Liar, Liar: When You’re High Functioning & Mentally Ill

There are few people out there as open about their addiction and mental health as I am. Anybody who knows me knows that I have some long term issues that I have been dealing with my entire life. The problem is that actions speak louder than words. Even though I am very vocal about my problems, people don’t often see them in action, so they believe they aren’t really there, or are not as severe as they are.

When someone is more high functioning in their mental illness, the way I am, people often think that we’re making up our symptoms or that our diagnosis isn’t real. Because we present as articulate, educated, or in any way “normal”, people think that our mental illness is made up or in some way not serious.

There have been times that I’ve explained to people that I am disabled, and receive disability assistance. I cannot tell you how many times the person has said some form of “You’re so lucky! I wish I was disabled!” No one would ever dream of saying that to a person who had lost a limb, or someone suffering from a serious physical illness. What possess a person to think that being mentally disabled is something to be desired?

What people don’t see is what happens in private. Classmates notice that I miss a lot of school, but when I’m there, it doesn’t seem like anything is wrong. I have always done an excellent job of blending in, acting normal, and keeping the crazy to myself. Even close friends who I have known for years don’t know the extent of my mental illness. I have been able to work a variety of jobs during certain points in my life, and have even owned my own business. On the outside, it seems like I’m just a normal person, maybe with just a few quirks.

The first thing to understand is that I am very medication compliant. I have grown out of the phase where being manic on purpose sounds like fun, so I generally always take the medication that is prescribed to me. However, sometimes the disorder outsmarts the medication. I do suffer from break out episodes from time to time, including some that are very severe and others that are less so.

Bipolar I is the most severe form of Bipolar disorder. It is characterized by extreme highs and lows, which isn’t a very illustrative way to describe the symptoms. People often mistakenly believe that the bipolar high just means a person is very happy. This is simply not the case. The manic high can be just as risky and dangerous as the depressive lows.

Mania is characterized by rapid speech, sometimes so fast that people cannot even understand what I’m saying. Additionally, the thoughts being expressed flow so quickly that people cannot keep up with what I’m trying to say. In my brain, thoughts are cycling a mile a minute. It is difficult to stay on task, because I am prone to jump from one thing to the next without completing any of the tasks at hand. People who are in a manic episode are also prone to risky behaviors outside of their regular character. Common behaviors are shoplifting, wild spending and buying things that you do not need, including multiples of items you already own, excessive drinking or drug use, promiscuity and risky sexual activity, and risky or dangerous activity in general.

During a manic episode, people are prone to grandiose thoughts and behaviors. They believe they are capable of things that they normally would not consider possible. The paranoia is also very real. It’s easy to start believing that people are talking about you, ignoring you, or conspiring against you.

You start to get in arguments and debates inside your own head.

Irritability is another common symptom of mania. Snapping at people, losing your patience very quickly, and having a low tolerance for anything that isn’t going exactly your way are all common attributes of someone dealing with a manic episode. It’s very contrary to the mistaken idea that a manic person is happy. A lot of irritability for me in mania comes from people not keeping up with my crazy train of thoughts and ideas. I start to feel like everyone around me is a complete moron for not being able to make sense of my delusional thought process. It can feel so frustrating, and make me feel so powerless, that often times I dissolve into tears and the whole episode of frustration and irritability to the point of break down happens so fast that people around me are just completely confused as to what in the hell is going on.

Mania can turn into psychosis in some people, myself included. This can be as simple as hearing things that aren’t there, or thinking you saw something that wasn’t real. It can progress into losing track of time and space, being unsure about how you got somewhere or not knowing where you are. It can be very frightening and disorienting.

On the other end, individuals suffering from Bipolar I can suffer from depression that is just as crippling as those with typical clinical depression. It starts with being withdrawn, pulling away from people and things you care about. You feel overwhelmed by life in general, and simple daily tasks become too difficult to even consider.

There are times when I don’t shower, brush my teeth, or even eat, for days at a time.

When you are incapable of basic grooming, the thought of going to school or work is simply out of the question. It feels like the world is coming down around you, like you’re drowning in your own despair. It also manifests physically, making it something that you can’t just snap out of. I get a lot of headaches that make me so dizzy I am unable to drive, or even sit up in a chair. I have no choice but to lay down until it passes. Muscles and joints become sore, so much so that even if I could motivate myself to shower it is physically impossible to hold the blow dryer to dry my hair.

Deep depression is also very disorienting. You become confused about time and dates, losing track of where you’re supposed to be and when. You can become extremely forgetful, and even the most intelligent and capable person can start to feel, and act, like an idiot. You can forget how to do basic tasks that you’ve done a thousand times before.

There are also episodes that we refer to as a “mixed state”, where elements of both mania and depression manifest at the same time. There are some theories out there that Bipolar patterns will change after the introduction of psychiatric medications. I personally think there may be some truth in this. When I was young, my patterns were very easy to detect and follow. Now, after fifteen years of treatment with medications, I experience many more mixed episodes and a much less discernable pattern to the highs and lows. This can also be attributed to the disease changing as I get older.

Living with Bipolar I is a lot harder than people think, because so many of us who struggle with it are very good at hiding its symptoms. Many brilliant people in history are suspected to have been Bipolar, because so much creativity can flow from the episodes. This makes it even harder for people to understand that just because I may seem smart, or put together, does not mean that I am not mentally ill at the same time.

For those of us who have substance abuse issues as well, it is even harder for us to get and stay sober.

When our mental illness takes us from our ability to make rational and logical decisions, we are prone to relapse even when we have been enjoying long term sobriety. Many of us suffer from extreme episodes during early recovery, when all the chemicals are going crazy in our brains. It makes it very challenging to let go of the safety net of regular drug use.

Anyone who knows anything about SSI and SSDI (the two government programs for disability insurance), knows how challenging it is to get accepted. People apply over and over, some with very serious disabilities, and are denied time and again. Getting approved on your first application is almost unheard of. When I presented my history to Social Security, not only was I approved on my first application but in record time. I did not have an attorney or someone to help me navigate the system. I did not have any advantages in any way. All I had was a fifteen year history of severe mental illness, complete with multiple hospitalizations. Not even the government could deny the reality of my situation, even while people around me routinely do.

Despite the severity of my mental illness, no one really knows the true depths of the insanity besides my mother. Even my father, who has been around this entire time, does not fully understand the severity of my condition. He thinks disability is a temporary situation, and that I will finish school and get a full time job. The likelihood of this happening is slim to none. I have never done anything for 40 hours a week with any kind of regularity. I have not been able to complete a full 30 hour school week yet, up to this point. Every time I try to take on more than about 20 hours of commitment, whether to a job or school, I wind up dissolving into a complete break down. Forget school or work, I find myself unable to take care of my basic human needs. I just cannot handle it.

Just like with my father, people who have known me for many years still don’t get it. Whether it’s friends or family, they just don’t understand how severe and far reaching my mental illness truly is. They don’t realize that what they have seen is just the tip of the ice berg.

They have never seen the true extent of my issues, and because of that they have expectations for me that are beyond unrealistic.

The government awards disability to people on the assumption that their situation is permanent, or very long term. I have been dealing with this disorder for over fifteen years. My track record is pretty solid. What gives anyone the idea that I’m suddenly going to morph into this healthy, “normal” person is beyond me.

If it wasn’t for my family and the support they have given me, I would likely be living in some kind of home for disabled adults. I have been working very hard to shift the financial responsibilities of my life and well being off of my parents and on to the programs that are available to me. My parents won’t be able to support me forever, and it’s important that I find a way to survive in this world without their constant attention, supervision, and finances.

The point of this blog is not to garner sympathy. It’s to bring awareness to the fact that none of us know what the people around us are going through in private. Even when someone is as open as I am, the people around us still don’t know the true depths of our issues.

I want people to understand what living with a severe mental illness is really like, the way it affects our daily lives, and to know that what they see on the outside may not be a true reflection of what’s going on inside.

Even those of us who share a diagnosis do not share the same level of disorder. Some of us are more functional than others. Some of us are very good at hiding our dysfunction. Bipolar Disorder is characterized by episodes that come and go, leaving us somewhat “normal” in between. That’s why people think we are better off than we really are, because they aren’t seeing the extent of the illness at its worst.

As an advocate, it’s my job to draw attention to the issues that addicts and mentally ill people face every day. I choose to be honest about my own struggles because I firmly believe the only way to reduce stigma is for those of us who are dealing with these issues to be honest about what we face and what our struggles are.

If I wasn’t honest with school administrators, I would’ve never graduated high school. I needed accommodations then, and continue to need them now. I’ve needed them at every job I’ve ever had. The point is that the help is out there for those of us dealing with mental illness to still succeed in life. If we advocate for ourselves and the assistance we need, we can still do things that “normal” people do like go to school or hold a job. We need to illustrate that many of us do present as “normal” people sometimes, so that those around us understand that it is possible to be crippled by symptoms one week and be highly functioning the next. We need to help people around us understand our strengths and our limitations, so they can be more sensitive to our needs the way they would be with a physically disabled person.

It is also important to remember that mental illness can be fatal. When untreated, and even sometimes when it is treated, those of us suffering from mental illness can become suicidal. We are also at risk of injury or death from risky or dangerous behavior during episodes. The times in my life when I have felt this way have been largely from feeling misunderstood and incapable of keeping up with the world around me. Feeling like a failure at life, a failure at doing the most basic things that “normal” people do, like working a normal 40 hour work week or graduating from high school, can make someone suffering from a mental illness feel completely invalidated and useless. I have often felt like a burden on my parents, and have at times convinced myself their lives would be easier and better if I wasn’t around.

When we are honest with ourselves, and in turn honest with those around us, we can set ourselves up for a more successful life. We can seek special accommodations from school or work, to help us succeed when we otherwise might not be able to. I have tried a lot of things, and have had many failures along the way. Sometimes special accommodations can make an impossible thing possible. Sometimes we still fail, and that’s okay too. It can be very difficult to not feel as though people are looking at you like a faker. Part of that is paranoia from the disorder, and part of that is factual. I just try to remember that the people who matter most know the truth. My doctors know the truth, the government knows the truth, and my mother knows the truth. If people think I’m fabricating something or exaggerating, that’s on them. Luckily, the government protects me and others dealing with mental illness from discrimination under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to continue to advocate for ourselves.

Many people are dealing with mental illness in secret, due to the shame and stigma that surrounds the topic. I encourage you to be honest with yourself, and get honest with at least one person in your life who doesn’t know or understand your situation. Challenge yourself to be honest, and challenge them to learn about your disorder and stand by you despite it. You never know, that person may be dealing with their own issues and you could start a dialogue. You’ll never know until you take that leap, and get honest, about who you really are and what you’re really capable of.

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

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