I'm Too Functional To Have My Mental Illness Taken Seriously — And It's A Real Problem

by Kimberly Zapata
Originally Published: 
Ivan Pantic/Getty

Trigger warning: suicide ideation

It’s 10:55am on Tuesday and I’m struggling. My mood is low. My anxiety is high. I had a PTSD-like flashback a few hours ago, one which pulled me in deeply and quickly. I was paralyzed in the moment and by my thoughts, and my focus has been off ever since. I cannot ground myself. Being present is a problem.

But if you saw me right now, you would have no idea. My hair is done, gelled, and coiffed. I’m dressed, albeit in running attire. My teeth are brushed and a pot of freshly brewed coffee sits on the counter, and I am helping my daughter with her schoolwork. I am playing trucks with my son. I have a mental illness — a functional mental illness — and while I am thankful for this diagnosis, it can be dangerous. Having high-functioning mental illness can be a big problem.

That’s because with a high-functioning illness, your life appears in order. Most functionally ill people work. They go to the office. Attend meetings. Conduct interviews. Make phone calls. Most functionally ill people raise families. They care for young children, carefully and compassionately. They host playdates and go on bike rides, and most functionally ill people are, well — functional. They cook dinner and clean. Their house is more or less in order. But behind the “mask,” many are suffering. They are struggling, and they are hurting.

I am hurting.

The days are long and the nights are lonely. I feel like a hamster on a wheel. Most days, I am just going through motions. My heart is heavy. I am numb. Like millions of mentally unwell individuals, I struggle with being present. The voices in my head are loud. And this? This can be problematic, particularly on my darkest days when I am so defeated and downtrodden I am suicidal, because when I reach out for help I hear things like “you’ve got this. You’re okay. You’re tough. Resilient. Strong.”

No one believes me. No one comprehends how much help I really need. Even my mental healthcare providers describe me in this manner because they don’t see the real me. Scratch that: They don’t see all of me.

“High functioning mental illness… [may be] a term you haven’t heard before… but it is very real for a lot of people,” an article on Young Minds explains. “The term has been adopted to describe those living with a mental illness that is almost undetectable. It covers a broad spectrum; they might have a job, be studying, dress well, or even have the ‘perfect’ family lifestyle. High functioning mental health is being able to go about most days as if there isn’t a war going on in your head, or panic ricocheting through your body [but] high functioning mental illness, like any mental illness, is exhausting, and overwhelming.” Whether your symptoms present outwardly or not doesn’t matter. The feelings and pain exist and persist.

I have often described my mind as an invisible battlefield. A war rages between my ears, a war in which I am both friend and foe.

So why not let others in? Why not let my true colors show? Because I am afraid of being vulnerable, and being “crazy.” I live with a so-called “dangerous” disorder — bipolar disorder. The stigma surrounding my illness is strong, and I’m ashamed. I want to be well. I need to be well, but I’m not always my best self, and how do I tell my children I cannot play with them because I’m hurting? Because Mommy is sad.

I’ve lived so long in this state I don’t know if I can open up or let my guard down. I don’t know how to ask for help, because I’m an overachiever. Like many living with functional mental illness, I am something of a rockstar in my field and I do not want to disappoint others or feel like I’ve let them down. And I’m terrified of rejection. When I do speak up, my thoughts and fears are ignored; I am dismissed. And that is dangerous because my wants go unmet. I do not get the level of care I so desperately need.

“Although successful and oftentimes leaders in their fields, these individuals are [conducting their lives] much like running a race with a weight belt carrying 100 extra pounds,” John Huber, a psychiatrist at Mainstream Mental Health tells Healthline.

The burden is great. The weight is overwhelming. But the best way to decrease the load is to get comfortable with the uncomfortable and continue asking for help. Because, while it may take time, people will listen. Your friends and family care, and there is hope. Even with a high-functioning mental illness, you can get help.

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, anxiety, and/or your mental health, text “START” to 741-741 to speak to a trained counselor at Crisis Text Line and/or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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