Living with mental illness is difficult; an illness like anxiety, for example can completely derail someone’s life. When our friends and family notice we are suffering (hopefully) they try to help, or help you get help. But when you suffer from high functioning anxiety, it becomes something else.
They think that you are just a perfectionist; an A type personality that just wants things to be done a certain way. What they don’t know is that it’s not that you’re striving for absolute perfection each time because you want to; it’s just your brain screaming at you that it isn’t good enough. That you’re not good enough. Like that time you had an essay you needed to write, or that time you wanted to organize your dorm.
Everyone loved what you wrote for your essay; everyone thought that you had such an organized room, but all you saw were flaws and mistakes, a mess that needed to be fixed. So in turn, you are often doing things over and over again, blaming it on the simple fact that, “It didn’t feel right, so I wanted to try again.” but inside you feel just a little bit broken. They call you an overachiever, but really overachieving to you still looks and feels mediocre.
And it doesn’t stop there. Making decisions is an ongoing battle, as soon as someone asks you anything you start weighing all of your options, every pro and every con. People may call it “thorough” but when you have to do it every single time you need to make a choice, it exhausts you. You say you’re just “thinking it through,” but inside, your brain feels like it’s stuck in a hurricane. Choices are difficult; more difficult than they were intended to be. All your friend wanted to know was where you wanted to eat, but in your mind it became, “I wonder what they would like. Maybe we can go to this Mexican place down the road… do they even eat Mexican? Wait. Is this a test? Am I supposed to know where they like to go?” “I’m not sure what they want. I’m an awful friend.” and you end up responding with, “Anywhere is okay with me.” Even if you actually wanted to go to the Mexican place to eat, you would rather let them decide, avoiding the possibility of letting them down.
Most of the time you want to lay in bed wishing all the thoughts away, but at the same time you feel like you need to keep busy 110% of the time so that you don’t refocus on the inner storm. You are exhausted, doing tasks just to keep your mind focused on something else for a change, but the second you try to go to sleep, the hurricane of thoughts is back. You on average, don’t sleep well, because you either can’t get to sleep or, you never leave your regular state of “fight or flight” (which anxiety induces), and you are an incredibly light sleeper. You hear every noise, and if you have a partner, you feel every movement. The night time is your enemy. You crave a deep sleep that hardly ever comes.
When your anxiety starts to crack you and you reach out, people tell you that you are fine, because, to them, that’s how you appear on the outside. You have become such a master at holding it in that you’ve basically fooled everyone, but then they tell you that you are overreacting. You start attending counseling (and a good counselor will help you), but when you tell people that you are receiving help, they ask you “Why? You don’t need it.” So you stop reaching out to these people, because the simple fact that you even told anyone was a sign that you actually needed it. You are so used to being self-reliant that it takes a lot to reach out. This explains why you can sometimes appear to be so cold or lacking emotion, but it’s so they don’t see what’s raging on inside, because you fear being called over dramatic or even a “cry baby.”
When you finally have it a little bit under control, something tips you off, and the worry comes back. “What if I’m not doing enough right now?” “I’m such a failure.” “So and so has their life together, what am I doing wasting time.” “I’m not doing enough.” “I’m a mess up.” “I’m overreacting.” “Why can’t I do anything right.” You have a small breakdown (or a big one) because you saw that your friends are doing something without you on Instagram (even if you didn’t necessarily want to go), or your ex is engaged on Facebook. Whatever it was it took you from 0 to 100 and you suddenly feel like you are going to die alone, even though that is probably far from the truth. FOMO is a destroyer of sanity and even though you may not have gone if asked, you wish you were at least included.
The thing about high functioning anxiety is that it manifests in different ways, some people have ticks, like nail biting or maybe hair twirling. It manifests in not showing up to social gatherings, sleepless nights, and in some cases drug and alcohol abuse to calm the noise.
High functioning mental disorders can be both incredibly devastating as well as isolating, because of the fact that they might not be so obvious. The best thing to do for friends or family members with a high functioning mental disorder is to first believe them if/when they decide to tell you. Realize that it is incredibly hard for them to vocalize that they need help in the first place, and that they might be ashamed of their inability to get better on their own.
Support them. Be there for them, and if they ask, help them find professional help. Let them know that they are not alone. Being supportive is the best way to help them, so remember to be kind, listen and validate how they feel. The last thing they want to feel is that they aren’t being heard or that their problem isn’t really a problem.
So be helpful. Be supportive. And most of all be a friend. You could be the biggest difference in someone’s world.