The deep, dark truths about my seemingly successful life

Whenever I’m in a crowd, particularly after giving a talk or a conference, I like to tell people that I’m actually very shy. This usually brings big laughs, as if I’m telling them the funniest joke they’ve heard all week, even though I’m being as serious as possible. People see me as this expansive, loud woman who likes to attract attention and thus cannot be, on the inside, someone who is trying very hard to surpass this social interaction in a successful manner, one that won’t make her obsessively think about this day and cringe for the next ten years.

This is the sort of relationship I have with my depression.

People who know me only tangentially -through social media or public engagements- tend to think of me as a somewhat successful woman. I’ve published three books, have the sort of job I wanted, travel several times a year and have a verified Twitter account; the sort of things that people tend to see as markers of a superficial success. If you have photos from three countries in three months in your Instagram feed, people will start jumping to all sorts of conclusions about your life. The first assumption they’ll make is that you’re happy. The second is that life should be easy for you.

Talking about mental illness used to be something that you didn’t do, and as a consequence of this, depression is a topic that is frequently wrapped in misunderstandings and false assumptions. While the most frequent ones -that depressed people are just sad and can somehow shake depression off as if it’s a bad day- are being slowly de-stigmatized by the immense work of so many people who have been brave enough to talk about their condition to help others, some of them won’t go away so easily. For many people, if you are able to get up every day, get a shower, go to work, have a stable relationship, friends and a somewhat functioning life, then you cannot be depressed. Actually, if you can lift yourself from the couch and turn Netflix off, then you’re not depressed at all.

However, for many of us, depression is not something that stops us from having a life -just from enjoying it. There are many depressed people who day after day handle all the detritus of adulting; we do so despite dealing with very low levels of energy, despite our own voices of constant criticism and self-doubt, and despite frequently being incapable of enjoying our own successes. This is good in the sense that we’re not constantly on the verge of mortal danger. This is bad in the sense that we tend to think of ourselves as not depressed, but only tired; we tend to go undiagnosed for many years, and we tend to avoid seeking professional help.

Someone with high-functioning depression is often living a secret life. Seen from outside you seem normal. The toll it takes to do everything, though, is something that happens on the inside: the fact that every little thing you do takes a disproportionate amount of energy, and that sometimes just waking up and taking a shower seems an insurmountable task; the amount of self-control that is needed to get you to interact with other people. The funny thing is that you manage to do it so well that nobody else will give you a gold star.

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When I was in college, I would calculate my exact scores for the entire year, the scores I needed in every single exam in order to graduate with honors. I beat myself up for every mistake, every paper that didn’t get the grades, every time I didn’t fulfill the expectations I had set up for myself. I skipped meals and sleep for studying -things stopped mattering to me, only grades did-. I got terribly sick; I got hypertension, gastritis and then an ulcer, and I started passing out during exams because of the pain.

It became pretty obvious something had to give, and it was my obsession with a perfection that was unattainable, at least for me. I let go -at least partially- of keeping score, and set my goal on just getting a degree. About the same time, my GP prescribed me antidepressants.

Just to be clear, I think medication is very important for people with any kind of illness, and mental illnesses are illnesses. However, the particular kind of drug I was prescribed didn’t do me any good. I felt restless, confused and started having nightmares, which are all side effects of fluoxetine. But what really freaked me out was that I felt the strange, constant sensation of being someone else. I learned that this was called depersonalization and that this was also a known side effect of fluoxetine on some patients. I wasn’t handling it well, and I stopped taking the pill before being able to feel any positive effects.

I graduated, started working on terrible jobs that made me deeply unhappy, and kept on living while depressed. Here’s the thing: if you manage to get regular showers, eat somehow decent meals, get dressed and show up to work, nobody will worry about your mental health. Eventually, I found my ways towards job situations that allowed me to stay home and not come out of bed in days that I feel like I can’t, without anybody suspecting anything weird is happening.

At the same time, living in a country that was falling apart, I understood pretty quickly that I wasn’t allowed to fall apart myself. If I didn’t get my shit together enough to survive, I would not. So here’s the thing about high-functioning depression: functionality is a sort of camouflage. It allows you to think that you’re somehow OK, that it is like a flu, something that’s not bad enough to get medical attention, something that won’t kill you. Friends won’t come to your house and stage an intervention. But you’re hurting yourself. Maybe just emotionally, maybe also physically, you’re hurting yourself every day, and very often you won’t get help until something visible happens.

I always thought that depression was something that came to me in bouts: that it was only during those weeks when I didn’t come out of bed, when I ate whatever I found and didn’t take care of myself, that I was depressed, and that the rest of the time, when I was out and about and checking things off my to-do list, when I was hyper-critically analyzing everything I did and always coming short of my own standards, when I was obsessing about every little mistake I had made in my entire life, that I was as normal as I got. It wasn’t until I read Ethan’s blog that I understood what was happening to me; that there were other people who were also struggling with every little thing in life, others that were also seemingly functioning if seen from the outside, but at the same time finding it extremely hard and exhausting to do. If this was happening to Ethan, who is as successful a person as I can imagine, it could happen to anyone, including me.

There are some signs I’ve learned to recognize as warnings: skipping meals, insomnia, Sims marathons. There’s something about creating a Sim that looks just like you and making it live the successful life you want: Sims will finish that novel eventually if you keep them tied to the chair, and the novel will be published and all your bars will become green if you take the necessary steps; there is a nice correlation between cause and effect, between taking the right actions and then being happy as a consequence.

At the same time, I’ve also learned to take small, better decisions about food, company, sleep, sunlight. I’ve learned that there are foods that help me feel better, and I keep my pantry stocked with those (oranges, bananas, avocado, nuts). I’ve learned that sometimes I need to invest the little energy I have into getting some exercise, because exercising is like putting money into a savings account, one with a very good interest rate. I’ve learned to recognize when I feel like shit and to ask myself the right questions (there are tools for that, in case you need them).

However, I’ve also learned that therapy and medication are not taboo. I eventually found an antidepressant that is right for me; I learned that there are other health issues that influence my depression (polycystic syndrome in particular); I sought the help of a nutritionist, learned some new things about my body’s relationship with food, found a therapist that seems right for this stage of my life. In brief, I learned the most important skill I’ve ever learned, the hardest one in my toolbox: I learned to seek help when it’s necessary.

Do not be afraid of asking for help. When you’re high-functioning, people around you don’t offer their help because they think you don’t need it, because they think you have everything under control. But nobody is above getting help, nobody is self-sufficient. Humanhood is needing others.

Escritora. Abogada. Librepensadora. Pirata. Cafeinómana. Opinóloga. Defensora de la cultura libre. Spreading myself too thin since 1985.