety or it can take over all on its own. Sometimes I’ll have just one bad day in the middle of a great month. Sometimes I’ll have a few good days in the middle of a mostly-bad month. The unpredictability is scary and infuriating and can make it hard to make or keep plans. So when a friend who may be struggling with depression cancels on you last minute, or is evasive and noncommittal, or shows up and seems completely disengaged — I hope, maybe, you’ll think of this post and feel somewhat better enabled to comprehend what they’re going through. Be patient, ask what you can do to help, and love them the best you know how. ​

Follow this journey on Go Where It Hurts.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Hitting Depression's Rockbottom

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There I was laying on my bed, feeling like my body was empty, no feelings, no energy… nothing. Only one thing in my body didn’t feel empty: my head.

Inside my head lived my worst enemy, my nightmare, my killer, my brain. I laid there for hours and couldn’t stand up. My thoughts were slowly killing me.

“Why are you alive? It’s not worth the fight! Nobody loves you anyways, they won’t miss you if you die.”

I listened more and more. I started to plan ways to kill myself. My mind was overpowered by a monster: depression. It had taken control. I wasn’t myself anymore. I realized I hit rockbottom.

Nothing mattered anymore. I stayed there for weeks, trying to pull myself up, trying to be stronger. It was a battle — antidepressants fighting against an empty soul. A soul depression had taken. A soul that used to brighten people’s days, a soul that always had a smile on.

But without noticing it, fighting with this monster made me stronger. The little things made me stronger. As I sat the on the bottom, desperate, lonely and empty, I looked up and saw my friends and family looking for ways to pull me up. I realized it was worth the fight. They were my reason to fight.

And so I fought — I fought really hard. I tried my hardest to get out of bed. When you’ve hit that low and feel like it’s not worth it, we often forget to look around. We forget we have people who love us and are trying to help us, and we often take it for granted. With the help of my friends and family, I now feel strong and am slowly beginning to feel happy again. 

On Tuesday I went back to school after three weeks.

I know it feels like it’s not going to end.

But I promise it does.

If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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