The Grey Area
Living with High Functioning Mental Illnesses
I have high functioning mental illnesses.
Most people don't understand what that means, and they assume that "high functioning" means pretty close to normal.
As if on a spectrum, normal is the light, mental illness is the dark, and high functioning lists somewhere close to the light.
As someone who has high functioning mental illnesses, I can promise you it doesn't lean toward the light. It's more of a gray area.
Most of what people know about mental illnesses is that they are the ultimate low. Like falling into it steep pit with no method of getting to the top that will get you out. It's nearly entirely debilitating, all consuming. That low isn't less low for someone who is considered high functioning, it's just quieter with less visible signs. When something isn't visible, when there aren't any signs or behavior changes, people don't ask you how you are, or if you're okay, because they assume you're fine, because you're high functioning. Sometimes, even when there's a cause or a trigger, they still don't ask. They expect that you can handle it, even if it's crushing you.
Being high functioning often feels like carrying everyone's weight that they can't handle. That's not to say that it's a burden, especially if it's voluntary, it just sometimes feels like an uneven yoke, because when you're high functioning, it often comes to extreme behavior before anyone notices you're suffering, but it's the opposite for non high functioning mental illness.
So if you're high functioning like me, people don't take you seriously when you're struggling, and even more often, you don't take yourself seriously either, because, well, others have it worse, huh? Worse than that, they don't notice because there's no signs. I find it's hard for people to grasp that I have mental illnesses, because I'm high functioning. People view me as level headed and reasonable normally, so when I'm in an episode, I'm considered emotional, sensitive, and definitely not struggling with bouts of mental illness symptoms.
High functioning does not mean lack of suffering, and it doesn't equal coping better. I can recognize I am better off than many mental illness sufferers. I have all the same symptoms as my counterparts. The key difference is that I am able to function through life, despite my symptoms.
I have anxiety, PTSD, and mild depression, all of which are high functioning. Because I'm high functioning, I'm able to be self aware, but that doesn't mean I have control when I'm in a full blown episode. The reality is, I don't, and I believe that people think I do.
I can't say what it looks like for other people, but I can describe what it's like for me.
I see myself and my symptoms as manageable, and therefore, undeserving of treatment or understanding, and will put a higher priority on mental illness sufferers. I don't talk openly about my mental illnesses or my symptoms, because I don't feel I have a right to when there are people who have it worse. That in itself I've discovered, is a symptom. I have a lot of symptoms that even people who know me don't know about. Sometimes it feels like they don't care to know or ask.
High functioning for me often means drowning in silence. There's no bubbles drifting to the surface to alert someone you're submerged and can't breathe. There's no signs. You just go on as normal, even if you feel like your organs are giving out.
High functioning mental illness looks like trying to carry myself through my day to day life like I don't have any, even though I am totally aware, and admit to having mental illnesses. There's always someone who has it worse, and I happen to know several of those someones, so I feel less valid to claim I have episodes.
High functioning mental illness looks like the person who appears really put together almost at a perfectionist or obsessive level, and when they are finally at their limit, it seems like it came out of nowhere, and they become a complete monster. High functioning is a lot of holding back and fighting yourself, fighting your symptoms until you can't anymore.
Being high functioning feels like the two sides are fighting over me in a game of tug of war, and there's no victory or end of game.
It's like being two people in one body. My mental illnesses are pessimistic, while I am an optimist. One side selfless, the other side selfish. They think they are protecting me from people who will do me harm, and they try to convince me everyone is out to hurt me. Even the ones I love that I know love me.
When I'm level, people come to me for advice. I'm level headed, logical, I'm dedicated to improvement and healthy behavior, and I do a lot of self help research, which I believe makes it difficult for people to make the connection between the even version they know me as, and the irrational, symptom-ridden version of me.
When I'm in an episode, I have tunnel vision. My emotions, my actions are justifiable, and all logic, accountability, and empathy are absent. I can't see past my own feelings, my own side of the situation, and I draw up the worst case scenarios as a response, which isn't personal to anyone, but it sounds like it is when I'm in an episode.
Maybe people think my love for them should be stronger than my anxiety, my PTSD, stronger than those worst case scenarios, and misguided, sour opinions I imagine that paint people I love as enemies when they really aren't, but it's not about the amount of affection I have for someone. It's the disorder. I undergo a lot of guilt because of this when I come out on the other side.
My self image suffers, because once the episodes end, I fall into a spell of overwhelming guilt. No one holds me more accountable for what I do than I do. No one is harder on me, than me. Anyone else coming down on me only adds to the pile.
It's harder for other people around me to pinpoint when high functioning symptoms arise, because they are better hidden. I busy myself through my symptoms to distract myself from my symptoms. The more severe ones, I withdraw more when I'm going through an episode. My motivation plummets, I become stoic, and I curl into myself. The degrees of isolation depend on the level of severity. The worse it gets, the further I will disappear until my entire social presence is obsolete.
I'm able to push myself through the things I have to do, but less important things get put off. I hyper-focus on things to keep me busy and I hyper-focus on a topic that's upsetting me so the two go to war with one another.
What I hope people take from this is that being high functioning does not mean easier, but we're trying. It doesn't mean perfect or normal. What it means is that we cope differently, but different doesn't mean wrong or lack.