But You Seem Fine: Living With High-Functioning Depression

Updated: Apr 12

Why looks can sometimes be deceiving.

At first glance, it might look like I have it all. I’m a wife to my husband of five years and a mom to three wonderful children. My dream since the fourth grade of becoming a writer has come true this year. I’m physically healthy for the most part. I never go hungry. I can go shopping and buy new clothes every once in a while. Being helpful and considerate is important to me. I shouldn’t have a complaint in the world and instead be grateful for the way life has blessed me.

The above is what I let you see. The truth is more complicated.

I come by mental illness honestly. There is a long history in my family along with substance abuse disorder. When I was 29 and gave birth to my first child, I had postpartum depression so severe that I couldn’t hold my baby, much less enjoy the first few weeks of his life. My next episode of depression two years later ended with being hospitalized. Then I received a diagnosis of bipolar II, which is like bipolar disorder except with more depressive features. After my divorce in 2005, I became hooked on any drug that made my mind stable. If I felt euphoric on top of it, that was even better.

I’ve been taking medication for the past 20 years to control my symptoms. They work to a certain extent. I haven’t seen the inside of a psychiatric hospital since 2011. Still, I deal with some level of depression every day. Taking a shower is sometimes hard for me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m alone with my thoughts or the whole process just seems too overwhelming. Junk food becomes a staple in my diet, and I’d be much happier if I could sleep all the time.

Even if I can’t sleep, curling up in a ball under my weighted blanket sounds better to me than any other activity. It’s my way of shutting out the world when it gets too overwhelming. My dishes sometimes stay in the sink for an extra day or so, and I don’t always make my bed. That’s a big red flag, because I’ve always believed in “messy bed, messy head.” Maybe my head is just too messy to fix with pillows and sheets.

I get exhausted easily these days. The thought of getting in my car and going to the store makes me cry. When you meet me, I smile and seem completely happy. That's what I want you to think. I don’t want you to know about the two loads of laundry that I sleep under at night because I feel too depressed to hang it up. Cleaning my whole house seems insurmountable. I “fake it until I make it,” but the “making it” part hasn’t happened yet. I try to take vitamins to stabilize my mood, checking Google to find out which ones are best for depression. Some time ago in my life I used other things, like alcohol and drugs. All of it was a temporary fix.

My husband is understanding and kind, but it’s hard for him to relate to how I feel. He doesn’t say much about the constant messes in the house, but I know it bothers him. Sometimes my depression even bleeds into our marriage, making me believe my husband doesn’t really love me. I try to tell him what I need, but honestly I’m not sure myself. I want to feel a burst of oxytocin just from being around him. I was so much in love when we met that my hormones were going crazy, and I didn’t notice the lack of serotonin I normally struggle with every day. Like any marriage, passion calms down after a while, but living with full-time depression made it devastating.

There are days that are good, like Sundays. There’s no pressure on me to get everything done. My husband and I spend time together watching movies and enjoying each other’s company. I may not have the energy I’d like, but I feel content. A little peace goes a long way toward healing my troubled mind.

The bad days can be unbearable. I feel like the world expects energy from me that I don’t have. Those are the days I sit on our couch and scroll through my phone mindlessly all day. I see all the things that need cleaning around the house, but they all seem like mountains rather than molehills. Sometimes it helps if I put one plate in the dishwasher or make part of the bed. Taking one action can spur me to do more. Other days, taking that first action is way beyond my capabilities.

I don’t think my family knows how I feel most of the time, but they can tell when something is wrong. I’m always loving and cheerful toward my 12-year-old daughter, but I know she worries when she sees me unable to get off the couch and leave the house. There is only so much depression I can hide from the world. My whip-smart daughter likely knows that some days are hard for me, but I wish she didn’t have to know it. I’ll never be the mom who volunteers for the class trip or bakes cupcakes. I know she accepts me the way I am, but the feelings of failing her send me into an even darker place.

I think some people hear the words “depression” and “bipolar” and often associate them with being manic or suicidal. Sometimes it’s much more insidious than that. Just because I’m not weeping uncontrollably doesn’t mean I’m not depressed. Maybe I won’t tell anyone about it, but I’d argue that this type of depression can be the worst of all. We lie and say we are happy to anyone who listens instead of being vulnerable and reaching out for help. It would break my heart to confide in someone about my depression only to tell me I’m “not depressed enough.”

There are things I do to help myself, not the least of it being to force myself to shower and do the dishes. I try to eat right and get enough sleep, which makes somewhat of an impact. I challenge my negative thoughts before they spiral out of control. Even though I have some level of depression every day, knowing I’m taking steps to fight it makes it easier. I know it’s a battle I will fight for the rest of my life. The mere thought of that exhausts me, but I’ve come to accept it.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to tell people I’m okay. It’s sometimes true. The days it isn’t, I tell myself I’m a burden who should keep it to herself. That’s what my depressed mind wants me to believe. There are days when I don’t argue with it and instead smile and say I’m fine. I don’t tell people how much I struggle because I don’t want to seem like I don’t have it all together as a wife, writer and mom. That’s what the world expects of us, to be happy and productive and grateful for all it has given us.

I’m grateful my depression isn’t severe, but that doesn’t mean it’s nothing to those of us who suffer. I wish people, including me, were more honest about their high-functioning depression. Maybe then some healing can take place.

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