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Let’s Talk About High-Functioning Depression

One of the most well-known symptoms of depression is executive dysfunction. Often when we get depressed we are unable to complete simple tasks. We have no energy and no ambition. We see our mile long to-do list and decide that brushing our teeth is too hard, I’ll do it later. But we rarely talk about the opposite end of the spectrum: workaholism.

Depression looks different for everyone. Sometimes we break things and rage and scream. Sometimes we cry and watch bad reality tv. Sometimes we sit numbly and refuse to leave our room. And sometimes we run ourselves into the ground.
Recently a friend of mine asked me how people with depression manage to get anything done. For her, depression manifests as apathy and executive dysfunction. She has a hard time getting basic tasks accomplished when she is in a bad place. For me, it’s just the opposite. There are times when my depression makes me shelter in my house and sleep for 12 hours, but most of the time my depression manifests as overworking. At the time when my depression was the worst, I was working three jobs and was a full-time student averaging 18 credit hours a semester. I regularly pulled two to three all-nighters in a row. And I was deeply depressed. I daydreamed about suicide and isolated myself as much as I could. When I finally sought help on the advice of people who cared about me, the psychiatrist I saw told me I was not depressed. He said that depression was characterized by an inability to function, and since I was still attending classes and rarely missed work I could not be clinically depressed.
I was not manic, though it may sound like it. I was exhausted, I had no energy. I wasn’t unable to sleep, I forced myself not to. I substituted sleep with caffeine and coping with working. I had no time to relax because I wouldn’t allow myself to. I knew that I was depressed, but the doctor was telling me I was wrong. What this psychiatrist didn’t see was that I was running from myself. I couldn’t make myself take a break because if I stopped I would have time to think, and thinking made me sick. I filled all of my free time with tasks to distract myself from the darker thoughts that were always just under the surface.
I saw that psychiatrist for several months without success before I reached a crisis state. When I finally got the help I needed, I was formally diagnosed with major depression despite the fact that I rarely experienced the characteristic periods of executive dysfunction. My new psychiatrist characterized me as a high-functioning depressive.
According to Dr. Mayra Mendez, a psychotherapist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center, “Depression may inhibit the desire for activity and action, but high functioning individuals tend to forge ahead in an effort to succeed with goals. The drive to accomplish often sustains action and moves high-functioning individuals toward getting things done.”
High-functioning depression is not a clinical diagnosis, it’s more of a descriptor. Many people go through periods of high activity and periods of low activity when living with depression. Some people spend more time on one end of the spectrum than the other. This does not make your depression any more or less “real”. Everyone experiences depression differently. And you do not need to be in the throws of executive dysfunction to be at risk of suicide. There is no correct way to be depressed.
It’s important for those of us who live with high-functioning depression to know the difference between coping and running. I do consider my “workaholism” a coping mechanism. When I keep busy I feel better. I have a purpose and a task to complete. I feel like I’m contributing to something. It keeps my mind focused and not wandering. But sometimes I go overboard, and my coping turns into avoiding. It keeps me from letting myself focus on the negative emotions that need my attention. All that does is kick the can down the road. Those negative emotions will need to be dealt with, and avoiding them just causes them to build up.
Now, even though I still keep myself busy, I try to strike a healthy balance. After I’m done with work, I’m done with work. I do my best to make sure that I have at least one hour each night to just relax–no laptops or textbooks allowed. And a full night’s sleep is no longer optional. These tactics allow me to keep busy without sacrificing my own mental health.
For those of you who live with any form of depression, don’t compare yourself to anyone else. You are not a failure if you can’t get out of bed. Not being “high-functioning” does not mean that you are “low-functioning.” Your depression just manifests differently. Your symptoms are not less valid if you’re still able to make it through the day. And everyone needs to know the different ways that depression can manifest so that they can spot it in themselves. You deserve the help you need, and you deserve to be taken seriously. You deserve to not minimize your symptoms to fit neatly into a clinical box.

However your depression manifests, you and your feelings are valid. Find the Light is here to support you. If you need to talk to someone, visit

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