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What It's Like to Have a 'High-Functioning' Mental Illness

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Every day I wake up, and I am able to get out of bed. I am able to go to work, go to class, do my homework and thus pass those classes. I am able to hang out with my friends and have a social life. I am able to laugh and show my emotions. I am able to present myself as an average 20-something college student and have it be OK when I am stressed because who isn’t at some point in their college career? I am living and presenting myself as a “normal” college student, and I suppose to an extent I am.

I am fighting a mental battle — one no is able to see. My mind is a battlefield. A battlefield that has my mind on one side and me on the other. Every day, while I am able to appear as normal as everyone else, my anxiety and depression are trying as hard as they can to tear me down. They want me to throw in the white flag and admit defeat. I am someone who is able to cover up the terrible thoughts that cross my mind daily and pass for someone who is genuinely happy with the life she lives. I am someone who lives with “high-functioning” mental illness.

Living with mental illness is tiring. It takes a lot out of you. It beats you down and leaves you defeated, tired, and hopeless. It tells you that you aren’t good enough and that you never will be. It tells you no one likes you – that everyone who says they care about you is lying. They are only saying they care because they have much more important things to worry about than you. They’re only saying that so you will stop complaining. They don’t want to listen to it anymore.

It gets your hopes up only to leave you feeling worse about yourself than you did before. It persistently nags at you that something is wrong when everything appears to be fine. It tells you that you are going to mess up, and when you do, it tells you that you are a failure. Why did you even do that in the first place? You knew you would embarrass yourself.

It tells you that you are completely unable to love and that you are unlovable. It tells you that you will never be capable of maintaining a stable relationship with anyone because you are so fucked up that there isn’t ever going to be even one person who will be able to love you with all of your baggage. Who would ever love someone as “screwed up” as you? It makes the thought of anyone caring for you laughable. It makes showing any emotion impossible. It makes you feel uncomfortable when someone compliments you. There isn’t anything about you worth complimenting. It is that pessimistic, cynical voice in your head that never goes away. It makes you feel completely and utterly worthless.

Having these thoughts cycle through your head day after day is – to simply put it, tiring. Last night, for example, I was awake well into the early morning hours because I was having a double whammy bout with my anxiety and depression about how awful of a person I am. But today, like every other day, I woke up, tired and exhausted as I was, and made it through the day. Not a single person asked if I was OK, but I can’t expect anyone to when, on the outside, I appear perfectly fine. What I did today, and essentially every other day, is normal for me. It is perfectly normal for someone with mental illness(es) to live life as any other person does while her mind is completely dismantling itself. Perhaps that is what is so dangerous about being able to function with a mental illness: no one sees you breaking down and falling apart when you have a smile on your face.

“High-functioning” mental illness is a lot of things, none of which are detectable. It is exactly as I’ve mentioned: being able to get out of bed every day and go about your life as if there isn’t a World War III happening inside your head. Mental illness is much more complex than that. It is making excuses as to why you cannot spend time with your friends or family because large crowds make you uncomfortable or because you simply do not have the energy to be around anyone right now. Usually the excuse of being tired works. But once you bail on so many plans and events, you become the flaky friend, but that’s better than being the “weird” one and having to deal with the stigma that comes with mental illness.

It’s smiling and laughing with your friends, then crying alone in your room 20 minutes later because you’re worthless. It’s feeling as if I have absolutely no right to write an article like this because there are people who are more severely affected by mental illness. It’s feeling like my emotions and mental illnesses are not valid because I didn’t go through a traumatic experience that would “excuse” my anxiety or depression or because I am able to carry out my life and pass it as “normal.” It’s feeling unqualified to write this because I get good grades and am able to hold down a job. Am I really “sick enough” to be able to write something like this?

It is appearing confident in front of a crowd or group but actually feeling sick to your stomach because the mere thought of people staring at you and judging you is enough to cause an attack in itself. It’s being able to leave your house but feeling incredibly uncomfortable for every second of it. It is getting incredibly excited about something, then losing all interest a few days later because that initial excitement disappeared suddenly into thin air. It’s not caring about your work, completely neglecting it because you simply do not have the energy or care to do it, then having it passed off as laziness. It’s sitting here writing this article and believing that every single word is complete shit but continuing anyway because there is a deadline. It is overcompensating in other areas because of that dead, empty feeling inside.

I combat my mental illness with humor. Someone with such a good sense of humor couldn’t possibly be unhappy. It is having every single aspect of your life controlled by your illness but passing off those choices as ones you make in a right state of mind.

I can only speak for myself, and it is disheartening because there are millions of others who have their own story to tell. Sitting in the library at this very moment, I can only imagine how many people around me have that same voice in their head, telling them they are not good enough. The one thing I have in common with every other person going through this is this: we are still here today. Up until this point, we have been able to fight back against our demons no matter how many times they have knocked us down.

Every single day is a true struggle to get through, not only for me but for millions of others who live with these invisible illnesses. But if my anxiety and depression has taught me anything, it is that I am strong. I am strong because as many times as it has controlled me, knocked me down, and as much as it has ruined so many incredible opportunities for me, I am still here. I am living, and I am a survivor. I am able to acknowledge that it exists, and because of that, I can combat it. I am able to throw punches and sometimes even avoid the ones my mind throws at me. I have become more comfortable discussing it with others and acknowledging I need help. I am also beginning to learn that it is not my fault. I have made it this far in my journey, and I have no intentions of stopping my ride any time soon. Day after day, I will rise.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

Thinkstock photo by Baluchis


Originally published: January 14, 2017
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