I have so many memories of my dad’s father. He had leather reading chairs, bookshelves that seemed enormous to me as a child but I imagine were actually the equivalent to Ikea’s Billy bookshelves. He was partly deaf with no assistance so he seemed like he yelled a lot. He loved books, he loved reading, he loved me. Every single member of my family at one point or another said I’d grow up to be a writer but dare I say it, he was the most enthused to see it happen. He bought me special editions of classic novels, encouraged me to write small poems and always asked me what I was currently reading.
I don’t see him anymore but I’m assured that unlike a lot of the family I left behind when I was 12, he really was a good man and he really did love me.
One darker thing I remember is that my mum told me that he was a high-functioning alcoholic. This was in one part unsurprising – the place I associated with him more than his home was the pub he spent a lot of time in that my dad took me to see him in, often. Crisps, coke, money for the jukebox, “alright kid, what book ‘ave ye got today?”. Another part of me thought it seemed like some kind of superpower. I couldn’t believe that my reasonably successful, articulate granddad was also an alcoholic. All of the education I had on alcoholism at this age came from soaps that were far less forgiving and empathetic than I think -and hope- they are today.
The reason I speak of this isn’t to speak more on my granddad who I think is still alive but hope still remembers me as fondly as he did then.
I want to speak about the words “high-functioning” and in my case, high-functioning anxiety.
The first time I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I felt devastated. After a very dysfunctional, sad year, I’d been given a painful descriptor for feelings I wasn’t quite ready to acknowledge that I had. I spent a lot of time listening to the same sad songs and crying in the bath. Self-pity felt like the only comfortable place I could be and I didn’t tell anyone but my then-boyfriend. I was mortified. I’d been told I was strong for my whole life and here I was, using pills to make sure I could get through a day.
Eventually, though, they worked and I pieced my life back together. I somehow built a career, a life with friends who were the epitome of “chosen family” and my own routines and traditions.
The first time I was diagnosed, I wasn’t high-functioning by anybody’s standards. The first time I was diagnosed, I felt both desperate and doomed.
It’s been 8 years since then. In that time, I’ve suffered dark, self-medicated bouts of anxiety, I’ve seen a lot of the world I spent pulling together fall apart again. I lost my adored nan, I lost my job and a year after that, my home and long-term relationship. My life fell apart again but this time, I just about kept my head above water. Not necessarily in healthy ways but I still felt I had an iota of control over my thoughts and feelings.
Until this year.
This year I entered self-employment, I moved in with my sweet boyfriend, I got a kitten, I made new friends, I hit an incredible number of professional and personal milestones. My friends have dubbed 2019 “The Year of Sarah-Louise” and they’re right – this is my year. I’ve never felt more confident and excited about my future. This year has also been the year that I’ve quietly fallen apart. I don’t know why. There has been darkness this year including an employment tribunal. a fairly intensive medical treatment, personal issues but these are all things I actually think I could have gone through without the result being mental health issues.
The thing is, though, the people around me have been going through real, heartbreaking, traumatising experiences. I’m almost embarrassed that I’m mentally unwell when my life is at the best it’s been in my entire adult life. So, for a long time, I haven’t said much. I’ve said I’ve had bad days, PMS, just a little overwhelmed, just irritable, just stressed, you know me etc. I haven’t said actually, I’m really unwell and when I have a minute to myself I cry a lot because I’m struggling to cope with the onslaught of intrusive thoughts and physical sensations I am constantly experiencing. I haven’t said I’m absolutely heartbroken that the life I have yet again rebuilt and made perfect in my own image, like some kind of scruffy Glasgow writer God, hasn’t been enough to fix my broken brain.
And for me, that’s the problem with high-functioning. I think my granddad needed more help than he or anyone else could acknowledge. I think that high-functioning is sometimes a descriptor we use to comfort ourselves. I think high-functioning is frankly bullshit. I don’t blame any individual for saying this. I still consider myself to be high-functioning with anxiety and depression but really all I am is putting on a very good front and fortunate enough to work for myself. If I have a bad day, I only answer to myself and on the good days, I get the work done. I wouldn’t call being deathly afraid of facing each day “high-functioning”. I’d actually call it being unwell, needing help.
This time, I don’t feel ashamed or scared that I’ve been diagnosed. I’m not afraid of the medication I’ve been put on, or that we’ll be raising it to a higher dosage next week. The idea of a “settling in” period scared me 8 years ago because I didn’t know what to expect and it is generally just very daunting. This time, I felt like I had finally exhaled and admitted that managing my own brain wasn’t working. It just wasn’t. This time I felt like I was asking someone to take the reins for me. I was admitting that high-functioning wasn’t causing all that much “functioning”, as it happened and I needed help.
(This piece only speaks to my own personal experiences and I appreciate how privileged I am to not only work for myself but to be in a position where I can look after my mental health.)