When I was about 15, I first started talk about my mental health publicly (ie, grammatically incorrect Facebook statuses and conversations in the PE changing rooms) a common response was that people didn’t really believe I struggled with my mental health.
“She’s just attention seeking” was the term of the decade in the early 2010’s, as depression seemed to be synonymous with photos of skinny models with The Smiths lyrics over their face. Someone like me – boisterous, confident, humorous and relatively intelligent surely couldn’t be depressed or anxious.
Over the years I’ve become someone who would be described as ‘high functioning’ in terms of my mental illness. I can spin more plates than your average joe, excel in various aspects of my life, and maintain good interpersonal relationships. I’m driven, motivated and often successful in achieving my goals. But my drive isn’t despite my mental illness’, my drive is because of my mental illnesses.
I am formally diagnosed with depression and anxiety. What an honour. Thankfully, these two mental health conditions are in receipt of the most mainstream discussion and rhetoric. There are positive changes being made, but I think the concept of depression and anxiety is still very rigid and inaccurate. Depressed people aren’t always sad and lethargic. Anxious people aren’t always shaking and hiding.
I never realised I had anxiety until I went to the doctors age 18, complaining that I just couldn’t stop. Couldn’t stop doing anything – thinking, feeling, worrying, moving, working, shaking, stressing. I thought that I couldn’t possibly have anxiety, as I am a very sociable person and make quite bold choices in life.
I’ve later come to learn and realise that my anxiety is essentially the driving force behind the majority of what I do. The vast majority of my behaviours are fuelled by an underlying anxious energy. My anxiety pushes me to do more, be more, feel more, achieve more – without stopping.
For me, this has had some positives. I’m a generally well educated, thoughtful and determined person. I have a lot of energy – and when it is focused, I can achieve great things. But the negative implications can feel deliberating. More often than not, I can’t sit still. I can’t just -relax- without planning, scheduling and arranging for said relaxation.
I struggle to just go with the flow, as my days often follow a meticulous schedule of organisation and specific timings. Some of the helpful self-care strategies have almost become a crutch or support mechanism for my anxious feelings.
I love exercise, because it’s such a great release of this pent up energy and a physically worn out body means my mind tires quickly as well. Without some form of daily movement, I find I have way too much anxious energy. Meditation, journalling, yoga and other basic self care principles are super helpful for me, but they don’t prevent the crappy feelings once the practice is over.
Sadly, a lot of the negative outcomes of high functioning anxiety are triumphed in modern society. The idea of being productive all the time, working hard to achieve your goals, daily exercise and meticulously planning are seen as good values – hence, coming across as a very well rounded and desirable member of society. But this can frequently lead me to burn out and exhaustion.
The problem with high functioning anxiety, is we set ourselves such a high bar of perfection and standards to be a “good person” that when this bar slips or things get a bit messy, we can start to believe that we are a failure and a complete mess of a human… without acknowledging that every single person is messy, every person has flaws and they ALL get it wrong at times.
I’ve struggled a lot with intense depression in the past. I’d say in the last year or so, it’s been more just like an annoying noise – occasionally there, but quite easy to ignore.
To me, depression pops up every now and again – reminding me that everything is pointless and there’s no point. This usually co-insides with an anxiety fuelled burn out.
With depression, I still wake up early. I still put my clothes on for work and I still eat a healthy breakfast. I can go through an entire 24 hour period – appearing like a normal regular member of society, but just not…fully being there. My mind is a thick black layer of darkness, with no opinions, views or motivation towards anything – as everything just feels completely and utterly pointless.
My mind is elsewhere and I’m constantly zoned out, as though I’m walking around with earplugs in. The smallest inconvenience, irritation or let down can trigger a complete spiral of crying, moping around and feeling hopeless.
But I pretty quickly bounce back. Over the years, I’ve learned what helps me – talking to friends, getting outside, sleeping not too much and not too little, avoiding alcohol etc. My depressive period can disappear as quickly as it happened, and I’m back to fulfilling the role of a Regular Member Of Society.
As someone who identified and presents as being high functioning, it can be really hard to receive necessary support and help for anxiety and depression. The criteria you need to fill, the lows you need to reach and the point of despair you have to be at to receive support can just be impossible. Nobody wants to reach the absolute pits, just to receive 30 minutes of talking therapy or an anti-depressant. But that’s the way the system is at the moment.
Furthermore, there’s a lack of understanding in workplaces and education establishments. Just because someone is bright, intelligent and full of potential – that doesn’t negate the absolute mental battles they may be facing every single day. It’s not unusual for a depressed person to spend the day being the class clown, and spend the evening in a very dark place mentally.
Although it may lead you to think that way, mental health is not black and white. It’s not a case of depressed or not depressed, anxious or not anxious. There are so many people living in the grey area – tapping their Oyster cards and grinning on their Instagram stories everyday, yet living in a muddle with their mental health.
But there is hope. There’s such a positive discussion around mental health at the moment. Whilst the government’s interventions are about as useful as a Hello Kitty plaster on a detached limb – there is a societal shift happening. More workplaces are making pledges to treat mental health with the same grace as physical health. Friendships are opening up to supporting one another, and the emphasis on male mental health is gaining real traction. It’s all small, but it’s all a start