Wednesday, 12 April 2017

High Functioning Depression

It's no secret that I have had my struggles with anxiety and depression over the past few years. It's something that I am generally quite open about and I have written about it on my blog before. For me it's important to talk about mental health and my own personal issues because not only is it somehow quite therapeutic for me, but I also know it's comforting to others. 

I have more recently struggled with what is often referred to as 'high functioning depression'. This is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin - a depression where you are still able to function.

When I look back at myself, pre mental health problems, I know that my own perception of depression was a stereotypical one. If I heard that someone was depressed or signed off work with depression my mind would automatically conjure up images of someone unable to have a wash or get out of bed. I would imagine the person in a tearful state and unable to leave the house. I now recognise how depression can look very different and more often than not it's the face across the room smiling back at you, the most organised co-worker who seems to have everything under control, or even the person laughing with friends in the pub.

Depression doesn't have to look any particular way and it's important to realise that people do suffer in different ways and in varying degrees.

I remember a few years ago when I was signed off work with anxiety and depression and an ex colleague reported to my manager having seen via social media that I was out in public and enjoying a yoga class. I remember at the time feeling so incredibly annoyed because I didn't fit in with their imagined reality of depression. It was almost as if my illness wasn't going to believed unless I stayed at home and gave up on life and trying to help myself feel better.

On another occasion I recall having a meeting with occupational health and the therapist I was meeting with began to question my illness because I had managed to do my hair and makeup that day. I began to feel like no one was going to take me seriously or believe me unless I looked or behaved in a certain way. Just imagine becoming unwell to the point where your whole life as you know it changes and then having everyone around you doubt whether or not you're telling the truth...      

I've always maintained that it's really difficult for people to understand anything mental health related unless they have suffered themselves. It is unfortunately in most cases an 'invisible illness' which makes it even harder for others to understand what they can't even see. I should know, I used to be the same.

So what does high functioning depression look like? 

It looks like me. It looks like you. It looks like the person sitting next to you. Mental health problems affect an estimated 1 in 4 people in the UK so the likelihood is that if you're not a sufferer yourself you will know someone who is. And when I say 'know someone who is' you may not even know who that person is around you because they may hide their illness due to a fear of being judged or stigmatised.

Depression for me is quite changeable and I tend to go through periods of time that may be better than others and vice versa. Even when i'm feeling really good I am still conscious of its presence and I am more than aware of its ability to fade away and return whenever it feels like it. Contrary to some nonsensical opinions, I have absolutely no control over it.

For the most part I have always found anxiety to be the more debilitating illness, but again this can be different for different people. Depression can feel suffocating at times but it's rarely stopped me from doing what I need to do. Whereas anxiety can stop me in my tracks and completely change my lifestyle when it's at its worst, I have always managed to battle through depression and put on a brave and semi(ish) happy face.

And I guess that's the thing with high functioning depression, you can do a pretty good job of hiding that anything is wrong at all. Sometimes I look back at photos and I vividly remember how awful I felt at the time but from the photo you would really have no idea. In fact in some of them I look better than ever.

You could be on the most beautiful paradise island in the world but depression is still going to be there. It's going to be on the sun lounger next you bringing up all of your flaws and everything you hate about yourself. You'll bump into it again at the buffet where it will remind you that you should be feeling happy and ask why you aren't enjoying yourself like everyone else until it has you convinced that you're the worst company to be around and you don't even know why anyone would want to spend time with you. And again at night when you close your eyes and try to sleep it will perk up and want to run through different scenarios with you like losing everyone around you who you love and ending up old and lonely before eventually dying alone.

I would say that high functioning depression is the bittersweet mental illness. It allows you to carry on with your every day activities, hold down a job and maintain relationships. The burden of it is only really with you which can make life feel like a constant uphill struggle. Nine times out of ten you don't feel like sticking to plans or doing what you need to be doing, but you somehow power on and get on with life in the hope that eventually maybe it won't feel so hard. You get up every day, you do your hair and makeup, you attend your appointments, you engage in social activities. No matter how draining these things are on your ever waning energy levels you carry on because there is no other feasible option.

Perhaps if I had known about high functioning depression sooner in my life I would have got help sooner. Because I didn't fit into my own stereotypical image of what depression looked like I thought I was ok, when really I wasn't. I thought it was normal to not feel pleasure and enjoyment in things. I'd more often than not just feel like I was going through the motions in life and somehow always on the outside of what everyone else was experiencing. The perfectionist in me would constantly push myself to achieve more and I was of course my own worst critic. I had no reason to be depressed because on paper I seemed to have it all.

What I know now is that these are common traits for many of its sufferers and usually what prevents self acknowledgement of the problem. Sadly it's usually the perfectionists, the go getters and high achievers who least want to accept the reality of anything being wrong. But take my word for it, the consequences of not accepting that there is a problem are far worse and life changing.            

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