Anxious and Ambitious, Depressed and Determined

A Look Into My High Functioning Mental Illness


I’m sitting at my desk in the classroom and I can feel it. I’m antsy and my foot starts tapping. The tingle goes all the way up my body until it reaches my arms and fingers. My hands start to clasp each other nervously. I begin to sweat and subconsciously start looking for the clock in the room. I find the door and stare at it, planning my exit. I repeat and practice this sequence in my mind until class is formally dismissed.

Shortly after this episode, a complete and total sadness takes over my day. I become ashamed that I am constantly worried, aggravated, and annoyed that this is my reality. My life consists of anxious ticks and episodes of depression. This happens all the time. It doesn’t get any easier or less stressful. You never really get used to it. You just go through the motions and hope this time won’t be as bad as the last.

This is just one example of how anxiety and depression creep into my daily life. I can give hundreds of examples where I’ve had to run out of stores, classrooms and public places, or have had complete meltdowns at my ex-boyfriend’s house and cried in the bathroom inconsolably for no reason other than I just wasn’t feeling well that day or because something triggered a major episode. There are times when the episodes last for hours and others that lasts for days.

The people around me have learned that there are two definitions to the word “sick.” There is sick, as in the physical illness of a cold or flu, and then there is sick, the fatigue, sadness, and hopelessness brought on me by my mental illness. And while I often feel alone in my endeavor to deal with my mental illness, I know there is a large population of people who struggle with the exact same issues.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1 percent of the population every year. The organization also reports that it’s not uncommon for someone with an anxiety disorder to also suffer from depression or vice versa. Nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

I recently turned 24. I was diagnosed with a depression and anxiety disorder when I was 9. I remember how life altering it felt. It is one thing to think you may be different from your peers, but to have a formal name given to it was scary at such a young age. Having lived with depression and anxiety for as long as I can seem to remember, I have noticed a few things.

It appears that anxiety and depression are only portrayed a couple different ways in the media, especially with the existence of websites like Tumblr, with entire blogs dedicated to romanticizing mental illnesses, and shows like Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, a fictional show following a lead character who commits suicide after recent life events while in school.

Anxiety and depression are often stigmatized and lead people to believe that all people burdened with the illnesses are mopey and lay in bed all day and in some cases want to take their own lives, or it is romanticized, often used to describe something as minimal as being let down because your local grocery store ran out of your favorite ice cream flavor. These portrayals are the extremes of both sides, but fail to encompass the seriousness that most people live on a daily basis. These portrayals forget about high functioning individuals such as myself.

High functioning individuals are usually outwardly successful, constantly busy, seem to strive for perfection. I am here to tell you, it’s a cover up for our mental health problems.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America defines a General Anxiety Disorder as “characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different thing. Individuals with GAD find it difficult to control their worry. They may worry more than seems warranted about actual events or may expect the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern.”

Depression is defined by ADAA as “a condition in which a person feels discouraged, sad, hopeless, unmotivated, or disinterested in life in general.” Depression is also a common mental illness. DoSomething.Org reports that it will be the second highest medical cause of disability by the year 2030.

When I tell strangers I have anxiety and depression, they often say things like “Just cheer up,” “Be more positive,” or “You’re too young to have anything to be sad about.”

Those words hurt almost as much as having the mental illness itself. There are people who genuinely believe that I am choosing to be sad rather than just waking up and being happy and worry free. This disturbs and frustrates me. No one would choose this life. No one wants to wake up and wish they hadn’t. If I could wake up tomorrow and be completely cured of both mental illnesses, I would rejoice.

Having high functioning anxiety and depression means that I am constantly looking for something to keep my mind and body busy. Too much time alone or being in dead silence results in my thoughts and feelings becoming overwhelming. It also means that I strive for perfection, which is why I procrastinate. The thought of failure often keeps me from starting projects. High functioning anxiety means that I doubt myself and my own abilities.
I tell myself horrible things like I am unworthy of anything and everything, including loving relationships, good friends, academic and career success.

High functioning mental illnesses means that I am constantly at war with myself. I am always torn between not having any motivation because of my depression and this urge to be perfect at everything because of my anxiety. It is exhausting.

But I fight through this with a fire that I have to constantly light and then relight. Having two mental illnesses and attempting to be a college student, an employee, a sister, a girlfriend, or any of the other hats I wear is difficult, and at times impossible. I am constantly reminded by friends and family that I am worth it. Having a mental illness is a unique experience for each individual, but through a combination of therapy, mental wellness groups, supportive friends and family, professors, my workplace, and a huge amount of self-help, I have learned to cope. Getting help and reaching out to the people around me was scary at first, but once I opened up and reminded myself that I am indeed worthy of living, it became easier.

I am writing this article in hopes of spreading awareness and starting a discussion, because I know somewhere in the world someone reading this can relate to what I am saying. And perhaps, I can offer some comfort by letting them know they are not alone. I am also doing this because I am tired of people telling me to get over it. I am tired of people pointing out how productive and accomplished I am, as if my mental illness and my success must be exclusive — as if I cannot be one because of the other.

The truth is, I’m sick. The truth is, I’m bigger than this. My accomplishments do not make up for the fact that sometimes I am not okay. And that is okay.

I am also writing this article because I am tired of the media and general public paying attention to mental illnesses only after it is too late. The recent and tragic passing of Sound Garden’s Chris Cornell briefly opened the discussion, just as the passing of comedian Robin Williams did, and then it disappeared in timelines and newsfeeds. That needs to change. It needs to change for the millions of people worldwide who wake up with depression and anxiety.

There are resources and movements dedicated to this subject and I want to shine a light on these to push this topic into the mainstream. Movements like Project Semicolon and To Write Love on Her Arms all offer resources to people who are suffering with mental illnesses and people who would like to be educated on the subject. The best weapon we have against stigmatization is education.