Misconceptions About High-Functioning Mental Illnesses (Spotlight Series #2)

By Ysabelle Fernandez

“I thought you graduated already!” an acquaintance of mine cried out incredulously.

Amused and a little intrigued, I humored him. Chuckling, I shook my head before asking what made him think that.

“Well,” he began. “It’s because you look so on top of your game that I thought you were a senior.”

I shrugged, and without skipping a beat, quipped: “Oh, that? That’s just my anxiety, that’s all.”

He tilted his head to the side, a look of utter confusion etched on his face. Perhaps it was because he never thought that I would respond that way. Maybe he thought that I would react the way people normally do, with a hand covering the dusty pink that began to blossom on my cheeks, repeating phrases such as, “No, I’m really not,” or, “It’s nothing, really.”

Or maybe he was simply stupefied at how honest my response was— after all, letting someone know that you deal with a mental illness is uncommon, even more so if that someone were a mere acquaintance.

And, surprisingly enough, this was not an isolated event. I received compliments from peers and teachers alike based on my work, grades, or how involved I was in extracurricular activities. I took pride at the thought that I was doing something right, feeding myself with all the illusions, but no matter how much I consumed, it never satiated the abyss that lingered in my stomach.

I felt that I could always do better.

I feared failure.

And it was that same fear that fueled me to being the stellar student I wanted people to keep seeing me as. So whenever I felt like I wasn’t good enough, everything came crashing down.

Some time ago, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, GAD for short, and depression. I met the criteria stated in the DSM-5, such as excessive anxiety, worry occurring most days for at least six months, sleep disturbance, feelings of worthlessness, little to no interest in favorite activities, etc.

What was different, however, was that I managed to mostly function despite the symptoms— the same symptoms that normally hindered the performance of others. I was able to get up in the morning most days and drag myself into this odd routine I established, which mostly consisted of me being there in the present, answering whenever I was called to do so and (passively) listen as teachers and students alike droned on, but I was never really there.  On the rare occasion that I was, in fact, fully present, I always made sure I had a smile plastered on my face-- and it always worked. Like in the opening anecdote, nobody knew the things that circulated in my head unless I said so.

In a society that applauds stress and overworking, many people, especially young adults, tend to carry much more than they can handle out of fear of seeming lazy. Because of the heavy load, they either push through or burn out. Whenever the latter happens, there really isn’t a secure support system in place to address the issue, because, as previously stated, the fear of being thought of as unproductive and lazy is so real to these people, so what do they do? They almost always continue to push themselves way beyond their breaking points. Whatever the case may be, the fact that no official early intervention system exists in order to prevent total burnout is horrifying.

Why is it that the only time that people are allowed to seek help is when it’s too late, and when they do, they receive backlash when instead they need support? Even in a progressive time such as this, mental health is still something that’s discussed only when the sun goes down. There is still this stigma about mental health ingrained in us-- whether knowingly or unknowingly. It shouldn’t be like that.

The urge to keep to yourself is strong. The fear of being someone’s burden is strong. The fear of being a failure is strong, but whether someone is high functioning or not, let it be known that it’s okay to slow down sometimes; that it’s okay to talk to loved ones because they care immensely. If somebody gets the wrong idea about mental illness, correct them, because, in the long run, the word will spread.

And maybe, just maybe, the assumptions that people make will end.

Vivian Lu