What does it mean to have a mental illness yet be “high-functioning”?
The term “high-functioning” is used when someone is able to do the things they need to do in their daily life. For example, go to work, maintain a relationship, complete their university coursework, and so on. In other words, you present as “normal”. No one would guess that you have any mental health problems.
Whilst on the surface this seems to be a great way to live – after all, who wants people to know they’re struggling? – when you actually think about it, it can be incredibly dangerous. If nobody knows that you’re struggling on the inside, people will continue to treat you like you’re not.
High-functioning people with mental illness often appear to be the most put-together, the most stable, the most in control, when in reality, they are fighting a constant battle inside themselves, trying desperately to keep up appearances.
I know this because I was high-functioning, for a long time.
For several years I held down a full-time job, whilst studying part-time for a master’s degree. I had a long-term relationship. I paid my bills, I kept my appointments, I did everything I was supposed to do. But on the inside, I was dying. When I got home from work I would collapse into bed straight away. I had no energy for anything and was constantly depressed and anxious. But I put what little energy I had into keeping up appearances and making the world think I had my shit together.
And for a while, it worked.
Until it didn’t anymore.
And when a high-functioning person crashes, they crash hard.
I became suicidal and attempted to take my own life several times, culminating in a stay in a psychiatric hospital. I lost my job. My relationship broke down. I lost everything.
It’s a hard fall from the top. So going from everyone thinking I was on top of everything, to everyone knowing I was a total mess, was a horrible, heartbreaking thing to endure.
However, it turns out, having a breakdown was the best thing that ever happened to me. Finally, I’d dropped the mask and let people know that I was struggling. Finally, I’d let people in. Finally, I could get some help.
Now I’d crashed, the mental health staff who had dismissed me in the past had to start taking me seriously. They allowed me to access the appropriate therapy and changed my medication.
Since then, I’ve made massive progress in working on myself. I still have a long way to go, but now I finally know that it’s okay to ask for help, and it’s okay to say “actually, I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now”.
This post has been a bit rambly, but I guess what I’m trying to say is, check on your friends, even if they seem to have their shit together. Hopefully, by raising awareness of high-functioning mental illness, we can prevent people from having to “crash” before they get help.
Do you have any experience with being high-functioning? Maybe you too experienced “the crash”? Would you do any differently now? Tell me about your story in the comments.