When 'High-Functioning' Mental Illness Makes You Feel Exhausted and Isolated


“Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

While this quote is true for anyone you may come in contact with, it may be especially true for those of us with “high-functioning” mental illnesses. You come in contact with people in this category every day, even if you don’t know it. I have been told I am extremely “high-functioning” considering my history of trauma as well as my numerous disorders (post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, ADHD, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder). I have a steady job, am working part-time on my Master’s degree, have a social life and in general, seem to be a functioning adult. I am glad to be moving through life, and I refuse to let my disorders define me or even limit me. However, struggling with these demons while also being an over-achiever can be isolating and frustrating.

I’ve learned over time that being “high-functioning” does not make my disorders or battles any less overwhelming. Sometimes it feels like I’m swimming in the ocean, caught in a riptide and getting pulled in over my head all the while fighting with every ounce of strength to reach the surface for a breath of air. It is a constant struggle to keep my battles from drowning me or pulling me under.

While many people understandably do get pulled under to the point of not getting out of bed, or going to work, or functioning, my highly active survival instincts keep me struggling to reach the surface of the water so I can breathe. The current is just as strong, and the threat and pain of these struggles is just as real, my instinct is just to fight as hard as I can and not ever stop.

It may seem like this makes my struggles “easier,” “less severe” or “less real.” In reality, my instinct is just to tread water and maintain appearances, while many other people’s is to not fight the ocean quite so hard. Neither response is wrong — people just fight their battles differently.

Of course, mental illnesses and trauma are awful and isolating no matter what. Being “high-functioning” though, can feel extremely isolating and confusing in a different way. Most of the time, the people I love are not aware of how much I am struggling. They see me achieving, they see me living and they figure I am OK. I have an active sense of humor, tend to minimize my fight. People assume I’m managing just fine.

Even those closest to me are sometimes confused. Unless I specifically tell my family and friends that I am absolutely not okay in explicit terms, it is all too easy to assume that everything is fine. I realized about 9 months ago that my own parents, whom I am very close to, had no idea how severe my PTSD was or how anxious and depressed I felt.

A couple of times a week, I go to bed having to actively battle thoughts like everyone would be better off without me, and I should just make myself disappear. These thoughts aren’t rational, and they aren’t visible to anyone (other than my therapist who always seems to know).

When I get up in the morning, I put on a brave face and tackle the day, all the while my brain and body scream at me that it would be better, safer, easier if I just stayed in bed all day. Every moment of every day I fight the current that is trying to pull me under, and fight the desire to just stop. I want to give in. I want to let the pain and depression wash over me. More than anything I want peace and rest for a little while, because fighting this and putting on my brave face is exhausting. I still fight, though, because that is the only way I can find to manage life.

Being “high-functioning” is a gift at times, and it allows me to be a productive adult. It comes at a cost, too, as fighting to remain functioning drains me. In all likelihood, someone in your circle, someone you know and love, is fighting this same battle. Behind smiles and laughter and “I’m doing well!” answers can lie about the pain and exhaustion that may be completely invisible to you. So remember, as much as you can, be kind… always, with everyone. Sometimes your gentleness might just be the lifeline someone needs to get through the day.

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 alexandralarina


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