It was fairly recently that I allowed the phrase, "high-functioning depression," to enter my realm of consciousness. I've lived with depression, ranging from mild to severe, since I was 15 and 'managed it' to greater and lesser degrees. Yet in this time I have never had a breakdown or taken more than a day or two off work. Instead, I have been described as, "resilient," "strong," even, "lucky," by people close to me. Things always seem to work out.
But the older I get, and the more I learn about myself I wonder what the cost of all this 'luck' has been.
My depression has been normalised all my life. As a teenager I was repeatedly told that, "We all feel that way," and to just, "Get on with it." I remember being thoroughly confused as to whether that was true. If it was, what was the point?
It's only now, living with an ever-increasing understanding of my reactions and responses, that I am able to look back with a greater sense of perspective. I finally feel able to give adequate weight to traumatic parts of my childhood without acquiescing to my desire to play them down: I carry the burden of my gender which is disproportionately heavy due to expectations placed upon me before my birth; aged seven my parents had a messy divorce; and then, only a few years later, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. (It is widely recognised that chronic medical conditions are associated with depression, particularly high-functioning depression.) I wasn't equipped with the tools to deal with these life-changing events at such a young age; until I discovered alcohol I simply buried myself in books and school work as a coping mechanism.
In writing this, I'm not trying to one-up anyone else who knows me or who felt or feels the symptoms of depression. But this new perspective tells me that what I felt wasn't 'normal' and what I continue to feel isn't either. I wish I had known this earlier.
To me, this is how high-functioning depression continues to manifest itself in my day to day:
- Because my default is to play down my feelings, and I have objectively been fairly successful, I often feel like a fraud, like my depression isn't "real" or "debilitating" enough to be called depression. Any days off work I do take are accompanied with crippling guilt. And people close to me can't comprehend how difficult things can be for me because I function.
- Or because I avoid them: I make well-meaning plans then cancel. Work often takes everything that I have and then some. So - even if I love you - the thought of seeing you, or even speaking on the phone, can be completely overwhelming to me. I want to, I really do, but I can't. And then the guilt kicks back in...
- In fact, guilt is perhaps my biggest burden. I still feel guilty and ashamed of things I said and did as a teenager. I remember them like they were yesterday and they invoke physical reactions in me. Every day I find new - and rationally insignificant - things to feel guilty about. And saying, "no," (and meaning it) is always a battle.
- Guilt leads to worry, "mental restlessness" and constant self-criticism: the feeling of never being good enough or, conversely, being too much.
- So I find solace in sleep. I sleep too much. Evenings are most difficult for me; if I make it up past 10 pm it's a miracle.
- I hide myself away in hours of shit TV. And I mean shit as in Vanderpump Rules and Teen Mom shit. It's completely mindless. I lose myself and it allows my brain to finally switch off. Even reading - my first love - can feel like too much hard work. When I'm not feeling depressed I still watch these things, but I am able to enjoy them in moderation and for what they are, rather than escaping into them.
- My other vices rear their heads: I binge-eat and have done since I was a teenager. I drink too much: alcohol helps me sleep but it can also act as a doorway through which I let out some of the anger and frustration I hold so carefully, but unintentionally, inside. The amount I eat and drink waxes and wanes, but it is often an indication of my mental wellbeing.
- I constantly feel like I'm wasting time, even if I'm resting (sometimes the line between self-care and feeding depression is so fine that I can't discern its presence). My mind can't rest and there is always something I 'need' to be doing. If I am not doing something that I deem worthy of being described as 'busy' I feel even more guilty which feeds the worry which, in turn, nourishes the guilt itself.
- I can be highly irritable. Sometimes with other people but mostly just with myself. This mainly comes about as a result of keeping how I'm really feeling inside in order to function 'normally'.
- And all of this, if you put it together? Well, honestly, life becomes hard work. And I still ask myself, often, "What's the point?"
But then some of these feelings relent, the fog lifts - even just a little - and I am able to remember some of the things that make me feel more able to cope. So perhaps I am lucky, in that I am still here and learning to use the tools that help me to manage.
I've learned about - and am getting to know - my "inner bully". She's incredibly powerful and very, very mean. But the more intimately she and I become acquainted the more easily I recognise her and hold her to account.
And I've realised what it is that actually enables me to function. What's happening is a continuous and bloody battle between my depression and guilt. Guilt still wins the vast majority of the time: dredging up past misdemeanours; labelling self-care as laziness; prodding me when I can't face socialising and forcing me into work on those days that I really shouldn't be there.
It's a daily struggle, but with knowledge comes power and I'm learning to wield more and more of it slowly taking control of both my inner bully and my guilt.
All images used are taken from Creative Commons.
Coming soon: The keys to contentment that help me fight depression.