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The secret battle of high-functioning depression

by Christine Yu

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When I told my husband I felt depressed, he didn’t believe me. As I sat on the edge of the bed, knees pulled into my chest, he launched a valiant effort to convince me everything was A-OK.

He listed all the things that were going well—our two kids were happy and healthy, our marriage was back on track after a couple of rocky fits, I was pursuing a career I loved, I was training for half marathons and teaching yoga. What could I possibly be depressed about?

“We all go through down periods. Maybe it’s just a phase?” he asked.

I looked down and nodded silently. The blues aren’t a new feeling but one that returns to me—sometimes slow and gradual, sometimes quick and fast like a jab to the chin. “Maybe … but this feels different.”

At first, I thought it was just a case of the summer doldrums. But the feeling lingered through the rest of the summer and into the fall. I found myself going through the motions while physically present with friends and family. The typical joy and laughter was replaced by an absence of emotion, a hollowness in my gut that rivaled the Grand Canyon.

I was bullied by the high expectations in my head, the yellow brick road of where I thought I should be in life.

I figured my mood would lift once my kids were back in school and I’d re-established my routine. But it didn’t. I longed for quiet. I thought if I stood still long enough, maybe the air would vacuum seal around me and cocoon me from the frenetic pace of life.

Still, I wasn’t convinced I was depressed depressed. I didn’t resemble the poster child for depression you see on TV or in the movies. I wasn’t stuck on my couch in a deep Netflix spiral unable to function. I wasn’t crying nonstop. I was keeping it together—helping my kids with homework, meeting deadlines, seeing friends and working through my to-do list like a champ. So, how could I be depressed?

“Most people who suffer from depression function. They go to work and pick up their kids. They do all the things they’re supposed to do, but they’re not having a particularly good time doing it,” says Dr. Michael Yapko, clinical psychologist and author of “Keys to Unlocking Depression”. “Depression is the most common mood disorder and it isn’t the same for everyone. It can range from mild to severe.” But, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, depression often goes untreated, and those with less serious symptoms are less likely to receive treatment compared to those with serious conditions.

Recently, high-functioning depression has come into the spotlight. “People are using the term to describe those who are doing well academically or professionally,” says Dr. Eva Stubits, a clinical psychologist. “On the outside, they seem to be successful but secretly they feel sadness inside.”

While it can be considered a mild form of depression, it’s no less debilitating or serious. According to Yapko, if and when life circumstances change, those experiencing mild depression may be at greater risk for moderate to severe depression. Plus, it can affect children too. “As you raise your kids, you’re passing along the risk factors [for depression],” he says. “Rates of depression from parent to child increase by nearly a factor of three.”

It’s not surprising that the idea of high-functioning depression has struck a chord with many. “Our current culture isn’t helping us build healthy coping, stress management, and decision-making skills. It’s fracturing it, creating the conditions where high-functioning depression can thrive,” says Yapko.

Yapko points to our preference for burying our noses in phones and screens, our short attention span and low threshold for frustration, our inability to stick with things when it gets hard, and our highly curated Instagram perfect worlds. “People are less likely to spend time in good places like nature or socializing with friends. They don’t have the support networks that people had in past generations,” he says. “There are a lot of factors converging. It isn’t caused by any one thing.”

In fact, some of the traits that lead people to be successful, such as perfectionism and being goal-oriented, may contribute to depression, according to Stubits. “People who appear to be functioning well don’t think they should feel depressed and may be embarrassed by it.” It can easily fly under the radar and hide behind your put-together lifestyle.

For me, I was bullied by the high expectations in my head, the yellow brick road of where I thought I should be in work and life. I didn’t want to admit something might be wrong because I didn’t know what that would mean. I didn’t want to go to therapy or take antidepressants. I assumed I could plow through my feelings like I have in every other aspect of my life.

I realized I could continue to let the void grow inside me, hoping one day I would wake up and the sun would shine brighter, my inner motivation would hum smoothly and I would start to feel all the emotions again. Or I could start talking to someone.

Some may say that high-functioning depression is just a buzzword for mild depression, but it has started a conversation about mental health, and among many (raises hand!) who probably wouldn’t have talked about it in the past. For me, the talk of high-functioning depression has gotten me back into therapy to work on the coping skills I need to deal with stress and anxiety.

Christine Yu

Christine Yu is a freelance writer based in New York City. She’s written about health, wellness and lifestyle for publications including The Washington Post, Runner’s World, Women’s Health and Redbook. Find her on Twitter @cyu888.