What 'High-Functioning' Depression Looks Like When I'm at Work


It’s easy to assume we know the story behind a picture — to make assumptions about another person’s life based on a snapshot. (My dear friend, Ashley Lewis Carroll, demonstrates this beautifully in her post). We do it constantly in this age of social media. Our brains jump to conclusions about other people’s lives based off a moment in time without us ever making a conscious effort to do so. The human brain likes to fill in the blanks in a storyline. We can’t stand the unknown so we make it up using our past experiences as proof our assumptions are correct — but we never really know what is going on with someone — not in a picture and not in seeing a small part of someone’s daily life.

We don’t spend every moment of the day with the majority of the people in our lives, yet we often think we have them figured out. Perception may tell us a person’s circumstances are one way while in reality, they are the complete opposite. This can manifest in all facets of life, but it is especially common when it comes to “high-functioning” depression and anxiety in the workplace.

Every time I disclose to someone I have major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, I receive some variation of, “I never would’ve known!” insinuating I don’t present with the preconceived list of symptoms they would expect. I perform my role well in society. Generally speaking, I’m considered accomplished, responsible, reliable and overall proficient at this whole “adulting” thing. This is no doubt in major part due to the privilege I hold in this society as a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, English speaking, middle class, employed, educated and outwardly able-bodied woman.

What seems to slip under the radar is the cost of seemingly “keeping it all together.” Perhaps if I only had to fake it for one day at a time and then had a day to recoup, the burden of pretending to be neuro-normative wouldn’t weigh so heavily on me. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t work that way and I have to continue to show up to complete life’s responsibilities day in and day out — but I’m not always put together.

With that in mind, I’ll be vulnerable and shed some light on my lived reality behind the way I present myself to the professional world:

When I look professional:

My bun is staying in place thanks to the grease from not washing my hair in three days. Thank God for wrinkle-resistant clothes because, while my pants look as if they’ve been ironed, I actually picked them up from the floor this morning. I’m not wearing
makeup — not because I’m going for the “natural” look, but because I simply don’t have the energy.

When I’m on time in the morning:

I’ve likely been up since 3 a.m. ruminating about something while furiously cleaning the house, convinced there will be a bug infestation if I don’t. Even though I’ve been up for hours, I probably forgot to take care of my basic self-care needs such as brushing my teeth, taking my medications and eating breakfast before coming to work. Still, I don’t dare stop on my way into the office out of fear of being late and losing my job.

When I seem even-keeled:

I’m either ambivalent while in the depths of depression or have recently taken my anti-anxiety medication. When the medication wears off, it’s likely I’ll be crying in the office bathroom or sitting in my car, too overwhelmed by the world to actually drive myself home.

When I appear energetic:

I guarantee you it’s a combination of psych meds and so much coffee I might as well have it delivered intravenously. Trust me, when I go home at night and on my days off, all I want to do is sleep. I hate that I have to use all of my energy at work, leaving little to nothing left over for my family. Sometimes I cry when my kids come into my bedroom to say “good night” (shouldn’t it be the other way around?) because I’m grieving all that depression has taken from me. I’ll see their precious, concerned faces and wondered if they wouldn’t be better off without a mom with depression. They deserve a mom that can fully participate in their lives — but then I’ll remind myself that no one could possibly love them as much as I do, so I push on through another day.

It’s important to me that neuro-normative individuals know what it’s like to live daily with a mental illness and that neuro-divergent individuals know they aren’t alone. I can be accomplished, responsible, reliable and simultaneously be a hot mess inside. It doesn’t detract from my value in society and it doesn’t negate the parts of me that are seen as valuable. All it means is I’m a human who is affected by mental illness and has certain limitations due to the way my brain functions.

None of these explanations are meant to negate what I have accomplished. On the contrary, this is proof of just how hard it is for me to do daily activities — which makes my achievements that much more impressive. But when it’s all just too much and I can’t accomplish anymore, that’s OK too. I do not exist in this world to produce. I am valuable in just being and hopefully this provides some insight on how difficult simply being can be when you’re living with anxiety and depression.

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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Getty Images photo via Anna_Isaeva


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