I am what my therapist and doctor call “high-functioning.” I have major depression and anxiety disorder, but like many with this illness, you would not be able to tell by looking at me. I am able to get groceries, read books I like, and participate in life, MOST of the time.
One of the rotten parts about having depression and anxiety (oh, and there are lots) is that sometimes you feel FINE. Not that feeling fine is bad, but that it shows you how good you CAN feel for a few hours. It gives you a taste, and you start to think, wow, what if I felt like this all the time?! For instance, lots of times, when I’m doing things that absolutely have to be done, like running errands, or going to my part-time job, I am able to cope through breathing exercises, a major dose of psyching myself up, and a small anxiety pill. In fact, I often “look fine” and not ill at all. Of course, a lot of the time I am not fine, but I fake it. I put a lot of effort into doing daily activities and yes, for the most part, it is exhausting.
When I am doing okay, mental illness-wise, I am able to do daily chores and activities without the exhaustion. I am able to go to meetings with my thesis supervisor, and go to my (very) part-time job, and maybe even go for coffee with a friend. Those days are the days that I am high-functioning. I have surprised many friends when I told them about my illness, because many times I don’t act sick.
But there are days, nay months, when my depression and anxiety are not well-controlled, and I am not high-functioning at all. For me, this means I don’t want to get out of bed, or don’t want to leave the house. I go to my job only so I don’t get fired, but I resent it. I hate having to take a shower, brush my teeth and look presentable. Every movement is exhausting. I just want to sleep, even though I know that if I sleep, I’ll have disturbing dreams. Last month was such a month, and while I was on the waiting list to see my psychiatrist, I didn’t get in until my regular appointment, five weeks later, and the waiting was hell. Knowing that every day I was feeling worse, and all I needed was a dosage tweak. Not sick enough to check myself into the hospital, but sick enough that my GP is not comfortable changing or managing my meds. So I had to wait for my psychiatrist.
When I finally got in to see him, he upped the dose of one of my anti-depressants. I knew that’s what he would do, and even knew to what dosage it would be increased. I am an expert on my own psychopharmacology, and I take an active interest in my meds. I know when I feel sick. I know when I’m doing well. Sometimes I don’t see the signs of a slip, but usually I do. This active participation in my own health care is one of the things that I do have control over, in terms of my illness. But no matter how I’m doing, or how closely I monitor my symptoms (I’ll admit, I’m a bit obsessive about it), I can’t change the lengthy wait times for my doctor. I can’t change that I have an illness. And I can’t change that I’m high functioning, which is more of a curse than a blessing sometimes. People assume I’m fine, my partner sees a few good days and thinks I’m doing great, and then it comes as a surprise when I don’t feel like I can do something like laundry or walk the dogs. If my illness were visible, and I weren’t high-functioning, maybe then I wouldn’t feel like I have high expectations placed on me. Maybe I wouldn’t place those high expectations on myself. I feel like a bad dog owner, and I guilt myself like crazy when I don’t walk them daily. The guilt only increases if I go more than a few days. Then there’s exercise. Everyone says that daily exercise is excellent for those with depression and anxiety. An hour a day, my psychiatrist recommends. I tried not to snort when he mentioned it. I’m lucky if I do a flight of stairs instead of taking an elevator. The notion of doing any sort of exercise for any length of time is laughable to me right now, especially when I feel like crawling in bed and staying there for hours. How am I supposed to go outside?
I guess what I’m trying to say is that depression and anxiety aren’t always visible. For me, my visibility comes out when I say “no” to a social, or if I cancel an appointment with my supervisor. If I can’t get the groceries, make a phone call to a stranger, or go for a walk. But to someone who doesn’t know me well, they might never guess the hell that I am in when I’m in a depressed or anxious state. They may not realize that I fight depression and anxiety on a daily basis. I try to be open about my illness, to be a true stigma fighter, but it’s hard. I’m still scared that someone will start treating me differently, that they will judge me on my illness. That my illness will be all they see, and they won’t see the dog lover, cross-stitcher, PhD candidate or cupcake baker.
So, to all you stigma fighters, who come out as having a mental illness, thank you. You inspire me daily. I love reading your stories. I think you are brave and inspiring and wonderful. And for living with an illness that does have such stigma, you are even braver. Thank you for sharing your stories and allowing me to share mine.
Sarah can be found on Twitter.
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