The Illusion of High-Functioning Depression
Understanding and confronting my quietest killer.
From the exterior, many assume I have a happy, successful life. My external achievements are mostly responsible for this rash assumption. I have just turned 23 years old, and I am freelance pursuing a publication on Medium with my partner, I have graduated with a distinction in a Masters degree in Philosophy, I create and produce music which is one my biggest dreams, and I generally seem like your typical happy go-lucky guy.
Throughout my life, I have always heard from afar:
“What isn’t there to envy about this guy?”
I walk into social situations with a beaming smile, restraining any hint of sadness and defeatism which is reserved for my later evenings of self-doubt. For now, I must conduct my business enthusiastically.
There is nothing to suggest there is anything wrong with my life, and even when I open the veneer about my life to others, be it — burning bridges with my parents, unexpectedly being a guardian caring for my younger sister— I am always made to feel reassured that others aren’t worried for me.
As the old line goes:
“After all you’ve done, I know you can handle whatever comes your way.”
I complete 15 tasks on my to-do list everyday at a minimum. I put everything I possibly can into everything I do. I can’t sleep because I am constantly thinking about the next great idea, and I scramble to write it down in a heartbeat.
If I miss one of those tasks on my to-do list, I can’t help but hear my internal dialogue calling me pathetic.
Even if I don’t miss one of those tasks on my to-do list, I can’t help but hear my internal dialogue saying it isn’t enough.
So the next day, I wake up trying even harder to be greater as much as I possibly can. In vague moments of silence, my mind is too loud to bear it.
I drift in and out of conversations…
…returning to haunted states of mind from childhood, conversations where my parents told me I should have been aborted, being kicked out of home for expressing ideological differences, extreme abuse of hard drugs…
…and yet I return to the conversation, finding the most poignant thing to say, guaranteed to make someone laugh, think, or believe I’m charming. Even when I wasn’t really listening.
Others, including my closest people, can’t really sense my inner desperation. It has been subjected to the deepest depths of repression, buried far away for anyone to detect.
So when others have their issues, they consider me to be a great vent or person to seek advice from, because I am a strong person. To them. I have it all figured out. To them.
It seems the more I achieve, the more I lose.
Gradually, I have lost my ability to cry. It has been years, and despite undergoing very stressful emotional times, a single tear is never shed.
I’ve lost the ability to relax, and value the importance of that.
I will try watching a TV show, and 10 minutes in, I am restless and inundated with thinking my life is wasting away by doing nothing, and I am a pathetic low-life endlessly consuming rather than actively creating.
Even though I spent the whole day exercising, writing, producing music, meditating, cooking food, caring for my sister, running errands for my grandma, maintaining a relationship…I can’t recognise that I do enough for myself.
This is what I and many others have colloquially referred to as high-functioning depression. Not only is it hardly spoken about, but I believe there is more to unravel beneath the surface.
In a world permeated with hyperactivity, heralding the virtue of productivity, it is easy to fall into this trap of internally and silently suffering, distracting oneself with the external world.
Be it friends, a relationship, a new job, a new project…a high-functioning depressive can be identified simply by seeming perfectly normal, or super enthusiastic about even the smallest of things, achieves so much in a short space of time. But inner turmoil escapes being noticed.
Our typical intuitions of depression often encompass the lethargic type, leaving one with little enthusiasm and interest to do things one would ordinarily enjoy, often pushing one step everyday to motivate oneself to return to an established, healthy routine.
Or perhaps I am wrong, and we do recognise high-functioning depression as a legitimate turmoil. But I get the impression that people would rather leave us to our own devices, because despite routinely suffering, there are undeniable and guaranteed results when we get the highest marks in our exams, or enjoy financial comfort when working seven days a week.
After all, what’s there to complain about?
I can understand many would think their sympathies are better spent with those with debilitating mental illnesses, where they are unable to work or achieve anywhere near the extent we can.
I would even go so far to say I have experienced a lot of jealousy in my direction, that even confessing I am very miserable inside is considered ungrateful in the eyes of many.
But when you think about those suicide cases that happen out of nowhere, where the last time people saw the individual they ‘seemed completely fine’, it is probably due to this attitude of shrugging off invisible illnesses like these, such that they feel isolated, trapped in a bubble that nobody cared to understand. Only judge.
I knew I had these issues for most of my life, but I refused to acknowledge them. Perhaps due in part to everybody around me also never acknowledging them, as I was often made to feel that I was privileged because of how much I succeeded.
The plague of others assuming I was fed the silver-spoon overwrote any legitimacy of my hardships.
The reality of the situation was that my home life was a complete disaster. Looking back, I underwent horrific amounts of child abuse via manipulation, threats, insults, and neglect. My parents had marriage difficulties throughout, which they would often take out on me and my siblings. There was confusion on how to raise us with Pakistani/Muslim and English cultural values, and things got progressively worse as time went on.
I can’t really detail much more than that, not due to fear of revealing personal information, but because I genuinely can’t access these memories. I think they are blocked away from my available memory, which is why I can ignore my feelings so well, and work hard at whatever it is I wish to pursue.
For some insight, things have recently been quite difficult.
My younger sister had undergone similar issues I experienced at her age; the typical neglect, manipulation and abuse our entire family had been subjected to in their own way. Ensuring history doesn’t repeat itself again, I stepped in, and defended her against many family members.
Long story short, it lead to her being abandoned by our mother, and due to her coming out gay, betrayed by homophobic, judgemental extended family members.
I had to step in and become her carer out of nowhere, whilst I was in the midst of putting behind the toxicity off my family, and pursuing an independent future in my young 20s.
Thankfully, after lockdown, we will be leaving for a new city and a fresh new start. But everything has been taking a huge toll on my mental (and now physical) health.
Progressively, my chest has felt tighter, I haven’t been eating due to severe amounts of stress, my unhealthy habit of perpetually thinking “I need to do better” got the better of me, the uncertainty of when we are leaving, the persistence of toxic family members to shoot me and my sister down, retriggering past events leading to trauma, and:
I couldn’t breathe. My heart was beating a mile a minute. I had to go hospital for a suspected heart attack.
It turns out my heart was fine, thankfully. I live a reasonably healthy life — I quit smoking, quit eating sugar, I exercise regularly. My doctor in fact marvelled at the strength of my physical health. Little did he know it was a direct result of my obsessive, perfectionist lifestyle.
Although he did mention that the extreme levels of stress were physically taxing to my chest muscles, and if it gets worse, it could very much lead to heart-related problems.
The fact I even went to A&E is a visible telltale sign that I ought to do something about my lifestyle, which despite reaping external results, was doing my mental health absolutely no favours.
They began to empathise more and more as they recognised that my younger sister accompanied me when she should’ve stayed at home, realising I was her carer in what were very apparently unprecedented life circumstances.
Researching and discussing with my girlfriend about my mental predicament, which was becoming too far too strenuous to ignore, we discovered a compelling reason as to why I had built an unhealthy streak of perfectionist thinking over the years:
Simply reading that one sentence fulfilled a huge gap in my understanding. It made perfect sense. My high-functioning depression was symptomatic of extremely high self-imposed standards, as a protective measure to retract extreme levels of judgement and abuse from an earlier time.
Undergoing copious amounts of abuse at a younger age, there was complete judgement whenever I had fallen, and no praise whenever I succeeded.
High grades at school were never acknowledged, but a singular instance of rebellion at school was criticised by my family, and punished with methodical insults wearing down whatever remained of my self-esteem.
This occurred on a routine basis. So from this, I believe my defence mechanism and sense of identity took shape in an unhealthy way.
Because everyone had something negative to say about my decisions, I came to elevate my standards above what is ordinarily expected for a human being in sub-conscious hopes to escape judgement.
It explains why failure is completely unacceptable by my standards. I grew up with each failure magnified under a looking glass, leading me to capriciously shake with anxiety, attempting to conjure a response at whatever they were going to throw at me next.
It also led to a subconscious fear of abandonment by others in a real-world setting, ensuring I can’t and won’t fail in the eyes of others no matter what. I was pressured to believe that failing even once will lead others to abandon me.
Discovering the accuracy of this description to my condition, I never would have suspected it, but this “high-functioning depression” I had grown accustomed to describing, was actually a complex type of PTSD.
Though it had been going on my whole life, I did not think that I experienced trauma until very recently. It was (and still is) downplayed by my family.
Everything is brushed under the carpet, so meeting these same people under the pretence that prior events never happened, only reinforces the trauma tenfold. What’s more, is that nobody including myself even acknowledges perfectionism as a response to trauma, so it slips under the radar.
I know all mental health issues are invisible compared to physical health conditions, but it truly feels that c-PTSD is virtually undetectable —including to myself. But I’m glad I’m finally gaining this insight, and yet to gain much more.
So what do I do now, when I have no other choice other than confront my issues?
The reality is, I am doing a lot of good things right now. Self-fulfilling things.
I’ve sacrificed career prospects for trying to become self-employed with my publication. I’m working at a warehouse part-time to make my dreams come true. I definitely have a true gasp on my sense of self, as I clearly want to do what is best for myself. But I do this by thinking about what to do next.
I lose sight of the very real need to acknowledge I am doing enough, tell myself “well done”, and simply relax. That thought, even typing this now, cringes me out to my very core.
The treatment is inverse to helping someone with a lethargic kind of depression; in motivating them to do small simple tasks every day, I’ve got to encourage myself make my life simpler every day. But how?
I decided to give up my smartphone. It’s become a prison of the mind. It gives me too much power to be productive wherever I am.
Be it checking Medium statistics as soon as I wake up, or replying to mass amount of emails when I’m on the toilet, it’s not healthy. I know deep down, it’s not helping.
I bought a Nokia 2720 Flip phone. It doesn’t have any social media apps on it, no to-do list glaring at me like a demanding authority, no ability to constantly replay my beats thinking of the next best lyric.
It just has the basics like calls, texting, playing Snake. I’m in love with it.
I don’t care I seem like a pariah. I’m already forgetting acquaintances on my Instagram feed. My attention span is returning in a good way.
I still want to achieve the goals I have set, but I know I won’t if I continue wearing myself against the grain, and adding unnecessary stresses into my life. I’m sure that by being more stoic, taking some time away from my activities, I can build a kinder relationship with myself.
I guess I’ve written this for a few key reasons. I’m obviously a rather repressed person, so it was a great catharsis sharing my life.
Another one is that I truly believe high-functioning depression, perfectionism, and c-PTSD, are some of the more unspoken areas of mental health which demand wider attention.
It’s certainly an illusion that everyone believes, including the person who is suffering themselves. The fact that trauma has amnesiac effects, is indicative of that.
I only hope that being able to dissect and come to terms with my problems, grants me the first steps of leaving behind my past, and blossoming in the truest version of myself.