What 'High-Functioning' Mental Illness Looks Like


It sounds mechanical. But it is a cliff I dangle from daily — “high-functioning.” Good enough to be pushed down, but not bad enough to be noticed. I have high-functioning anxiety and depression. I don’t say that often. It’s easier not to. It’s easier to continue letting you all see me as someone who is put together and just floating through life. But it’s not the truth and I want to be honest.

Mental illness is hard to talk about and explain to people who haven’t experienced it. There’s a harsh stigma around it built by generations long of disbelief and misunderstanding. It’s not something you can see and we are a world that needs evidence right in front of our noses if we’re going to believe it. We like to explain things away — It’s all in your head. You’re just tired. This is a stressful circumstance, but you’ll feel better when it’s over. But that’s not mental illness. Mental illness isn’t something that gets better. Sure, there are periods of time when it might not be at the forefront of my awareness. And of course, certain circumstances will worsen my symptoms. But mental illness isn’t just something you “get over.” I can’t work hard enough at self-improvement for it to disappear. It’s the same as my chronic, physical illnesses. People like to act like they are very different things, but the mind is part of the body, isn’t it? So why do we treat it like it’s its own entity? Both are vital and valid parts of you. Why do I feel like I have to hide my mental ailments but feel perfectly fine talking to my family about seeing a doctor for my physical illnesses?

Wrapped up in the stigma, I also have this part of my illness that veils it: I’m “high-functioning.” On an average day, I seem OK. On a good day, I seem OK. On a bad day, I can seem OK — most of the time. You may be surprised to hear I have a mental illness because what you see is often very different from what is actually happening to me.

What you see:

1. I laugh at everything. (Especially bad jokes.)

2. I’m “easy-going.”

3. I’m calm when others are panicking.

4. I let other people lean on me.

5. I don’t often ask for help.

What you don’t see:

1. My laughter is a defense mechanism. It’s there to distract you, especially when I’m uncomfortable or feeling like a mess.

2. I don’t want to be a burden to other people. So I make myself and my problems as “convenient” as I can for others. I’m there when you need me and not when you don’t. I’ll go with the flow because it’s easier to avoid conflict than confront it.

3. Sometimes when others feel out of control, I can act like a voice of reason — a calm in the storm. But my mind is raging a war against me each day as I overthink, overanalyze and feel overwhelmedoverwhelmedoverwhelmed.

4. I help other people with their problems so I can push away and ignore my own. I’m good at being able to spot solutions to other people’s problems, but when it comes to my own, I’m at a loss.

5. I try to convince myself I can handle things on my own. My journals and my prayers take the brunt of my agonizing, rants and cries for help.

I’ve only seen a counselor for my anxiety and depression once and promptly stopped going when the next appointment fell on a day I was feeling particularly bad and didn’t feel like talking about what I was struggling with. I thought about rescheduling, but when I looked at the calendar, I got too overwhelmed and decided not to. That was a year ago. And it was only a year before that that I even was able to admit to myself I was not OK. And once I did and was able to tell a few people, they validated me: yes, they had seen me struggling for years, I was not crazy.

Prayer helped, too. I’m a person who believes in God and believes I don’t need to go through this alone. I may feel weak a lot of the time (a lot) but my God is strong. But still, I live in a world that is not as supportive as my religion. Not everyone believes in what they cannot see.

Here I am, though, offering myself as proof. I’m coping, but I’m still sick. I’m a high-functioning person with mental illness, but that does not denounce the significance of my illness. It is there.

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Thinkstock photo via marzacz.

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