I have been told many times that I am so high functioning for someone with depression. For a long time I not only did not mind this label but I embraced it. I thought I was fooling everyone, including myself with how I felt even though my cognition was rather disabled. I am now at the point where I do not like the label high functioning, nor do I want anyone to refer to me as such. The truth is whether one has a physical illness (diabetes) or mental illness (depression), there are times when we all may be labeled as “high functioning.” The woman with diabetes who has to watch her food intake, nutrition, blood levels and has to work amidst these concerns, does it while appearing well-kempt and put together. Is she high functioning? When I get dressed and put my makeup on and make sure my hair is just so, as I am fighting my inner demons of negativity, am I considered high functioning? So much talk of masks and being high functioning have hit a brick wall as far as I am concerned. You know why? Because when I go out dressed up while feeling exhausted, hopeless and irritable, I am not high functioning. When I go out with my hair half curly/wavy in an oversized top and leggings, not having showered yet while feeling exhausted, hopeless and irritable, I am also not high functioning. It’s me. I haven’t changed and I haven’t hidden myself. There is no high functioning, there is only functioning. Each person’s definition of functioning is different for many reasons. Mine, for example, is how I go about my day, whether I go to work or lay on the couch watching The Young & The Restless. I am functioning in my life. I am not hiding from anything or anyone. I am simply being.
Can we be done with the label of high functioning? Can’t we just talk about functioning in whatever state we are in on any given day? It feels as if those who have been called high functioning are deserving of a pat on the back and a gold star. “Good job for being high functioning!” That seems ridiculous! There have been numerous times when I felt I did not appear as sick as I felt and wondered if people knew if they would treat me differently. I felt such pressure because of this label and there were still high expectations which only increased my symptoms. I did not want to let anyone down either. Even when I do not appear in distress, it most definitely does not mean I am not in distress. Why do we have to put everyone on this scale? Last week there was a day when I cried…a lot. I functioned though and that was all I could do. The same is true of the day I went to work and pushed myself to stay in each moment helping customers and chatting with my co-workers. I functioned then, as well.
If we continue to use these labels to characterize and pigeon-hole people with mental illness, how will we ever combat the stigma we fight each day. We, then, become part of the problem and only perpetuate the stigma and comments, such as: you look so pretty today! You must feel better or I saw that smile…your depression is gone now? Mental illness is not black and white. There are infinite dimensions within each illness. This is important to understand. While telling someone it’s good to see you smile, it is not helpful to then say so glad you are well now without knowing more facts. I may smile at different parts of the day when I am ill and it does not mean I have been cured. Although people mean well, there is still a lack of understanding of the complexities of mental illness. As with many ways of interacting in life, it is sometimes better to be cautious and not make assumptions. Just as with mental illness, life in general is not black and white.
Let’s do away with yet another stigma-related term. No more high functioning. Let’s all embrace how each of us functions on a daily basis, whether that is lying in bed all day or meeting a friend for coffee. No scale necessary. No judgment. No label. No pressure.
Risa is mommy to a fabulous 6-year-old girl and wife to an amazing husband. She has lived in Boston, New York City, and now lives in Central CT. She has an MSW from Fordham University and a BA from Columbia University. She was featured in Women’s Health Magazine’s May 2016 issue regarding mental health and was a panelist on AOL Build discussing the effects of stigma on those with mental illness. She has written for Kveller, Huffington Post, Psych Central, Keshet, The Mighty, Bring Change 2 Mind and on her own blog, sillyillymama.blogspot.