Where you see a smile, I feel a frown. Where you see a doting mother, I feel the sting of consistent failure. Where you see a hardworking career woman with the drive and tenacity to accomplish anything she sets her mind to, I feel the crushing weight of "I'm not good enough." Of the things every mom with high-functioning depression needs you to know, the most important is that no matter what you see on the surface, it's not the whole story. In fact, more often that not, it's a damn lie.
I've struggled with depression and anxiety since childhood. It runs in the family, and I've been treated every which way any person can be. I've been in multiple therapies, on every medication ever made available, I exercise, practice self-care daily, and even adopted a calming cat for therapeutic purposes. If there's anyone who sympathizes, knowing the ins and outs of this thing, it's me. What never occurred to me, however and even through decades of this illness, is that I have high-functioning depression. This is described by the Mayo Clinic as "a continuous long-term (chronic) form of depression" or "dysthymia."
It's obvious to me now, but all the years of slogging through life and despite numerous attempts to "get well," suddenly make sense. When you've had an underlying depression as long as I have, it becomes so part of you, there's no longer a distinct line where I end and the depression begins. We're one. While not the "typical" embodiment of someone depressed, the high-functioning part makes that me much more complicated. For example, I often have to drag myself out of bed, but when I do, I'm capable of getting through every task. Still, I'll do it reluctantly, or with such a high standard of perfectionism, I've set myself up to fail before I've had my first cup of coffee.
What follows is a cycle of continuous self-doubt and self-loathing, all while smiling through every encounter and conversation. I attack each day with vigor, hoping to push through the discomfort (but I never really do), then level off depleted from anxiety and insomnia at the end of every night.
Having high-functioning, persistent depression means learning new ways to navigate each day, around the illness. As a mother of two, I'm acutely aware of how this disease affects my children, which is why I talk about it every chance I get. It's important not only to me, but to them, that I erase the prevailing stigmas. With that said, here are some things moms battling this thing need you to know, so you can be a little more compassionate the next time.
We May Not Appear Depressed
I'm fully capable of having moments of pure joy, laughing along with my kids and carrying conversations that seem, well, "normal." This type of depression is all in the syntax. I perform in ways that make friends, family, and society comfortable, because an obviously depressed person isn't.
The complexity of high-functioning depression also lies in the variables. I could be genuinely joyous about something for a moment and right up until the lingering sadness washes it away, usually when I'm in private. This is often why those surrounding someone who's committed suicide don't notice the warning signs until it's too late. We're good at pretending, blending, and hiding in plain sight. With this depression, I may seem like things are fine, they're really not fine.
We're Tired Beyond Comprehension
Carrying around the weight of this disease all the time takes its toll on my physical and mental health. Even on successful days — ones where I'm able to wrangle the dark cloud longer than usual — I reach the end of the day feeling and undeniable sense of relief. It's a mental fatigue that morphs into physical symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, and that "don't want to get out of bed" feeling. I do, though. More than I want the depression to rule me, I want to get through the day. No matter how taxing.
We Can't "Snap Out Of It" Or Just "Think Positive Thoughts"
At any given moment, I have intrusive, negative thoughts. This is a direct result of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is connected to my depression. They're intertwined in an attempt to pull me from any happiness, no matter how deserving.
Some don't know how to respond to depression, so instead of getting into the gritty specifics, they'll throw around these phrases like "choose to be happy" or "think positive." As great as those things sound (and believe me, I've tried), they don't apply to someone with a mental illness. It has to do with chemicals inside the brain, not a lack of positive affirmations.
We're Driven To A Fault (And Probably Successful)
As a woman and mother with high-functioning depression, I can almost promise you I can outdo your to-do list and then some. There are days I have an entire notebook sheet full of things that need completed and I'll mark off nearly all of them.
I've always been this way, mostly because I want to succeed and I'm driven by the possibility of success. This confuses some people, though, because when they think of a stereotypical depression it's usually portrayed as the opposite of drive and hustle. Just because I'm doing well with my career, or excelling in some form, doesn't mean I don't live with a tremendous amount of self-doubt. This kind of depression means I can go go go, but by the end of the day my tank is empty. Worse, once there's nothing to throw myself into, I feel like I have no purpose.
We Don't Like Wasting Time
From a very young age I've been obsessed with time. The lack of it, how quickly it goes, or our inability to regenerate it as human beings. Losing, or wasting, time is a trigger for my anxiety and depression because I'm so used to getting things done at my usually rapid pace. Sitting alone with my thoughts, and nothing else, leaves too much room for all the negative voices to soak through. So where you may see a determined woman who gets things done, I feel like if I don't, I'll suffocate.
We're Capable Of Getting Through Each Day
While I have a hard time getting out of bed at times, I do it. Afterwards, I do everything else that's expected of me, and I'll do it without any obvious signs of depression. Most times, my partner doesn't even notice how I'm feeling or what I'm experiencing until I'm sobbing over something irrelevant.
I'm not so depressed I'll avoid my day. In fact, I'm so used to the depression, there's nothing else to do but get on with my day.
We're Internally Restless All The Time
If I could crack open my thoughts like eggshells, letting the words and images spill onto the counter, you'd see the chaos. My mental space is filled with massively violent spindles, twirling at all times like tornadoes, bombarding me every minute of every day. They just don't have the strength to depress me completely.
So, honestly, living with high-functioning depression feels like carrying a brewing, controlled storm in the pocket of everything I do, everything I am.
We Turn Down Invitations
I'm good with running necessary errands, working, and doing things required of me. Once I receive an outside invitation, though, like for a birthday or event, my depression volunteers my decision to stay home. I put all my energy into being a functioning part of society through every day that, if I have to be completely honestly, anything more requires more than I can give.
Our Coping Mechanisms Aren't Always Obvious
Everyone has some kind of vice or coping strategy. Obvious signs of depression (or those stereotyped on TV) might be indulging in ice cream, crying in bed, or ignoring self-care to the extreme. I've done those things at moments when my depression was at its worst, but with my daily life now, I cope with less obvious ways. I run, sometimes in excess. I write. I'll find a quiet place in the house until my brain calms. And now, when I'm seen seeking out my cat, that's a sign I'm overly anxious and need to calm down. You won't see these things because, outside of my house, my coping mechanism is to will my way through it until I can't any more.
Our Guilt Is Off The Charts
I feel guilty for everything I've ever done, for the things I'm doing now, and things I'll do in the future. I feel guilty for not being the best mom or, honestly, the best anything. In talking with someone, I might pass it off as less than it is, but rest assured, a high-functioning depressant is consumed by guilt, regardless of whether or not it's within our control.
We May Feel Overwhelmed With Small Things
Some days, I can take on the world and win. Others, if you so much as throw the smallest change into my schedule, I can't handle it. It takes a lot of mental focus to keep depression within its bounds, so that one tiny thing you may not think is a big deal might be our breaking point.
We're Our Own Worst Critics
There's little anyone can say about me that I haven't already thought of myself and, still, the opinion of others means so much to me. I hate letting people down (which is why I take on too much), and when I do, I never get over it. Ever. So trust me when I say that if you're disappointed in anything I've said or done, I've already beaten you to it years ago.
We're Still Amazing Mothers & Partners
Despite carrying so much around everyday, I know I'm a good mom and partner. I may not be all the things I wish to be, and I may not deal with life the same as most, but living with high-functioning depression is a constant reminder I can give my all to everyone and everything, and still not feel good inside.
However, when I look at my kids — one who tells me how beautiful I am every single day and the other who tells me I'm doing a good job — I know I'll never stop trying to get there.