I’m never sure what reaction I’m going to get when I tell someone I have depression. A common one can be summed up in one word: incredulous. It’s that look they give me, as if they’re waiting for the punch line. One person even said, “You are depressed? How can you be depressed? You’re so… together.”
This is the burden of the high-functioning depressive, and there are lots of us. A significant percentage of people simply won’t believe we have an illness because we don’t fit into their neat little crazy person-shaped boxes.
But here’s the thing: Those boxes come in all shapes and sizes. In the same way all types of people — regardless of background, culture and education — can suffer from diabetes, underactive thyroids, cancer and dementia, anybody is susceptible to mental illness.
(Sorry if I’m stating the obvious. If you think so, congratulations! You’re more enlightened than a helluva lot of your fellow humans.)
It’s a crazy notion that people with depression are incapable of achieving anything other than another day in a vertical position on the sofa. Don’t get me wrong. There have been many depression-induced sofa days in my life. But there have also been many amazing days when I’ve smashed my goals and bagged that medal and surprised myself with my own tenacity.
In a way, I’m to blame for the fact that my mental illness went unnoticed for so long. As a Type A, overachieving perfectionist, showing anyone any kind of weakness was never an option. Little did I know that maintaining this would contribute to my mental ill health and ultimately lead to a massive breakdown. Of course, I waited until I had two degrees and a good job before I let myself break down because, well, Type A.
It’s only been in recent years, when I’ve learned to accept my illness, speak openly about it and try to educate myself about mental health, that I’ve realized my personality type may actually have something to do with my illness. It’s always important to remember that, despite all the studies and theories and books, scientists remain fairly baffled by mental illness. There remain many, many more unknowns than certainties. Having said that, there is a growing body of very persuasive evidence that certain types of people are more prone to mental illness than others.
I didn’t get lower than a B in any of my high school exams. I got my first weekend job at the age of 12 and worked all through school and university. I have two degrees and ran my own business for four years. Pretty much anything I set my mind to, I achieve. I’m not boasting. These are the facts. The reality — the stuff that really matters — is pretty far from the picture-perfect impression you might get from all this. At various times, throughout all those years when I was acing my exams and bagging my degrees, I was a desperate, crumpled mess. I was struggling to get out of bed in the morning and communicate on any sort of level with other human beings. I was in the depths of despair.
But to the outside world, I was smashing all my goals and then some. So how can I possibly claim that I was ill? Not just ill — mentally ill. Because crazy people can’t study hard and hold down jobs and start businesses, right?
Wrong. We can do all that, and then some more, and it is this type of personality that most often suffers from depression, according to psychiatrist Tim Cantopher. In his book Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong, he says that, more often than not, the person who has a breakdown “is the last person you would expect to have a breakdown.” He also writes that anyone who has mental illness is “wrong in thinking you are weak and that you should be ashamed to have contracted this illness” because “you have got it because you are too strong.”
Cantopher believes that it is the strongest people who suffer from depression. “Give a set of stresses to someone who is weak, cynical or lazy and he will quickly give up, so he will never get stressed enough to become ill,” he writes. “A strong person, on the other hand, will react to these pressures by trying to overcome them.” In other words, he keeps pushing himself to do more, to achieve more, to be that high-functioning individual, because nothing is worse than being a disappointment (whether to himself or to others).
It’s time we stopped trying to make people with mental illness fit the mold. Or, perhaps, consider that the mold is a whole lot different than what we thought.
Originally posted June 2016. Updated September 2017.