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Life with High-Functioning Depression: Feeling Seen When Others See Nothing Wrong

For the entirety of my life, I have tried to do right in everything and by everyone. For the first time this past year, I questioned my capacity to do that and, in turn, questioned everything that I thought I knew about myself.

Since adolescence, I have prided myself upon my successes, resiliency, willingness to serve others, and ability to give my all and make it through any season of life. I was not only a ridiculously high-achieving nerd (we’re talking captain of a competitive science team and a member of multiple other academic teams here), but I was also a survivor of panic attacks caused by a phobia of food and restaurants. I survived months of semi-starving myself because my body would panic when I tried to eat, and I dealt with the residual effects for years after. If I could make it through that, I could make it through anything. At least that’s what I thought.

In October 2021, just a few months after I graduated college, I jetted off to Spain to pursue a Master’s degree and teach English abroad. The first month was wonderful. I was settling into my new school and making friends from my Master’s program. Slowly, and I mean slowly enough for me not to notice, my mental health began to spiral. Before I knew it, I was isolating, losing interest in all hobbies, and spending the entire weekend not leaving my apartment. I couldn’t even get off my couch.

The thing was, I made it to work and classes every Monday through Friday and spent many days from 7 am to 9 pm conducting private lessons. Because I was capable of getting up and going to work all those days, and because I enjoyed much of the time I spent with my students, I concluded nothing was wrong. I mean, genuinely depressed people can’t get up out of bed and are sad all the time, right?

Spoiler alert: that’s wrong.

It wasn’t until early December, when I cut myself for the first time, that I realized I was truly and deeply suffering.

With at least twenty inflamed markings from the cuts I had made on my left wrist, I spent the next couple of weeks constantly tugging at my sleeves, making sure that my students saw nothing. How do you explain to a child that you cut yourself on purpose? You can’t. At that point, I couldn’t even fully comprehend why I did it. Being so preoccupied about questions I might receive from my students, I managed to suppress future desires to cut. I thought this meant I was getting better. I was wrong—again.

The following week, I told myself that I was going to change. I was going to find a therapist, I was going to increase my anti-depressant dosage, and I was going to do everything else in my power to improve my mental health. I had made a commitment to my students and my school, and still had six months of my contract left. But, as depression so lovingly strikes, the isolation and weekends in my apartment became increasingly worse, and any remnants of motivation disappeared altogether.

I was stuck in this nightmarish limbo. Part of me believed that I was capable of staying in Spain for the next six months. I was high-functioning, so I knew I’d have no issues making it to school. I figured I’d get the help I needed, and my mind would begin to heal.

The other part of me questioned that capability. “Yes, you will make it to school, but is the suffering during the weekend worth it? Will you actually go out and get the help you need? Or will the suicidal thoughts that permeate your mind become strong enough that you slit your wrists with the intent to kill?”

I was distraught. I loved my school, but I also loved myself. I didn’t want to die, but I couldn’t control the intrusive thoughts. After weeks and weeks of tears and phone calls with family, friends, and my partner, I made a decision. I was coming home. While relieved that I was out of limbo, I still felt like a failure. The high-achieving woman I thought I always was couldn’t get through this? I questioned my self-worth during this process, and honestly, I am still working through it. Every day, I have to remind myself that I am capable and that combatting mental illness isn’t a single battle but an eternal war within my own mind.

The following weeks brought several emotional conversations, the most notable of which was with my school supervisor. We worked so well together. I knew sadness about my upcoming departure would be mutual, so I dreaded breaking the news. During a lunch break one day, in tears, I explained everything that I was going through and how I had decided to go home. For the entirety of the conversation, she was wide-eyed and stunned. At the end, she said this: “I had no idea anything was wrong.”

That’s the thing about high-functioning depression. The people around us don’t know we’re suffering. We’re so good at hiding our pain and doing what we’re supposed to in life that we fly under the radar and feel even more and more alone. After Spain, I’ve concluded that the best way (for me, at least) to deal with high-functioning depression is to be open with everyone I can about my mental health and my needs.

Yes, I know it’s difficult, and they may not believe us at first, but remember that breaking the stigma around mental illness starts with you and me.

While I didn’t make it through the full time in Spain, I made it through something even more impressive: one of the roughest mental patches of my life. While the choice to come home was painstakingly difficult, I am confident I made the best decision for myself and my mental health, and, most importantly, I let myself and my struggles finally be seen.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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About the Author: Lauren Holmes is a young language educator from North Carolina with a passion for serving students and empowering individuals to stand up for and help themselves. In her classrooms, she tries to make conversations about mental health prevalent in an attempt to break the stigma at a young age. As someone who once was afraid of opening up about her own mental illness, she hopes her writing will inspire others to open up about their own vulnerabilities.

Photo by Rachel McDermott on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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