Life as a High-Functioning Depressive PhD

child HeadI thought for a long time before proposing this blog post. I thought, because my depression hasn’t been a bar to my achievement, I’ve never been bedridden or kept from working by it, despite sometimes constant thoughts in that direction I’ve never attempted suicide, and I only self-harm very occasionally, my anxiety triggers are largely avoidable and I currently feel relatively OK (thanks, pharmaceutical industry!), it might come across as a bit whiny and unworthy in comparison to the experiences of those with ‘real problems’. But I spoke to a friend about it and she pointed out that I would raise awareness that depression comes in all shapes and sizes, and that just because someone is functioning well doesn’t mean they’re mentally healthy.

MedicationI’ll start with my depression story. It doesn’t really have a beginning because I’ve been depressed for as long as I can remember. A few years ago, an old childhood friend I hadn’t been in contact with for a long time commented that I sounded much happier than when I was at primary school. I guess she was the only one who noticed that early, but – being a child – she hadn’t really known what to do with that information. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t think of suicide in some way, but my anxiety kicked in at 13, thoughts of self-harm at 14 and actual self-harm at 19. After years of denial (it was ‘normal’ for me, plus an ex-boyfriend told me I was depressed and I desperately wanted to prove him wrong), things reached a crescendo at 22. Underemployment after my BA brought on a black cloud more intense than any I’d ever experienced before, I decided enough was enough and went to the doctor, who gave me antidepressants, which I do think saved my life in some way.

charlie3I sailed through my GCSEs, A Levels and BA unmedicated and with all this stuff going on inside my head. Even when the aforementioned cloud descended I was still able to go about my business as normal – at one level I’d be going about my unsatisfying retail job, smiling at customers and doing what I was told, but at another there would be a voice in my head constantly bullying me. I think the reason I’ve always functioned so well is that I’m so accustomed to feeling bad about myself that it’s just my normal life. I never ‘tuned out’ the inner bullying so much as I just managed to carry on while it ranted at me. I guess I’m lucky I can do that, but I don’t think it makes my illness any less valid – after all, I take medication to muffle it (it still gets loud on occasion) and I think most people would agree that it’s undesirable to be going round thinking of killing yourself all the time, as I was. I hate it when people think depression is just ‘sadness’ you can ‘get over’ – I felt like I was enveloped in a thick mist that rarely cleared, and only ever briefly.

phd_logoSo, where am I now? Spurred on by a course of counselling that gave me the confidence to do more than just coast along in my job, I did my MA last year and I started my PhD in History last October. I have the occasional flare-up where I feel awful, but fortunately can keep going. I’m always hearing about how bad a PhD is for your mental health, and I’m particularly scared that it’s going to become really bad again after I finish, as it did after my BA. Then, I was on the dole, before getting a job where I wasn’t valued or using my talents. I also worry that it’ll flare up if I have a bad supervisory board or hit a wall in my research. At the moment, I’m buoyed by the fact I am using my talents and qualifications, people are praising me, and I’m doing work I’m interested in and passionate about. The PhD may prove to be bad for my mental health, but for now, at least, I can’t imagine it being as terrible as menial work was for me. When I wasn’t using my brain or being appreciated at all, the negative thoughts were louder and easier to succumb to.

One thing I do find I have to do as a high-functioning depressive is keep an eye out for subtle changes of mood. Because I managed, albeit unhappily, for all that time, my mood might drop, but I don’t take enough notice because I’ve felt worse in the past, whereas someone who’d never been depressed in their life would be horrified if they knew what I was thinking. I have six-monthly medication reviews and my doctor has insisted that I go back in between if things get worse. I’ve had a few ‘episodes’ recently but it’s hard to know if it’s worth increasing my dosage. I want to avoid having more side-effects: the cinematic dreams are quite fun, but the complete inability to lose weight despite going to the gym five or six days a week is deeply annoying.

  14568033_sI’ve read a lot of academic mental health blog posts that mention self-care, and I find that I’m doing most of the things they suggest already, especially regarding rest. If anything, I’m often too generous when it comes to giving myself breaks from work, and I’m not sure whether that’s due to ingrained coping mechanisms I’ve unconsciously developed over the years, pathological tiredness/apathy (which could itself be down to pretty much anything, including my depression) or just being lazy (depressed students aren’t lazy; lazy students are lazy). I’ll write 1,000 words and take the rest of the day off, for example, or read a few chapters and then attempt to look at the whole of the internet. However, I’m keeping on top of things and hitting my targets, and it’s awful to see students who have worked themselves into illness because they feel they should be working all the time. I often feel guilty that I don’t work more, but one of the tips from a previous post on here struck a chord: doing a PhD demands significant levels of concentration and intellectual engagement. Besides, there’s no point in working if your eyes won’t stay open.

So I guess this post has a few messages. Just because a student isn’t showing outward signs of mental distress doesn’t mean they’re OK; a smile can hide so much. The medication may be working, but the fact that it’s required at all means something. Don’t be afraid of medication: it really helps some people and doesn’t mean you’ve ‘failed’ or are ‘weak’. Take lots of breaks and don’t feel guilty about it.

invisible-person1A note on why I’ve chosen to remain anonymous: it’s in case potential employers google my name and come across it. Even though I’ve just explained that it’s completely possible to be depressed and fulfill all your duties to a high standard, no doubt there are still people out there who see ‘depressed’ and think ‘liability’. I would personally never disclose my depression because it’s never affected my ability to work (apart from one day off in 2011, ironically because my initial antidepressant dosage was too high!). Also, I want to avoid confrontation with certain senior family members who don’t see why I’m not ‘happy’ when I have ‘everything going for me’, or see my lifelong depression as somehow their fault. Some friends who read this may be able to identify me from my description of my life, but that’s fine.

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9 Responses

  1. Sam says:

    Thank you for the blog. I’ve actually been struggling with this as well. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t depressed, but I know for sure I’ve not been right since my dad died in 91′ when I was 17. I KNOW I am depressed. I have zero desire to do ANYTHING I enjoy. I cry almost every day I hate my job so much. The only thing I hate more than that is myself.

    I spent my childhood having the crap beat out of me by my mom (guns put to head, trigger pulled, cigarettes put out on me, tossed down stairs, kicked until I spit up blood) but far worse has been the verbal/emotional abuse I still have to deal with to this day. Yes, I stopped talking to her but I still get messages from her plus I wrestle with the guilt I have as someone who has spent his life trying to be teh best son he could be.

    I know I used to have fleeting moments of happiness and I remember looking forward to those. Now, since my 4 year, $65k divorce wrapped up I literally have zero happiness. Its been replaced with snarky comments and sobbing.

    I KNOW I’m depressed. Given up on meds because none of them have helped me. Thanks to the divorce i am going to have to file for bankruptcy, which is more depressing. I am seeing three therapists, doing CBT and hypnotherapy. basically i am trying everything I can think of to help myself and thus far, been unsuccessful. I never heard of “high functioning” depression, I am going maybe if i use that term a doc can help me?

    Because despite me being disappointed when I wake up in the morning, I’ve managed to get promoted 3 times in 4 years and over doubled my salary. I run a fairly successful local cover band and am trying hard to get my writing career of the ground. This is in spite of me being afraid to live my life anymore.

    No idea what to do next but to keep existing.

  2. Kymber says:

    Reading about your feelings and experiences, I swear that you and I could be the same person. Thank you for being so open about how depression has affected you. I, too, feel like I live in a fog; this place where time either slows to a drag, or where days pass by and I hardly notice; a place where I feel sharpness and clarity so rarely that those moments, when they do unexpectedly come, feel like a high.

    As it turns out, looking back, I am certain that I’ve been living in this haze for at least five full years, maybe even a decade (it’s hard to tell… My memory has been affected, too). There are days where I can hardly lift my head off the pillow, and I get nothing done, despite having a full day open to do so.

    I am tired of feeling anxious, afraid, and paranoid every day. This can’t be normal. Your story has nudged me toward the next step of change, and I want to sincerely thank you for that; for being the voice and story that came up in a Google search, because you cared enough about others to reach out via article and help them gain some “happy” in their lives.

  3. Mike says:

    I second what Rosa said; you wrote what I can never manage to adequately put into words.. I get what Karren said about sometimes seeing it as a blessing, I often wonder why everyone doesn’t see stuff the way I do and question if I’d want to be ‘normal’; the answer’s usually no. Thank you for writing this, I knew I couldn’t be the only person like this but it’s not the sort of thing you ask or can talk about with too many people, without them blaming themselves or not being able appreciate the extent; as you said..

  4. M says:

    Yes! I understand completely… been fighting this battle since i was 6, bravo for writing the words so many just think

  5. karen says:

    Yes this. I am currently in a very low period of depression, yet I am writing, giving papers and planning future projects. The mental effort this is taking is almost killing me

  6. Ryan says:

    Hey I really appreciate this post, it makes me feel less lonely.

    I think that even if one is well liked by many people and deemed popular, it doesn’t mean that the person likes themself. I.e. self-esteem does not always come from external validation.

  7. Karen375 says:

    Hi, I’m a women in my late 50s who has also been depressed all her life and have also been termed ‘high functioning’ – lol. If I hear that term one more time I will go crazy. For some of the medicos I have seen it’s almost a way to not take you too seriously, After all you are still functioning at a high level so it can’t be that bad can it? Very few people really understand the personal discipline and coping skills you need to develop to be high functioning. I do sometimes wonder if it is a blessing that I have known nothing else. However, when I have glimpsed what ‘normal’ is life is really very easy. I ask myself how is that so many ‘normal’ people find life so difficult. It’s all relative I suppose.

  8. Rosa Taylor says:

    “I sailed through my GCSEs, A Levels and BA unmedicated and with all this stuff going on inside my head. Even when the aforementioned cloud descended I was still able to go about my business as normal – at one level I’d be going about my unsatisfying retail job, smiling at customers and doing what I was told, but at another there would be a voice in my head constantly bullying me. I think the reason I’ve always functioned so well is that I’m so accustomed to feeling bad about myself that it’s just my normal life. I never ‘tuned out’ the inner bullying so much as I just managed to carry on while it ranted at me. I guess I’m lucky I can do that, but I don’t think it makes my illness any less valid – after all, I take medication to muffle it (it still gets loud on occasion) and I think most people would agree that it’s undesirable to be going round thinking of killing yourself all the time, as I was. I hate it when people think depression is just ‘sadness’ you can ‘get over’ – I felt like I was enveloped in a thick mist that rarely cleared, and only ever briefly.”

    this WHOLE paragraph – its like I’ve just looked into a mirror. I’m 23, doing my masters and I function just fine… but it still doesn’t stop the bad feelings from coming or the horrendous thoughts that gush through my head… It’s quite nice to know that someone else if like me too.

  9. feline256 says:

    Thank you for posting this. It’s so important for those in this situation to know they’re not alone. It’s not talked about enough!

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