Introduction to high-function
There is a crazy (wrong choice of word?) amount of mental health disorders. Generally, bipolar disorder is considered to be one of the ‘serious’ ones. Culturally we expect that people with bipolar disorder have extreme manias where they turn batshit crazy and scream about their mental illness for the world to hear. That, the depression they have to endure renders them immobilized and unable to deal with everyday life. They are imagined to be great at art, drama, and everything creative. Actually, quite a lot are. However, nobody expects that a doctor, a solicitor, or some high-up banker guy might have it. “But they’re so put together and well… normal”. Bipolar is often thought of as so consuming that it means you have the inability to function on a daily basis let alone achieve success. This is mostly in my very humble opinion due to the way the media presents it. Not only in the press but in films and tv series too. Does anybody remember Eastenders in 2009 when it was finally discovered that Stacey Slater has bipolar? Or the constant portrayal of Jean Slater (Stacey’s mother)?
It’s not all loud, everyone can tell crazy. Bipolar is experienced and handled by people in such an infinite amount of ways that it would be impossible to list them in one blog post or even a thousand. The truth is you can care for yourself, engage socially and be exceptional at your job. The high level of functionality can be due to successful treatment. Or it can be a survival mechanism that kicks in, allowing you to keep your head just above the water.
“You have bipolar disorder, Robyn.”
Then there was the drug-taking, the all weekend partying, the pressure of speech, flight of ideas and the risky sexual behavior, the weeks of barely any sleep. In those days I could juggle education, partying, and working with no issue. I was the party girl, the one that everybody wanted to be around. So why would anyone else see that I had a problem?
During the weeks of depression I hid away, I had a set of extremely convincing lies to explain my absence or radio silence. Exams coming up, on my period, tonsillitis, migraine. I’m pretty certain I had a “migraine” for 75% of my teenage years. The rest was put down to being a moody teenager. “You’re very high functioning. I believe that’s why you haven’t been diagnosed until now”. High functioning? Bitch I’ve been trying to kill myself since I was 13, I’ve taken more drugs than Lindsey Lohan. “High functioning doesn’t mean that you aren’t suffering, it doesn’t mean that your condition isn’t severe. It means that you somehow manage your symptoms incredibly well. You function extremely well”. I nodded again waiting for her to give me the solution to my problems, a way to at least get through university before I actually went ahead and ended it. permanently. “You also have moderate to severe anxiety. You’ve had an acute stress reaction to the pressure of university”. Brilliant add some more problems to my list. Can you cure me or not? “What I propose to do because you’re in the last few months of university is sedate you with medication until you’ve finished and then we’ll review”. Sedation? Sedation sounds good. Put me to sleep please *Praying emoji hands*.
Living with high-functioning bipolar disorder means that most of the time you are expending a shit tonne of energy handling intense emotions and feelings. Hiding them, masking them… Trying to live an outwardly “normal” life to everyone else, while struggling internally. Not gonna lie, It’s not that much of a struggle with hypomania. 90% of the time it’s quite fun… Until the time that it’s not. By all appearances, my life is pretty normal. I know people think I’m a little bit, well, weird. I can be kind of out there, blunt and I have no filter the majority of the time. If I think you’re hot or you have a nice ass. I’ll tell you. If I want to touch your nipples… I’ll ask you. I’ll say things that most people don’t have the balls to say. I’m not quite sure if that’s my personality or the bipolar though. I’ve got a BTEC in Forensic Science, and a degree in Graphic Design. My GCSEs were all A-C. I have a steady job, and stable relationships with friends and family. There’s nothing really ‘wrong’ on paper at least, with my life. This isn’t by chance or luck. I’ve developed coping mechanisms to suppress my illness and work around it. Even in deeply painful moments, I can present myself as put together. Laugh even. My biggest fear is my colleagues, the people around me considering me as ‘impaired’, judging every action I take or every word I say is due to an ‘episode’. So, I keep my mental illness hidden from view. Apart from now. If you’re reading this blog and you know me… Hi, I have bipolar! I often wonder if this massive expenditure to present as normal is worth it. It’s exhausting, I wonder if it would just be easier to let myself go ‘cray cray’ and see what happens. Medication has really improved my life though; I just have to remember to take it.
People who don’t have bipolar, that have an unfamiliar eye for it; wouldn’t recognise high-functioning bipolar as bipolar. When they do know, they think it’s mild in severity or they outright don’t believe me. “No way. You don’t. You really have bipolar!?”. Characterised by the person’s ability to manage bipolar episodes by adapting and using learned coping mechanisms. It’s quite easy to assume that the appearance of calm that one shows can be applied to how one feels internally. Certainly, for me, my ability to handle myself and my symptoms meant that it was difficult to diagnose and treat. During periods of reflection, I often wonder if my life would have been different had I been diagnosed and treated earlier in my life. There are definitely things that wouldn’t have happened to me, situations I would have never gotten into had I been medicated. But would I have got such high grades at school, at university? The hypomania definitely gave me the confidence, and the energy to push through hard revision sessions. It gave me the confidence to meet new people. I made lifelong amazing friends at those drug-fuelled parties. I’ve made memories that I perhaps would have never made had I not had bipolar disorder. Or was that me all along? Everything about my life is thrown into confusion. Am I bipolar or is bipolar me?
If you function highly why do you need treatment?
So, you’re probably sitting there thinking… “If you have high-functioning bipolar disorder, why would you actually need treatment?”. Have you not read what I’ve just said? It’s not all about sex, drugs, rock & roll. Even hypomania has its downsides… I’ve got myself into some awful situations, I’ve made stupid decisions, spent money that I haven’t had, and sometimes had delusions, hallucinations, and extreme paranoia. Though I’ve never believed I was a god or that I had magical powers. Yet.
The depression is overwhelming and all-encompassing. Everything is a darker shade. So dark I might as well see in greyscale. I’ve planned my suicide, written goodbye letters, planned my funeral, and literally picked out my coffin. I won’t leave the house or even my bed. Hygiene is non-existent. During an anxiety attack, I’ve actually (and I mean literally) pissed myself where I stood. Bipolar absolutely requires treatment regardless of whether you are high functioning or not. No matter how much you manage your symptoms it can be incredibly draining. Draining enough for me that I ended up walking down the middle of a busy A-road in the middle of the night hoping to be splatted on the road by a passing lorry. Untreated bipolar can and will worsen without treatment. So high functioning or not, eventually your symptoms are going to become unmanageable, creating huge disruptions to all aspects of your life. Work, education, relationships. You name it, it’ll affect it. As seen in my case it can also lead to suicidal thoughts and attempts. If you think you may have bipolar please seek help.
Thank you <3
You’ll probably never read this. But if you’re the lady that stopped that night, talked me down and put me in the back of your car. Thank you. You saved me, and I got the help I needed… Eventually. To my first psychiatrist. Thank you for being the first person in my life to take me seriously. Thank you for being so blunt and not treating me with kid gloves, thank you for getting me through university and please come back because the new one is a bit of a cock.