What It's Really Like To Live With High-Functioning Depression

Most people don't realize that I am struggling.
The author and her dog.
The author and her dog.

For many people, their home is where they can be their worst selves without judgment from the public. For me, it’s a place I can express my true, unpleasant feelings without getting uncomfortable or worried looks.

At work and in public, we are often expected to be friendly, courteous and social. As someone who suffers from depression, I find it can be an enormous inner struggle to uphold this facade. And as someone who is currently in therapy and on medication to manage my depression, I find most people don’t realize that I live with a mental illness.

Being a high-functioning person affected by depression doesn’t mean that I am easily irritable, morose or gloomy. It means that while I may behave in a way that most people would not describe as “depressed,” I am still struggling, and it often manifests in ways that many people are not familiar with.

My years struggling through high school and university are probably what most people imagine when they think “depression.” I had an unceasing feeling of hopelessness and an overall gloomy demeanor, and my anger and irritability were off the charts. My lowest point was in university when my struggle with depression kept me from being able to leave my house. My fear of others noticing that something was wrong made me afraid to leave home to attend lectures on campus, and eventually I ended up failing most of my courses.

It was then that I sought out help. I learned that what I was feeling was more harmful than how I tried to play it off, and that I needed to heal through therapy.

Four years later, I had finally graduated and started working full time. The gloom came and went, but then last winter it became increasingly worse again ― not that anyone else would notice. I couldn’t find the energy to find a therapist, so my family doctor prescribed me antidepressants to help me get over the initial feelings of anxiety and depression so that I could be in a better mindset to actually seek help. Even through all of this, most people would not have realized what I was going through inside. And the medication made me feel more like how I probably looked on the outside.

“The medication made me feel more like how I probably looked on the outside.”

The best way I can describe depression is being in constant emotional distress. The best way I can describe high-functioning depression is being in constant emotional distress while putting up a facade. It’s being able to, for the most part, get your job done, socialize with friends and colleagues, and still be a high achiever in many aspects of your life, despite all that is happening inside.

As someone who was raised in a home where the appearance of being competent, strong, and put-together was emphasized, showing my emotional pain never really felt like an option. It felt like a weakness (which, of course, it isn’t).

Most people are often surprised to learn that I struggle with depression. As someone who is high-functioning, I understand that I’m far from the portrayals of depression you may encounter in the media. I don’t look sad on the outside, I don’t abuse any substances, I smile and joke quite often. But at home, things are a little different. When I’m alone, there are days when I find myself feeling inconsolably blue, overwhelmed by the bleakness of the world, or the monotony of day-to-day life.

When so many people are able to do so much more with the time they have outside of work, I often find myself languishing, absolutely exhausted by the brave face I’ve had to put on all day. That’s the thing about doing everything “right” ― the medication and your therapist help you manage the most obvious symptoms (particularly, the emotional distress), but nothing cures it completely.

Depression isn’t just a feeling. When I was first learning about living with this condition, I did often associate it with my feelings of emptiness, pessimism and what I can only describe as a constant, dull heartache of sorts. But since seeking treatment, I’ve learned it’s so much more than that. Even when a person suffering from it is doing everything possible to get well, it is something they’re going to have to deal with for the rest of their life.

“High-functioning depression is being able to, for the most part, get your job done, socialize with friends and colleagues, and still be a high achiever in many aspects of your life, despite all that is happening inside.”

Most days, as someone who is high-functioning, I would say it’s best described as a hollowness, almost like being exhausted to the point of being uncaring. But, at the same time, it’s something that I’ve only come to allow myself to feel in the privacy of my own home. And likewise, my only private physical space reveals this side of me. Sometimes the dishes won’t be done for days, sometimes I’ll skip out on washing my hair for a week and a half, sometimes I’ll start the laundry and take a whole week to finish it, or let the clean laundry sit in a hamper for weeks on end. It’s just being so emotionally drained from being functional in public that everything else sort of goes into disarray.

It isn’t that my home is always a mess, or that my hair is always unwashed ― these are just some of the things that happen if I’m going through a funk. Often, there are days or weeks where I might go through life feeling absolutely energized. The house may be spotless for days, and I may even get some huge projects like decluttering done. You feel like you’re “healed,” and I’d often wonder, “Is this how normal people feel?” Sometimes, I’ll even doubt whether I have depression. After all, people go through funks all the time ― perhaps I’m just being lazy.

But then when I’m just exhausted, no matter how much I sleep, when I look at the pile of dishes and I register that it’s bothering me but, at the same time, I can’t muster up the energy to care, that’s when I realize there’s no curing it, and it isn’t just a phase ― because this “phase” has literally been around with me since I was a teen. That messy apartment isn’t a sign that I’m a slob, or that I’m lazy ― it’s a sign that I’m suffering. They are my symptoms.

And in that sense, my home, where I’m allowed to let things get a bit messy, helps me stay organized, tidy and functional in public. Others may see a messy, lazy person. But to me, it’s a reflection of my emotional health, and it reminds me that I should take care of myself, but that it’s OK to show these symptoms once in a while. Because depression isn’t something that just goes away. It’s something that’s a part of me. And while I refuse to allow it to take over all of my life, it needs a place to stay. It needs a place where I can let it out without being judged by others, and that’s usually alone after a day of smiling and doing my job and looking totally fine.

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