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How I’m Fighting to Feel Again Amidst ‘High-Functioning’ Depression

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced abuse or struggle with self-harm, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

I can pinpoint when it started. It was a quick moment in time where I had the harsh realization my emotions, feelings and psychological well-being were less important than other people’s feelings. A simple phrase created a person with “high-functioning” depression.

What is “high-functioning” depression? Who has it? It is me, maybe it is you. It may be a colleague, or even a friend, and you would never know. We struggle deeply and daily. We have mastered the ability to hide our pain from everyone. We are master manipulators. People see only what we want them or allow them to see. We are doctors, lawyers, teachers, mothers and fathers. We look “normal.” We don’t fit in those antidepressant television commercials. But our pain, carried deep within, is more real than you can ever imagine.

Now, that phrase I mentioned:

“What phrase?” you may ask. Or, maybe you are wondering, “How can one sentence create depression?” First off, the phrase did not create my depression. My depression was always there growing, festering and evolving. What I said was one phrase created someone with “high-functioning” major depression.

“You crying, you being sad, hurts Mom. It makes her sad. You need to stop.”

I was maybe 12 years old. My grandfather had died many months prior. He promised me he would come back from the hospital. But, he had a stroke, went into a coma and died a year later. I cried, I screamed, I snapped. At such a young age, I started to lose control. Nights were hard. I would shake with anxiety. I would hear my mom sigh and moan when I cried. I would hear her mutter to herself “not again.” She would come to my room, tell me to say a prayer, hug me and put me to bed.

One night, it was too much for her. I guess, I don’t know. My dad came in and he put a stop to my crying. He did it for her. He loved her, and was dedicated to her. I got his message loud and clear, my feelings hurt people. They make people sad, I need to hide. Do I think that’s what he meant to say? Absolutely not! He meant no harm, but he started a downward spiral.

As years passed, I mastered manipulation. I smiled when appropriate. I made jokes. I participated in school events, I was on sports teams. No one knew it was a farce. I fought daily against the people who bullied me, and the demons inside. I forged forward. No. One. Ever. Knew.

They didn’t know my mom sometimes hit me. They didn’t know she told me daily I was a no good, spoiled brat. They didn’t know all the horrible things she said to me, or the way she would make fun of me. They didn’t know I hid in my room under my bed to get away from her screaming. They didn’t know that sometimes she’d literally kick down my door and pull me out from under that bed to “teach me respect.” They didn’t know how hard life was, how sad, lonely and depressed I was. They didn’t know about the self-harm, or the runaway attempts. No, that pain was mine and mine alone. I did not want to be responsible for anyone’s displeasure. I had to struggle alone. I had to put up a front.

Occasionally, I broke down. It’s a hard task, making everyone happy. Always taking the fall, being a punching bag and apologizing are emotionally draining events. After several hospitalizations, I discovered how to survive. I had to feel nothing.

By 25, I mastered being vacant. I stopped self-harming and all medication. It was a new life. I survived high school and college. I was ready to move on. I was dating my husband and I went back to school. I forged forward, never stopping to think about the depression festering beneath. I never dealt with the abuse from my mother. I accepted it and moved on. I managed to keep her happy by being her punching bag, even as an adult. But that was that was OK. I didn’t feel anymore, so who cared?

I graduated graduate school, started a wonderful career, got married and had kids. Everything was great. I was in the marriage people wanted, I was outgoing, the life of a party, I was the mom of gorgeous children and I was successful at work. Life was great. I didn’t feel anything, but that was OK for me. Who needs feelings anyway?! I didn’t even miss them. I didn’t even notice they were gone. I was content with being vacant. And everything was OK … until it wasn’t.

My life fell back apart two years ago. The day I found out about my husband’s infidelity. I spiraled and spiraled bad. I couldn’t parent, I couldn’t function. I was home on maternity leave. Thank God, because there was no way I could keep up with the demands of work in my mental state. I cried, screamed, I reverted back to self-harm, I drank, started smoking again and I lost all control. I also realized I was never OK, now I was triggered, and triggered bad. I was in danger.

So, back to counseling I went. I had sworn off medication and therapy about 13 years earlier. But now I couldn’t do this alone. I worked and I worked hard. I had to get better for my children. I did not want them to see me in a hospital, or worse, a coffin. But the fight continued and I’m still fighting. Because I want to feel. I want to be present. I want to be emotionally available for my family. I want my children to know it’s OK and they have  to feel.

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Last week, a random stranger at work told me I make her day a little brighter. Her words were, “I’ve had to come here every day this week. Every day, I see you. You’re always smiling, you make people laugh and you enjoy it. You make my day a little brighter.”

And for the first time in my life I wanted to say, “Well, la de fucking da! I’m glad I make you happy, but what about me?!” Of course, I didn’t say that. I smiled and made small talk, I wished her well and offered support and advice. I went to my office and started to cry a little. This woman is happy about seeing me, a stranger? It helps here? Makes her “feel” better … ah alas, those feelings, those things I don’t know. Those pesty things I’ve spent a lifetime suppressing, to stay strong.

I cried … I thought of all I missed. For example:

Birthdays, holidays, graduations. Nothing.

My wedding day, yes, I must have been happy — you can see it in the pictures. But I didn’t feel it. I missed it.

When my children were born, I remember everyone telling me about the feeling of euphoria when you hold your baby. I missed out on that. I literally felt a baby in my arms, no emotion, no euphoria.

My vow renewal, when my husband and I remarried and decided to start over, there was nothing. No feeling.

When my husband does something to show me he cares, that he has changed and that he is sorry. I acknowledge it is nice and thoughtful. I yell to myself that I should be happy, appreciative and grateful. But there is no feeling attached to those thoughts.

For the longest time I thought I was “successful” when I mastered feeling vacant. I thought I was on top of my game when I learned how to manipulate the world around me.

Let me make this perfectly clear: I was not successful. I lost out on so much. I deprived myself of so much.

So, this is what I have to say to you, to all my high-functioning depressive “family members” out there. Forge forward, fight for yourself. Know your depression makes you stronger, versatile and resilient. Fight every day, and continue to fight. Please, please, I beg you, do not hide! Part of fighting means not giving in to feeling nothing. Feeling vacant is not survival, and it sure as hell is not success. You will miss too many important things. Please, do not make the same mistake I did.

Don’t become vacant. Don’t miss out on feelings. You deserve to feel happy, sad and everything in-between.

Please, fight for your right feel. I’m finally doing that now; I’ll let you know how it goes.

Unsplash image by Amandine Lerbscher

Originally published: January 16, 2021
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