By Lauren Holmes
Since adolescence, I have prided myself on my resilience, my willingness to serve others and my ability to achieve and persevere through any season of life. Growing up, I was captain of a competitive science team and a member of multiple other academic teams. While I was thriving academically, I struggled with my mental health; I dealt with panic attacks caused by a phobia of food and restaurants.
I survived months of semi-starving myself because my body would panic when I tried to eat, and I faced the residual effects for years. But I pushed through these challenges and continued to meet the typical definition of “success.” If I could do this, I reasoned, everything was fine.
As I reflect on my mental health journey, I now realize that “functional” and “successful” don’t always mean “healthy.”
In October of 2021, just a few months after I graduated college, I jetted off to Spain to pursue a master’s degree and teach English abroad. The first month was wonderful; I settled into my new school and began making friends in my program. But slowly my mental health began to spiral. Before I knew it, I was isolating, losing interest in all hobbies and spending the entire weekend alone in my apartment. I couldn’t even get off of the couch.
There was a reason I didn’t see this behavior as a sign of something more serious: Even though I was struggling, I made it to work and class every Monday through Friday, and I spent many days gone from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. teaching. Because I was capable of getting up and going to work all of those days — and because I enjoyed much of the time I spent with my students — I concluded nothing was wrong. Truly depressed people can’t get up out of bed and find moments of happiness, right?
I soon learned that depression doesn’t always look the way you might expect.
It wasn’t until early December, when I self-harmed for the very first time, that I realized I was truly and deeply suffering.
I spent the next couple of weeks constantly tugging at my sleeves, making sure that my students never saw my wounds. How do you explain to a child that you hurt yourself on purpose? Ultimately, my concern for my students suppressed my desires to self-harm.
The following week, I told myself that I was going to find a therapist, increase my anti-depressant dosage do everything in my power to improve my mental health. I had made a commitment to my students and to my school, and I still had six months of my contract left. But as I made these plans, and rededicated myself to my work, my isolation on the weekends became increasingly worse — and any remnants of motivation disappeared altogether.
I was stuck in this nightmarish limbo. Part of me believed that I was capable of staying in Spain for the next six months. I was high functioning, so I knew I’d have no issues making it to school.
The other part of me questioned that capability. Yes, you will make it to school, I thought, but is the suffering during the weekend worth it? Will you actually go out and get the help you need?
I was distraught by having to make a choice. I loved my school, but I also loved myself. I didn’t want to hurt myself, but I couldn’t control the intrusive thoughts. After weeks and weeks of tears and phone calls with family, friends and my partner, I finally came to a decision. I was coming home.
While I was relieved to have arrived at a decision, I still felt like a failure. Why couldn’t the high achieving woman I thought I was get through this? After years of defining myself by my successes, I began to question my worth. Those feelings of inadequacy were crushing, and I am still working through them to this day.
The following weeks brought several emotional conversations, the most notable of which was with my school supervisor. During a lunch break one day, in tears, I explained everything that I was going through, and I shared that I had decided to go home. As I spoke, her eyes widened, and she seemed stunned. At the end, she told me: “I had no idea anything was wrong.”
From my experience, I have learned that there is no standard image of depression. For those of us with high-functioning depression, we “look ok,” and the people around us don’t know that we’re suffering. We are good at hiding our pain and doing what we’re supposed to — but, as a result, we fly under the radar and can feel even more alone. With some reflection, I have concluded that the best way for me to deal with high-functioning depression is to be open about my mental health and my needs — as difficult as that can be.
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