When People Think You're 'Too Functional' to Have a Mental Illness

If you are a high-functioning person with a “hidden” illness, mental or physical, you’re probably familiar with the standard conversation that goes along with telling people. It starts with you saying it and applying a new label to yourself. “I have _____.” Next, comes a clarifying question — “What? What’s that? What do you mean?” – or, if it’s a more familiar illness, we skip right along to denial. It sounds like, “You?”  or “Oh?” and it’s almost always accompanied by a squint, a scrunching of the eyebrows, a tilt of the head and a frown. Reliably, the next part of the conversation goes like this: “I would never have guessed. You’re so… (insert your other labels here).”

I have this conversation a lot. In fact, between the anxiety, the self-harm, and the eating disorder, I sometimes even have the same conversation three times with one person. For me, the end part sounds like this: “But you’re so smart! So successful! So funny and happy all the time!” Here’s the part we don’t hear: “I don’t believe you.” They may think you must be lying, exaggerating, something, as if mental illness is a choice, as if this is easy, as if this is trendy or fun, as if anyone wants a life where they wake up every morning and have to actively decide whether they will fight to be in the world that day.

It isn’t. It isn’t easy or trendy or fun and it definitely isn’t a choice. I don’t regret my decision to start being more open and honest about my mental health — because it’s important for myself and others that I am — but I’m tired of having this conversation. I’m tired of having to prove my illness to people who don’t understand—not that I ever necessarily want you to understand what it’s like to have a mental illness. I’m tired of working up the courage to say something, to ask for help, to do what our society tells us to do, only to be shot down by that same society. Most importantly, though, I’m tired of being quiet about it.

You are not “too smart” for mental illness. You are not “too ambitious” for mental illness. You are not “too successful” for mental illness. You are not “too normal” for mental illness. You aren’t too anything for mental illness because mental illness doesn’t have any prerequisites, nor does it discriminate. Being a high-functioning person with a good image doesn’t mean you aren’t struggling; sometimes it just means you’re just really good at telling people where to look.

I told you to look at my new internship, my new volunteer opportunity and my undergraduate research presentation (I’m really figuring my life out!) instead of the perfectionism and need for control my anxiety creates.

I told you to look at my protein bar (they’re actually really good!) instead of the other thousand-some-hundred calories my body needs to function but that I won’t eat today.

I told you to look at the haphazard dryer door (I’m so clumsy), not my fist when I got a black eye last month.

I told you to look at my late night run (aren’t I healthy?) instead of the panic attack that spurred it.

I told you to look at my new dress (isn’t it cute?) instead of the hours I spent body shaming myself in the fitting room.

I told you to look at how much I was improving (see?) instead of the bruise forming on my hand as we played tennis because I wasn’t good enough yet to deserve a break no matter how much it hurt. Time and time again, I told you to look here instead of there as I overworked, starved and punished myself. I won’t blame you for doing it. My mental illness makes me a very persuasive, manipulative person and it’s, of course, natural to want to believe the best about what I showed you. I won’t blame you for doing what I wanted you to do and denying the consequences alongside me. I will, however, blame you for refusing to see beyond it. I will blame you for not telling me the truth isn’t good enough on account of the fact I have told you such believable lies. I will blame you for making me feel ashamed and for minimizing mental illness. It’s time we realize we all have a responsibility to ask the uncomfortable questions when appropriate and embrace the difficult truth.

Please, let’s change the conversation. Let’s get rid of the surprise, the disbelief, the fear, the denial, and the underlying message that you are somehow less of a person if you have a mental illness. Let’s stop requiring people to be “sick enough” before they ask for help and somehow still being surprised when they don’t.

I’ll start: Thank you for telling me. What you’re going through is valid. I want to be here for you. And if that seems like too much, maybe just start here: I believe you. 

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, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Unsplash photo via Outerwoodsmedia.

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