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The Subtle Signs of a 'High-Functioning' Mental Illness

Let me explain.

I’m not that different than anyone else. In fact, most people I meet have no idea I have any struggle whatsoever. But underneath the layers of makeup and smiles, past the bubbly laugh and light step, it’s not so hard to see I’m hurting inside.

I have depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder (BPD), but most of the time I seem perfectly normal. Since I am not crying in front of the world, the assumption is made I am perfectly fine or nothing is wrong. Well, this is not the case. There are many things people struggling with the same or similar illnesses do on a day-to-day basis that give insight into how they’re actually feeling. But these things are often overlooked or deemed annoying, but “normal” personality traits.


1. Sleeping all day.

Back home, my mother would drag me out of bed each morning, preventing me from doing this, but immediately upon entering college, it became a practically unbreakable habit. When you have depression, you are faced with unending exhaustion, so the moment sleep becomes a possibility, you take it, often missing important events and appointments in your life. Although this is a frequently acknowledged symptom of depression, it is often brushed off by friends and family and thought of as just “laziness.”

2. “Zoning out.”

When I’m at my lowest, my thoughts retreat to the back of my mind and are replaced with a gray emptiness that separates me from the rest of the world. I seem a little less “there.” This particular symptom is often referred to as depersonalization and often feels as though you are watching your life as if it is a movie, rather than living it yourself. This, though it may look like fatigue or distraction, is actually a major symptom of depression. So when you have to wave your hand repeatedly in front of my eyes or knock on my head yelling “hello!” it’s probably a sign I’m struggling.

3. Avoiding new people.

The thing about depression is sometimes there are these little internal voices speaking to you, telling you people don’t like you, you’re pathetic, you look ugly or sound stupid. Meeting new people — or worse — trying to befriend new people, is absolutely terrifying and exhausting to someone struggling with depression. So to all of the people in my classes, it isn’t because I don’t like you! It’s because I’m tired and terrified.

4. Not talking about it.

I like to think this particular habit is one I’ve broken. Since leaving home, I’ve opened up a lot about my depression and (for the most part) it’s helped. See, it’s incredibly difficult to talk about depression because often people take it in two ways. Either they nod their head and say they’re sorry for you, but don’t actually care and obviously don’t really believe you (terrible) or they become totally rattled and believe at any second you will try to kill yourself in some grotesque and violent way (even worse). Because of these reactions (both of which I have seen on multiple occasions), people are very hesitant and scared to admit they are struggling with these problems.


1. Asking repeated questions.

This one probably isn’t surprising, although I’ve only recently realized this was something I did because of my anxiety. All through high school, I’d ask my best guy friend “would you still be my friend if…” followed by something totally ridiculous like “I had the voice of the Allstate guy” or “I had a third arm.” I’d always ask as a joke, but would be constantly looking for some kind of confirmation he would still be my friend no matter what. I was so concerned he’d leave me or that our friendship was conditional and he’d just up and leave at any given moment (this is also a symptom of BPD).

2. Bailing at the last minute.

Sometimes the idea of going out, seeing people and again, making new friends, is too much. There have been so many instances where I’ve agreed to something and after a day of prepping, worrying, sweating and plucking my eyelashes out over it, I’ve cancelled at the last minute. Sometimes trying to explain your way out of it — though anxiety inducing as well — is much better than actually going to the event.

3. Not being able to fall asleep at night.

This is a symptom most of your friends probably won’t see, but will surely have heard you state time and time again. When you have anxiety, you’re constantly replaying things that happened or may happen in the future over and over in your head. Your heart rate rises and your palms begin to sweat and sleep becomes an impossibility. Fun, right?

4. Speaking rapidly or pacing.

Sometimes, when my anxiety gets going, all of the nervous energy resting in my chest wants to make its way out, so I will start speaking louder or faster and often start moving around restlessly, in an attempt to rid myself of some of the unwanted energy. When you see this, it’s not because I’ve had too much coffee. It’s because the anxiety that’s pressing on my lungs is about as strong as a bump of caffeine and there’s nothing I can do about it. And trust me, if I could “chill,” I would.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD):

1. Extreme emotional volatility.

When I was in the seventh grade, my friends had this joke about me being so “emotional.” The boys would just say it over and over until it became a point of major embarrassment for me, though I doubt they knew this. My dad recently told me I’d been the same way since I was a baby, with sudden and unexplainable outbursts and fits that were nearly impossible to resolve. It’s been something incredibly humiliating throughout my life. Meltdowns in public places, drastic reactions to little events that make people look at me like I’m absolutely “insane” and even physical violence on a few occasions. The thing is I don’t mean to overreact and in the moment, I truly don’t believe I am. Every emotion someone with BPD feels is so severe and in tense situations, they will act according to them, which usually means a major reaction. If this is you, don’t feel ashamed. There are a lot of us struggling with the same thing.

2. “Are you mad at me?”

Oh. My. God. If I had a dime for every time I’ve asked this question, I swear I’d be Warren Buffett. With BPD comes a huge fear of abandonment. For me, it manifests in my friendships. If I’m not getting enough time or attention from my friends, I will often lash out in small ways, which I know makes them mad (even if they tell me it doesn’t). I feel incredibly guilty afterwards, and ask “are you mad?” repeatedly until I’m satisfied they’re not going to peace out at any moment.

3. Depending too much on your loved ones.

Do you have a friend who always kind of seems to be causing problems? That friend who is always jealous of your other friends, is way too protective over you or who is always angry or upset and you don’t really know why, but for some reason you still love them? Yup. That’s me. I hesitate to write this one, because I worry people will see me as being some awful creature. The truth is I’m not, but I think it’s important to mention because it seems to be one of the biggest missed signs of BPD. I wish it were different. And thanks to my friends for loving me despite it.

If you are struggling, know you are not alone and there are so many people out there going through the same thing. You just have to look for them.

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

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via Archv.