For years, I was a barely functioning depressive. I struggled to at least appear like I had myself together, living panic attack to panic attack behind the scenes. When my facade of togetherness would begin to crack and show wear, I would pull away and isolate as I slapped on layers of concrete to hide all my breaking points. I lived in a land of make-believe, pretending I was OK while I fought against my own mind to keep functioning.
Over time, however, as is usually the case with anyone residing on that precarious perch of functional depression, the cracks continued to grow and expand. What I once was able to find ways to get through with a manageable amount of struggle began to feel more like insurmountable obstacles. Bit by bit, it became harder and harder to continue to function.
It is not that I wasn’t trying as hard anymore. If anything, I was trying harder and harder to hold things together. The weight of each added stress, each added emotional pain just kept building up over time. You often hear people describe the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I never had a camel. I carried my mental illness on my own shoulders and eventually found myself broken under the weight of my own problems.
One of the hardest things I ever had to do was admit I needed help, that I could no longer manage to do many things on my own. Even harder still was trying to explain to others why I was no longer capable of working through things like I had somehow managed to do for years. Many people seem to believe that once you have done something, you’ve set a precedent and you should then always be able to complete that task again.
It is easy for people to accept that, over time, a person’s body cannot physically do as much as it once did. On average, a physically fit person in their forties cannot lift as much as they could in peak fit condition in their twenties. They cannot run as fast or as long and they tire much faster. It just makes sense. Bodies get older and wear down over time. Aging takes a toll.
The same is widely accepted with other physical attributes. A person’s metabolism slows over time so it becomes harder to maintain a healthy weight when eating the same diet. Eyesight and hearing are both dulled over age and often need extra aids in order to perform as well as they did in our youth. Added stresses on our bodies build up over time, compounded with age-related issues such as arthritis. These are all accepted facts. Bodies physically wear down over the years.
Yet very few people seem to grasp that mental and emotional health might decline over time, as well. Many people assume that a mental illness is a temporary thing that will fade away over time as people just “learn to cope better” and “try a little harder to get over it and be happy.” If I had a nickel for every time someone looked at me, befuddled and bewildered by the fact I can no longer function even as well as I did five or ten years ago and that my mental health has instead deteriorated in many aspects, I’d be able to take a very nice extended vacation somewhere sunny and warm.
I have days my depression leaves me in a thick mental fog, struggling to remember basic facts and information that I know is in my head somewhere. I have days my anxiety has reached such heights that I cannot reasonably verbalize simple or complex thoughts or information, stumbling over my words like a child learning to speak another language. I have days my PTSD has flared up, all my senses become heightened and everything around me feels unsafe and dangerous. There are days I cannot stop crying and days I feel like more of a mess than anyone deserves to be saddled with. There are days when life itself weighs down so heavily on me that I pull away from the world and isolate, all the while assuring everyone that I’m fine, that they don’t have to worry because I just don’t have the words or the energy to adequately explain everything I am feeling. My mind and my emotions are often all over the place.
The worst part of those feelings and many others I experience due to my mental illness, though, is that I cannot plan for any of them. I could wake up one day numb, feeling nothing at all, or wake up completely frazzled as one or more conflicting emotions battle themselves out inside my head. There’s no knowing, either, whether any state of mind will last an hour or a day or a week, whether it will exist on its own or build upon other emotions already wreaking havoc. Every single one of those feelings have increased both in potency and frequency as I have gotten older. Every day feels like a game of Russian Roulette in my brain where the game is fixed and, no matter what the outcome is, I know I am going to lose.
Over the past year or so, I have begrudgingly accepted that I’m struggling more than I used to and that I need extra help, that I sometimes need others to intervene on my behalf and to work with me to get the care I need. I’ve begun building a safety network, a support system of people who can advocate with me, for me and speak on my behalf if I find myself struggling too badly to adequately do it on my own.
I had a home visit recently to go over some paperwork. Instead of being proud of myself for holding myself somewhat together that day, though, I found myself stressing that I might have seemed “too together.” You see — that day was a good day for the most part. I was able to think of important and relevant questions to ask, I was able to constructively contribute to the meeting and didn’t collapse into tears over all the stress hanging over my head. I really should have been proud of myself. Yet, after they left, all I could do was worry that I might have appeared more together than I actually am on a regular basis, leading them to determine I no longer need the assistance I have had to fight so hard to receive.
I panic and I worry about having even a somewhat functional and manageable day because society automatically puts people with mental illness on the defensive. It isn’t enough to say you simply cannot manage to function on a reliable schedule anymore or function on some days in particular at all. You’re always put on the spot. Why can’t you do it? Why some days but not others? Are you even trying? What do you even have to be depressed about? That’s especially true if you used to be able to function better in the past or if your level of functionality varies day by day. Physically, the body can deteriorate and nobody questions it; mentally, it’s apparently is a different story. And heaven forbid you have a good day where you’re able to contribute more than expected. If you’re semi-functional today, people will demand to know why you might not be able to function as well, or even at all, tomorrow. Your diagnosis is often irrelevant, not even taken into consideration. If you’re able to do something today, you must always be able to do it.
I live on the corner of being able to somewhat function and falling completely apart. Sometimes I go slightly in one direction before boomeranging back to my corner again. I have good days and bad days. I have days I might genuinely smile and laugh when, even though my depression is present, I still feel like I am running the show. I have moderate days where I’m still able to pretend I’m OK and do enough for myself that others don’t readily worry. And I have days where I desperately need help if I have any hope of getting anything constructive done, otherwise I would just sit there in an agonizing numbness, staring blankly into the abyss. But to be fair, I’ve seen people who struggle with painful afflictions such as arthritis, who have good days where they are able to get out, go for a walk and run errands, powering through the pain, and other days where it is difficult to even pull themselves out of bed. The difference is that mental illness presents itself to the mind instead of the body and is not as easily seen.
Over time, as I get older, my completely functional days are becoming less frequent. I find myself struggling more and more as my mental illness compounds upon itself. I honestly need to give myself a break on my functional days and learn to count them as blessings instead of worrying what others might think or how they might judge me. Being able to function again, albeit for a short unexpected period here and there, should always be celebrated as a good thing. After all, I’m right on that corner and could go either way.