The Invisible Struggle Of Living With High-Functioning Depression

Illustrated by Isabel Castillo Guijarro.
It’s Monday morning when I arrive early at my full-time office job in Toronto’s financial district — looking put together and well rested for the day ahead. Little do my colleagues know, I’ve just spent the entire weekend sleeping, leaving the confines of my dark bedroom only to answer pizza delivery, use the bathroom, or take my antidepressants. The fact is, I lead two different lives: one of a stable, ambitious person who carries out day-to-day responsibilities and one of a deeply fatigued, depressed person on the brink of suicide. Living with high-functioning mental illness often means suffering in silence under the guise of stability.
According to the World Health Organization, depression impacts more than 300 million people worldwide. Every year, nearly 800,000 people die from suicide — it’s the second leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 29.

While society has made plenty of strides in understanding the complexities of depression, there is still a longstanding stereotype of a 'depressed person.'

While society has made plenty of strides in understanding the complexities of depression, there is still a longstanding stereotype of a “depressed person”: typically someone who is withdrawn from the world, has trouble attending to regular daily activities, is bedridden and emotional. But in reality, depression is a highly individual experience that affects every person differently. I work a full-time job, freelance, go to school, go to the gym, socialize, and carry out other adult responsibilities. However, I may spend an hour or more a day at work in suicidal ideation. I may spend an entire weekend sleeping. I may not eat for days at a time.
“High-functioning mental illness” is not an official, clinical diagnosis, but it's something countless people identify with. Those of us who suffer from high-functioning mental illness are more prone to slipping under the radar, meaning we’re often unable to access the proper care and support we need. And when depression is left undiagnosed and untreated, those who suffer from it are at a higher risk for suicide.
There have been moments when I’ve desperately needed help but have been unable to get it because of what I believe is internalized ableism and a societal lack of understanding surrounding high-functioning depression. There’s this prevailing idea that you can “push through” or “snap out of” mental illness by eating well, exercising regularly, and sleeping a full eight hours every night. This is something I myself have internalized throughout my life. There’s also the common belief that this kind of depression is circumstantial or situational and will pass — and therefore something one just has to simply endure.
When I was raped in my third year of university, I kept telling myself I was okay and could sweep everything under the rug, until one day, I just couldn't anymore. As I finally began to process the experience, almost two decades of repressed emotion surrounding several incidents of childhood sexual assault were also triggered. I found myself in utter despair as my final year began, unable to focus on much else than horrific details I'd never allowed myself to think of previously. For once, I was no longer able to soldier on.
Illustrated by Isabel Castillo Guijarro.
When I finally gained the confidence to see a university psychologist, I was told I seemed “fine” and it was probably my vegetarian diet causing fatigue and a low mood. I was told to take iron and B12 supplements and to eat well, sleep, and exercise.
That same semester, I also sought help from a feminist professor of sociology, thinking she might really understand what I was going through. Instead, she told me that as an upper-level student, I was supposed to have figured out ways to succeed academically (as though mental illness has a linear trajectory or life doesn't throw you curveballs) and that I was probably just stressed out and should rest. I barely passed one semester as a result of not receiving more flexibility with deadlines and support in my studies, which severely impacted my GPA, causing my mental illness to further deteriorate. The worst part was, I internalized her words and told myself that it was simply laziness and a lack of intellect causing my setbacks.

The first step towards recognizing my symptoms and advocating for myself was simply admitting that it was okay for me to believe myself — even if no one else did.

After that tumultuous semester, I realized that despite the intense invalidation I had experienced, I was not well. The first step towards recognizing my symptoms and advocating for myself was simply admitting that it was okay for me to believe myself — even if no one else did. After finishing university, I began to reflect on my undergraduate experience and what I could have done differently. I thought of all the times I had mustered up the strength to ask for help but had been discouraged, dismissed, or turned away. Had I been taken seriously, I might have felt vindicated and supported instead of discouraged and isolated. I might have found healthier ways to cope and heal.
Illustrated by Isabel Castillo Guijarro.
As I learned to be okay with not being okay, I began to research depression and was able to identify with symptoms such as suicidal ideation, emotional and physical fatigue, lack of desire in things I’d usually enjoy, and overeating. From there, with the knowledge that I needed to meet with medical professionals sensitive to the multifacetedness of mental illness, I found a sex-positive, queer-friendly, walk-in clinic where the nurses and staff were welcoming and nonjudgmental. I was immediately referred to a psychiatrist, who later provided me with an official diagnosis of depression, anxiety, and PTSD and prescribed me antidepressants.
While care and support shouldn't require a diagnosis, having one did empower me to not accept people’s invalidation of my struggles and suffering. Since then, I’ve been able to have clearer, more direct conversations about my mental health with loved ones, health professionals, and people in my workplace. If it comes down to it, I’ve got an official diagnosis should I need time off of work for my mental health and wellbeing.

It's a deeply internal, silent struggle and one that has taken significant strength to learn to mitigate.

Today, in addition to taking daily antidepressants, I've managed to develop small and subtle ways to mitigate my depression and anxiety. I take several moments out of every day to focus on the gratitude I have for everything wonderful in my life and to reflect on what I am looking forward to in the future. This centers me in the present, slows down the suicidal ideation and the thought train wreck, and makes me appreciative of the little things. I also focus on small joys like my morning cup of coffee at my desk, listening to a new podcast, cozying into the sleeves of my sweaters, thinking of how excited I am to see someone I love, or simply showering or eating. In the past, whenever intrusive thoughts would spin through my mind, I'd add fuel to the flames and quickly find myself physically and emotionally incapacitated. It's a deeply internal, silent struggle and one that has taken significant strength to learn to mitigate.
As society comes to understand that depression takes on many forms and learns to offer nuanced approaches to the complexity of mental illness, my hope is that people like myself will be equipped with the knowledge to identify that they are struggling and need help and feel that they have the tools to advocate for their care and support. Without acknowledgement and treatment, the lives of people like myself living with depression are at risk.
If you are thinking about suicide or self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
If you are experiencing anxiety and/or depression and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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