The Problems Behind the "Perfection": Living with High-Functioning Depression
The other day I saw a physiotherapist for chronic pain that I’ve had since I was 13. Less than two weeks after it started bothering me again, it became unbearable enough that I made an appointment for the next day, paid the money, and congratulated myself for taking care of my health.
I don’t know why it’s so much harder for me to take care of my mental health. I’ve had ‘find a therapist’ on my to-do list since returning to Montreal this fall; yet, I can’t help but see therapy as a luxury that I don’t deserve and can’t afford.
We seem to have a perception as a society that mental illness isn’t as serious or as important as physical health. When I was younger, I saw my family doctor for a check up for every little thing: injury, earache, skin rash, or persistent flu.
Our health care system might not be perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than our mental health care – the mentally ill are so stigmatized that reaching out for help is somehow so much harder than seeing a doctor for an injury or a physical sickness. There are no mental health “check ups” – it’s up to the individual or their family and friends to realize that they need help.
Had I not been so scared of the stigma surrounding mental illness, and had I realized how much it would actually help me, I would have reached out for help so much sooner. Instead, I felt trapped, stuck in my own head throughout most of high school, thinking that no one would listen or care if I ever had the nerve to say something.
A little less than a year ago, I spent Christmas in the home I grew up in. I had just pushed myself through a semester of relentless, demanding courses while tangled in my own web of social isolation and debilitating anxiety, while the threads of depression threatened to pull me away from everything I had worked so hard to achieve.
I was never a “happy kid”. That had never been quite so blatantly obvious to me until I sat on the floor of the bedroom where I had lived, laughed, and cried growing up, and read the words “I just wish I could be happy like everyone else,” written in a messy seven-year-old’s scrawl in one of my first ever diaries.
Fast forward one year from when I wrote that – grade three. I was writing spelling tests and learning my multiplication tables. “I’m so stressed,” I wrote. “I’m just so stressed and I don’t know how to explain it to anyone. I’m so alone.”
Stressed. I described my feelings in the only way that I could, the way I had heard adults describe their feelings when they looked upset or lost or alone. But I wasn’t just stressed – looking back, I was already experiencing the first legs of depression.
Over a decade later, I was halfway through my third year of university and flying back to see my parents for Christmas. The high of my new, glamourous post-secondary life had worn off, to be replaced with the harsh adult world where I was left alone to deal with my self-imposed criticisms and self-destructive habits.
I cried on that flight home. I cried out of exhaustion, desperation, and relief. I was so relieved to have made it through exams with only minimal episodes of the panic that I had been experiencing for the past year. I was also desperate to be held, to be fed, to be taken care of. Most of all, I was relieved that nothing worse had come of exams and a demanding, unforgiving semester.
The first thing I remember after I was home was sleeping. The first morning back, it was such a glorious change to be able to lay in bed and fall back asleep without the guilt and the anxiety about all the ‘shoulds’.
I should get out of bed and go to class. I should get out of bed and study. I should get out of bed and clean up the pile of dirty clothing that has been accumulating because moving it to my washing machine is such a chore. I should stop being such a pathetic human being that can’t even get herself out of bed.
For two weeks, I didn’t have to worry about the ‘shoulds’—or at least the same ‘shoulds’ that I had during the semester.
On the other hand, I found some new baggage in my old dresser drawers. In them, I found old memories, ranging from elementary school to graduation – diaries, birthday cards, pointe shoes, school projects, and photos.
Seeing everything that I had left behind brought back a lot of memories– how I had pushed myself to take as many dance classes as I could possibly fit into a week, how I took on extra classes at school because a regular course load wasn’t good enough for me, how I would get home at 9 or 10 pm and only then start my homework, staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning to finish.
My depression was at its worst in grade 11 – I was dancing six days a week, I played in concert band and “honours” band that rehearsed after school, I was a straight-A student, and I volunteered in the community and at my dance studio. From the outside, my life looked pretty great. I was admired for being the student that did it all, and did it all perfectly. I was the one who walked into exams “barely having studied” without any nervousness – when really, I had been up studying until 4 AM, didn’t feel ready, but was too tired to care how it went.
I spent my lunch hours studying in the library alone to avoid talking to people, eating in class instead, or skipping lunch altogether. I lost most of my friends that year, and broke up with my boyfriend without any sort of explanation as to why. I missed over 100 classes that year alone because I was sick, or tired, or just couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed that morning and face the people that I was constantly lying to. If anyone ever asked, though, I was just “sick” or “tired” – all the time.
This lie went on for far too long. I would go through every day pretending that nothing was wrong – and when I couldn’t anymore, I pretended that I was sick or “just tired” – constantly wondering if anyone would notice if one day I just stopped trying. I was constantly plagued with thoughts of what would happen if I killed myself – how long would it take people to notice? Would anything change if I wasn’t here? Would anyone care?
It was strange, looking back on the mementos that had meant so much to me at those times. In my two and a half years at McGill, I had tried so hard to move on from who I had been and what I had suffered through in high school. I truly thought that I had left that part of myself behind when I left home, but really I had just pushed it as far as I could to the back of my mind, only allowing it to come out when I was overworked, lonely, and exhausted.
In the past year, I’ve decided that I’m sick of lying, of pretending to be “fine”. Instead, I’ve come to terms with not always being “fine”. I have depression, but I’m not going to let it beat me. I know now that I am so much more than an illness, than an image of depression. I might not always be able to see it, but I am strong and I am capable, and I’m going to get through this.
For the longest time, I never reached out for help because I didn’t think I “looked depressed”. Depression, however, can affect anyone, no matter how “put together” they appear – and that’s why high-functioning depression can be so dangerous. Even at my lowest points last year, I was still doing well enough in school, I was involved on campus, I went to parties, and I tried to always be there to help others when they needed it. In spite of an increasing number of mental health awareness campaigns, I was scared of being told that I was “fine” and to “just get over it” – a response that I’ve actually yet to receive when I talk about my depression. I think that part of me was also scared of admitting that I wasn’t doing as well as I appeared to be – as someone who has always been a bit of a perfectionist, admitting that you need help can sometimes be the biggest barrier to actually getting it.
Mental health needs to be a priority – not something we push to the backs of our minds while we force ourselves through classes, pulling all-nighters just to get through exams, and later drinking and partying away the stress because we don’t know how else to deal with it. There are so many more mental health campaigns around now than when I first started struggling – had there been the same kind of awareness back then, I maybe wouldn’t have suffered for so long.
I hope that one day, reaching out and saying, “I think I might be depressed” is as easy as saying, “I think I hurt my back” or “I think I have the flu”. I hope that if you see someone struggling, it’ll be just as easy to ask if they’re doing okay, as it would be to ask someone coughing if they’re feeling sick. The more I talk about my depression, the easier it gets – and I really hope that as a society, it’ll get easier too.