I fight an ongoing battle with depression. Anyone who has paid any attention to my journey over the past ten years or so will already know this. I speak quite openly about it, because I can – the stigma has no massive influence on my life, and I hope very much that talking about it helps other people feel less alone. Also, I have developed ways of coping with the symptoms and mechanisms for beating that nasty depression voice in my head that likes to lie to me and tell me how useless and unloved I am.
As far as depression goes, I am doing okay. I had a major crash about 6 years ago, when my marriage ended while I had a small child, and I spent a lot of the time since then putting my life and my brain back together. Now I am back to a place where I can make commitments and meet deadlines and work when I need to, and parent effectively and all that good life shit.
I’m what they call “high-functioning”. I take my meds, I eat properly, I try and get some exercise, and, for the most part, I get through my days without anyone on the outside any the wiser about the battle on the inside.
Because of this, and because I know I’m not the only person in the world who deals with this – you or someone you know might be one of them and maybe it’ll help knowing you’re not alone – I want to talk a bit about the challenges of high functioning depression. I hasten to add, I am not a medical professional, and this is based entirely on my own personal experience. If any of it rings true for you, and you don’t think of yourself as depressed, it might be a good idea to have a chat with a doctor. Coping mechanisms are great, but meds work too. Help your body to help your mind. ❤
The biggest challenge of high functioning depression, for me, is accepting that it counts. That probably sounds silly, but it’s legitimately a major thing. Because I know what it’s like to be can’t-shower, getting-out-of-bed-is-an-achievement, haven’t-cooked-in-a-week, bring-me-my-wine full on depressed, the fact that I haven’t been properly drunk in months, eat three decent meals a day, get up every day at the same time and work and shower and look after my kid often makes me feel like I’m just malingering. I’m fine! I mean look at me, meeting deadlines and eating healthily! Sure, I’m tired, like, all the time, and everything feels kind of grey and numb, and nothing is, exactly, FUN, per se, but it’s not like I can’t get out of bed, right?
I have developed all these mechanisms for getting things done even when I feel like shit, which I did because I needed to beat that feeling of impossibility I used to live with, so now the things get done and I am super productive – perhaps more productive than I’ve ever been in my life. Which is dandy. But it makes it hard to feel “legitimate” if I am having a depressive episode. Because now instead of hiding in my bed crying, a depressive episode looks like irritability and exhaustion on me. I find myself saying, “I’m just tired” when what I mean is, “I’m pretty sure I’m actually really depressed right now, but it isn’t having any major external impact, so meh, it’ll pass”.
I had to talk my doctor into giving me meds because he was like, “You seem very together for a depressed person.” At which point I burst into tears and said something like, “Yes, but holy gods, it costs me so much effort to be” and he was like, “Oh, yes, I see it now, take these once a day and come back in three months.” (He is actually pretty great, I’m downplaying how this went. But there was still that “you don’t seem depressed” thing.)
I’m really good at hiding it now. I get things done anyway. I get up anyway. I can still talk and socialise with people if I need to, though the gods know I usually don’t want to. When I get time to myself, I spend it sleeping or reading or anything that requires almost no energy or effort from me, because I have spent it all looking after my kid and being a girlfriend and cleaning the dishes and making sure whatever I need to get done gets done.
If I get some time to myself, and one of my friends messages me in a way that requires immediate attention, I feel resentful, and then I swallow that resentment because there is no way for them to know how tired I am, and, you know, I’m always tired, so what difference does it make anyway, and I talk to them as much as I can and then I tell them gently I need to go, and I go. (I am very fortunate that my dearest friends all get this shit, and understand that when I am out of juice, I am out of juice, and they don’t get hurt if I say I have to go. My people are amazing.)
Small decisions become impossible. I plan two week menus so that I don’t have to think about what’s for dinner. My to read shelf is in an order already so that I don’t have to decide what book to read next. I even have a system for my t-shirts so that I don’t have to think about which shirt to wear in the morning. I have structures and systems scattered throughout my life, lists and procedures to keep me on track, to minimise how many small daily decisions I have to make. I have reminders for things normal people just do, like drinking water and eating lunch. Because every decision takes monumental effort, so I do what I can to minimise them, and stick to the ones that are work related or absolutely cannot be avoided. Those I can handle with aplomb. I do story selection quickly and efficiently, but really only because I have this almost insane scaffolding holding up my day to day life to make space in my decision matrix for the big stuff that cannot be avoided.
This has weird consequences. I am good at dealing with the unexpected, but if something “unimportant” throws off my schedule, I get irritated. If my partner offers to cook dinner, I’ll thank him, but if he needs me to decide what he should cook, or if he asks what I want, then there’s no point, and I may as well do it myself. It’s not the cooking that takes effort, it’s the deciding. If I have planned to do something specific in the afternoon, and my kid wants to play with me, it takes a huge conscious decision to set aside whatever I had planned and hang out with him. Sometimes I manage to do this, sometimes I don’t. I should, always, because the years when he is going to want to hang with me are getting shorter, but I have to have the juice to consciously set aside whatever was on my radar and engage with him.
I think the worst thing is that nothing is really fun. Some things are kind of vaguely enjoyable. Some things make me feel better for a while. Some things give me an injection of energy. But I’m not spontaneous any more (I used to be). I struggle to remember what things give me actual enjoyment, because instead of enjoyment, I mostly just feel tired. I feel happiness, and pride, and love, but not really enjoyment. There are, very likely, in my case, hormonal reasons for this which are going to be resolved in the next month or two, so I am hopeful my passionate spontaneous fun will come back, but honestly, this is the hardest thing to deal with. Feeling permanently too tired to actually enjoy anything. It sucks, man.
This all sounds very “poor me”, and I want to highlight that I am not, exactly, unhappy. I have a very supportive amazing boyfriend who really gets this shit, and we talk all the time, learning each other’s idiosyncrasies and how to handle them. I have an amazing kid who gives great snuggles and tells nifty stories. I have kittens and sunflowers. I do work that I really do love most of the time. My life is pretty awesome. But there is an unseen cost for keeping all that rolling, and sometimes it gets away from me and then I feel awful for a while. It passes, and then I feel okay, but I am never not tired, and I am never totally marvellous. I am getting better all the time, because I never stop working on ways to beat this bullshit. But a lot of the time, stuff is kind of grey and meh.
The other thing that is awful is that sometimes I just want the effort acknowledged. Other people just, you know, get up and go to work and live their lives and it doesn’t seem to cost them this monumental effort. I grit my teeth and remind myself that I am a badass and then I put a smile on my face, or some 90s rock on to remind my muscles of who they are, and I pull my shit together and I do what needs doing. I am a tough stubborn wench, and that’s why things get done. And sometimes I just want people to see that. But, of course, I have spent all this effort building a scaffold that hides that effort, so that I seem “normal” (whatever the hell that is), and most of the time only the people closest to me have any idea. (The day my little boy told me he was going to be an inventor and make me a robot to do my work for me “so that you won’t be so tired all the time” I nearly wept.)
So here I am pulling back the curtain just a bit, so that you can see what it costs. And maybe so that if your productivity and getting through shit costs a similar thing, you know you’re not alone, and I see you and you, too, are a motherfucking badass. And maybe if you know someone who is always tired and a little bit irritable, you may show them some compassion and understand that maybe, just maybe, they also have this monumental cost just to appear functional.
I love you, nerds. Stay magnificent.