If I Can Talk To CNN, I Can Talk To You About High-Functioning Mental Illness

I recently had a chance to talk about something I’ve never discussed on here — my exercise addiction — with CNN. If you have a few minutes, I really encourage you to click over and give it a read, because it gives a side of anxiety, depression, and OCD that not many people take seriously.

I’ll wait…

Are you back?

Great! I trust you clicked over so I don’t have to expand on it here, but long story short, it rules my life. It’s exhausting, and each night I lie there in bed in dread knowing I have to do it all over again the next day — because yes, it feels like I have to do it all over again the next day. 

It’s a routine of desperation, not trying to change the way I look, but trying to tire out the thoughts stuck in my head.

I bring this up because it’s part of something I don’t hear about all that often — high-functioning mental illness.

High-functioning mental illness doesn’t look a certain way. Yes, sometimes depression is huddling in bed and crying for days on end, but sometimes it’s that person who appears to be doing it all, but can’t muster up the energy to make a dentist appointment.

Sometimes anxiety is panic attacks and nervous energy, but sometimes it’s plowing through a huge workload while battling that voice in their head that says they have to do more, more, more that never quiets down.

Sometimes OCD is hand-washing and counting, but sometimes the rituals and the routines are things that might look harmless to those on the outside, but that hold that person in a prison of their own mind.

They’re pulled between wanting to do it all and wanting to do nothing at all — sometimes in the same minute.

I can tell you that while it’s not often talked about, high-functioning mental illness is real, because I live it, as do many other people out there.

The obsessive thoughts carry over into my work.

I pride myself on my work ethic and enjoy the work that I do. But much like with exercise, I have never taken a full day off, not even when I had blood transfusions.

Like the thought of not exercising, the thought of taking time off — even for a weekend — terrifies me. I constantly worry that I’m not working hard enough or being enough of a team player and that I’ll be filing for unemployment.

But honestly, part of it is that a day off from work doesn’t mean a day off from my own mind. I would still have the obsessions, the exercise, the same thoughts — I can never. get. a. break.

All I want is a break from myself.

But yet…

On paper it all looks okay — modest professional success, a clean house, bills that are paid. But if you look close enough, you can see it in cancelled plans or plans that are never made. In pictures never taken because I look so sick. In days alternating between anxious energy and waves of fatigue. In the panic that flashes through my eyes when anything changes that might affect my routine.

Oh, the routine.

It’s all about the routine.

I feel like if I slow down, I’ll lose something — my job, my grasp of control, my ability to get up and do it again — because I always feel like I have to get up and do it all again.

But behind my ability to do all these things I’m struggling to breathe, struggling to get out of bed in the morning, struggling to make it through the fog of depression each and every day.

I don’t know how I can be high-functioning, I just know I am.

So why dust the cobwebs off my blog and ramble here today even though I’ll probably regret it and obsess? 

Good question.

I guess because sometimes I high-five myself for mailing a bill or washing my hair. Sometimes the best thing that happens is that I made it through the day. Sometimes I long to crawl back into bed to try and escape myself.

Because it is all-consuming and exhausting.

Because it’s hard enough holding it together, but it’s even harder when people misjudge you when you when some days you just want credit for taking a shower, and sometimes you just want someone to know.

But mostly because sometimes I read something that reminds me that I’m not alone, that I’m not (that) crazy. Because maybe this post can do that for someone else who is struggling out there.

Because it’s real, and it’s okay to not always be okay every day.

It happens to the best of us.

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45 responses to “If I Can Talk To CNN, I Can Talk To You About High-Functioning Mental Illness

  1. melaniethesporklover

    Ugh! I have been off work for a few months and my anxiety and depression have been through the roof. I broke my ankle and it messed up all of my routines.

  2. Thank you for being so open and honest about mental illness. We need to bring these conversations into the light. By the way, it’s lovely to see you in the blogosphere again; I’ve missed reading your posts.

    • That’s so sweet! I kind of miss writing, but my creativity is kind of tamped down because of all this crap (and probably my meds.) Most days I just hope to get out a tweet, but sometimes I still get the urge to write (other than work.) Your comment means a lot.

  3. Thank you for this gift, Abby.

  4. Great article, great blog and great job on posting despite the fears. As someone working in the mental health treatment area, I applaud your willingness to bring thee topics to your audience despite the risk. I am grateful that you to put yourself out there and want to assure you that there are many people just like you that feel the overwhelming weight of a mental illness. The best thing we can do is support and encourage you to keep fighting. My wish for you is to keep hope in the forefront as you move through your journey.

  5. I am high functioning as well. Most people have no clue about my depression and anxiety and that alone can be exhausting. Thanks for the article

  6. I’m glad you wrote about this topic. I consider myself borderline exercise addict. “Borderline” because I don’t want to admit what’s probably true. I went through a terrible patch of 2 years (in 2007-2009) where I was underweight and obsessed with exercising every day at a 9am, and if I missed that window (not like it was my only window, btw) I freaked out. I worked hard to overcome it without the help of therapy because I couldn’t afford it.

    Now, being healthy doesn’t just mean eating right and exercising, but recognizing there is a healthy balance that I have to maintain. I make myself (*repeat: make myself) exercise only 4 times per week. I have parameters like I can only run 5 or less miles or only practice 90 minutes of yoga. Without these rules, I spiral into excess.

    I feel like no one talks about this – the times I’ve tried people blow it off – so I’m relieved to read both this blog and your CNN article.

    Thank you

    • Your comment makes me glad that I actually blogged about it, and I hope that you can continue to find some balance and peace. Congrats on battling this demon, as reading this gives me some hope.

  7. Enlightenment. Thank you.

  8. Thank you. I always feel so alone in my head that’s full of junk and noise, reading this was reading about myself which somehow makes me feel a little less desperate.

  9. Thank you Abby, I felt like I was reading about myself. I am currently sitting on the couch, knowing I’ve got so much to do, but am paralyzed because something has come up which has disrupted my routine, and now I can’t cope with anything. I’m totally derailed, but also know that I can’t wallow for too long, and have to pull myself together and “carry on” as high-functioning depressives do. Tired, so tired of it all…

    • Easier said than done, but give yourself a break. You can only do so much, so just remember the world won’t end if it doesn’t get done.

  10. Thank you so much for this. I’m a high-functioning depressive as well. I look great on paper, like you said, but I spend most of every day just willing myself to keep going, to stay upright, to get shit done. Some of my loved ones get it, but a lot of them think I’m just being dramatic when I try to explain it…like I’ve decided this is my “thing”, my personality. Not only would I not choose to be this way if I had a choice, but I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It’s life in a cage.

    • Take care of yourself, my friend. I relate to this comment all too well. It becomes a part of you, but it doesn’t have to “be” you.

  11. Robyn Welling

    This is so important, and I applaud you (a standing ovation from my treadmill as I type, in fact, because HEAVEN FORBID I not maximize the use of every single second by working and listening to a book on tape and reading and exercising all at once, right?). Thank you for stepping so far outside your comfort zone to help others. Your light is so bright, Abs, and I’m happy to see it shining here (and on CNN??!?!?!) again. ❤

  12. emily donahue

    Abby, thanks for this perspective. You write so well and shed such a light that needs to be shed. So brave.

    • It’s not brave, just honest, and makes me feel a little bit vulnerable and weak. But I appreciate you reading and for taking the time to comment.

  13. You make me proud and grateful when you talk about this part of yourself, Abby. xo

  14. Thanks for sharing! I’m struggling too. It’s tough, but you’re hanging in there! Great job!

  15. This was a wonderful blog and so personal. I think we all have little rituals that we MUST do. I know I do. I hope you can find some relief in knowing you have obviously helped many other people today.

  16. Girl. GURL. What a courageous thing to do–share the parts of yourself that aren’t all that pretty. I wish more people would do it because then less people would feel so alone. I’m the anxious multi-tasker, constantly stressing over the next destination–the journey doesn’t matter because the goal is to get from point A to point B to ease the tightness in my chest. Which clearly means I’m missing the good stuff–the stuff that makes life worthwhile. But I haven’t found a way to stop for fear I’ll drop all the balls I’m juggling. It’s exhausting. THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOUR STORY. (I’ll be sharing it on FB this week because it’s so important) xo

  17. Thank you. Seriously thank you. For being so open and to share your struggle. I’m also struggling and I hope we all make it. I’m sure we will because this struggle makes us strong as HELL!! Much love 💛

  18. Well I for one am glad you dusted off the blog for this open and genuine post. I think a lot of women struggle with this and people on the outside make snap judgments based solely on vanity. I think it’s great you’re seeing a therapist (we all should at one point or another in our lives) and appreciate you sharing. Come back more often please.

    • Thank you for reading. I realize I’ve been MIA, but your posts post-baby have also been very powerful and I’m sure they’ve helped so many people. I really appreciate you taking the time to read, and promise to make my way over to you more often.

    • Oh! And since you recommended Razor Girl, I’ve been reading everything he wrote. BIG THANKS.

  19. Thank you abbey. It’s been ages and I kept looking for new posts and the wait for this is understandable and totally relieving to read about. Like the many other I have similar traits and over the years have managed to reduce the intensity of my exercise and the time. I practiced Chinese martial arts and meditations and god knows I did not start out looking to slow down but over time it has helped. I walk and do feel wired and weird when my amount is not achieved but have got to the point where I will not increase time or use it to reflect my problems as I know it won’t solve them. It my time and kits a lot of time but it’s sustained and I am calmer for it. Like I said I walk and occasionally bust out into a run a couple of time a week but I am just slower and have been using to breath and remain balanced.
    Abbey I bloody love you. I missed you and am grateful for this post and everything else you have done and will do.

  20. Abby my old friend! you are greatly missed, it is so good to read your words, your incredibly genuine words. I have glimpses of understanding (I know that makes little sense) – the plans not made or plans canceled. I get that.

    thank you for sharing the realness, I am positive it will do a whole bunch of good for a whole bunch of people. sending you a big heartfelt hug. xo

  21. your writing helps many people…

    BJ Rae
    near a river
    http://www.nearariver.com

  22. Oh My Goodness! I found your blog today – no such thing as coincidence – and it was like an answer to prayer – to know that I am not alone. I thought I was the only person who felt like this. What a description – high functioning mental illness. I am going to print this post out and hand it directly to my Doctor! Thank you for being so open and honest.

  23. “But mostly because sometimes I read something that reminds me that I’m not alone, that I’m not (that) crazy. Because maybe this post can do that for someone else who is struggling out there.”

    Thank you, thank you! I’ve always had a case of what I thought was borderline depression/anxiety, but it had gotten worse the past few months. Your post gave me a little extra nudge to go in to talk to the doctor about it today. So yes, you really do help others by writing about this stuff 🙂 Thank you for giving me that spark in my mind to go get checked out.

  24. I have 3 children and a husband and used to refuse to take a day off or not work overtime. Despite taking meds for my OCD and ADHD I started to feel like they had stopped working. I was moody, had muscle aches, trouble sleeping and feeling exhausted all the time. I went to the doctor for a physical and when my blood work came back I found out I have something called adrenal fatigue. It’s pretty much when your body has compensated too long from your stressful lifestyle and has stopped producing certain hormones your body needs to survive. It usually isn’t caught until it’s pretty advanced. It can also lead to a fatal medical condition. Anyway I’m telling you this because our bodies can only handle so much before it becomes exhausted and gives out on us. Take it from me, I’ve almost exhausted all of my sick leave this year, I have to take adrenal supplements and hormones to get my body back on track. As well as change my lifestyle to a more relaxed lifestyle. And for what? It’s not worth it.

  25. It’s super inspiring that you’re this open about mental illness. Great post!

  26. Can’t help, but you are doing fine.

  27. Pingback: Tuesday Q&A: Abby Heugel | Alison Dotson

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