This is What it Means to Live With High-Functioning Depression

My manager called me into his office the other day to “talk about my future” at the company I’ve been contracting at for about 6 months. That future, as it turns out, is rather bright. My manager intends to hire me on as a full-time employee, increase my responsibilities, and even knight me with a fancy new jargon-filled job title. The inspiration for this sunny forecast? Apparently, I’m doing a fantastic job. At least my manager thinks so and, assuming he’s telling the truth, so does everyone else.

The flattery, gratefulness, and ego-boost aside, I couldn’t help but be utterly shocked by his words.

Associating myself with the word “fantastic” felt absolutely preposterous. And assigning that adjective to my performance at a job that, up until a month ago, I drove to in tears every morning, that I considered calling in sick from the parking lot because I didn’t feel I had the strength to walk to the front door, that I stopped wearing makeup so I wouldn’t have to worry about coworkers catching any evidence of tear-strewn mascara? It sounded like complete lunacy. You see, I’ve struggled with depression since the ripe old age of 12, so I’m not used to doing/feeling/being “fantastic” at all. At least, not in my own head.

I often speak about my mental health struggles because, well, about 16.1 million American adults have experienced a major depressive episode in the last year, and it’s nice to know you’re not alone, even when the maniacal voices in your head repeatedly tell you that you are. The typical response to my candor, however, is one of disbelief. Not many believe that a (and I quote) “ray of sunshine” such as myself could have experienced the black-as-midnight times I describe. A recent date even expressed to me that, if I truly do have depression, I do one hell of a job covering it up, because, between my incandescent smile and apparent lighthearted approach to life, you’d never have a clue.

Depression Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All

Many do their best to conceal their depression in order to avoid the stigma that surrounds it. I, for one, have never been afraid of that stigma. I adopted the persona of a “nonconformist” in my early teenage years and have proceeded to live my life in tactful rebellion ever since. The reason you can’t see my depression is not because I’m keeping it tucked away in the attic, it’s because I’ve somehow managed to fight through it every single day for the last decade and counting.

What I and many others experience is high-functioning depression. While not an official diagnosis you’ll find in the DSM, high-functioning depression describes a condition characterized by the traditional symptoms of depression (apathy, hopelessness, lack of energy, poor concentration, etc.). The key differentiator is that the affected person, however, continues about– and sometimes excels at– their daily life.

To use myself as an example (as my experience is the only one I truly know), I wake up around 5am to get a run, weight training session, shower, often a few errands, and occasionally a therapy session in before I arrive at work around 8:15 am (at least an hour before the rest of my department shows up). I then aim to complete each item on my to-do list well in advance of its due date, so I have time to pick up a little extra work or knock some things off my personal to-do list. My post-work schedule is rather varied but can include happy hours, swing dancing, dating, or run-of-the-mill chores around my apartment. Before I went on medication about two months ago, I did all of this while I was also trying to fling off sticky-as-molasses thoughts of hopelessness, biting my lip at my desk to keep from crying, and texting my mom that things “aren’t so hot” today. On especially difficult mental health days, I’d cut my day off after 5 pm by canceling any plans I had and hitting the sack by 8 pm to just “shut things off.”

I craved the numbing solitude of sleep, crossed my fingers that my roommate (and one of my best friends) wouldn’t be home when I pulled in from work simply to avoid having to put on a happy face, and did a lot of screaming in my car. And, if I didn’t tell anyone, no one knew that I was miserable. Instead, I was a light-hearted friend, a caring daughter, and an ambitious employee.

Functional Doesn’t Mean “Live-able”

The biggest danger that my functional depression poses is that I often don’t realize how poorly I’m doing. In fact, until just about 3 or 4 months ago, I didn’t think I was depressed at all. Even when I finally accepted, after a decade of struggle, that it was time to go on medication, I sat in my psychiatrist’s office and shrugged off the fact that I was mentally powering down and going to bed at 8 pm several times per week because I honestly, truly thought that was normal. I thought that existence was pain and that everyone was as exhausted and listless as I was. Turns out, that’s not the case.

I can see that very clearly now that I’ve been on a good dose of the right medication for a couple months. I certainly still get “down days” but they are far fewer and much more in between than I can ever remember them being. I could write a whole article about the black-and-white difference between depressive- and “normal” (or non-depressive)-functioning, and I probably will. Right now, the main point is that I’m no longer just functioning, I’m actually living. And, while I was excelling in life before, I’m now excelling at life and, good Lord, are those things so very different.

If you can relate to the former part of my story– the part that was all doom and gloom even though no one really seemed to notice– I’m so very sorry, but know that that doesn’t have to be the way your journey ends. There are several treatment options for depression and, while they may seem intimidating at first, you can trust me when I say taking the leap to begin them is worth it. It’s also a hell of a lot easier than your current daily grind of going through the motions of everyday life but while even breathing.


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