How my “functionality” kept others from seeing the severity of my depression
I am not neurotypical, but I do play the role well enough.
by Amanda F. John
This essay contains discussions of alcoholism and self-harm
Anyone with access to an amazon prime account has likely come across what I like to call the golden scam. What is this fortuitous product you ask? Well, it’s a watch, ironically, it is often made with silver sterling—essentially putting an end to the logic behind my naming process. So, what’s so great or, well, interesting, about a cheap product on Amazon with good reviews? I bet we can all argue affordability is the draw of shopping on Amazon in the first place.
However, on a deeper look into the watch, we are faced with an undoubted factor, they are broken. Yes, these 80 percent below the market value watches are broken, who would have thought… Sarcasm aside, I often wonder why people are willing to overlook the clear shortcomings of these products and staple 4+ stars on their reviews. Well, you guessed it, it’s the price. Much like the broken watch, I too am often green-lit for production for the sole reason that I am bargainable.
Bargainable may not be the prettiest term to describe myself or the relationship between the harrowing darkness that is my constant mental state and my ability to function in a neurotypical world. But bargainable seems to be the only term that fits—at least to me. To start this, I would like to say, I have been an active reader in the articles that cover functional depression. Mostly because, for a long time, they have been the only path I could identify with, if not on the largest scales.
Earlier on today, I had a well-woman visit, an interesting story in and of itself. While the nurse asked me questions, we sauntered as always into the mental health category. “Do you experience depression, periods of low moods, or suicidal thoughts?” And as always, my response came without a moment of debate, “Yes, always. I have been this way for a while now. I’m diagnosed with bipolar depression and anxiety disorder.”
After going through the questionnaire, the nurse paused, sizing me up with her eyes, doing her best to figure out what box of categories and symptoms I fit, and just how well I would adjust on the outside without what would be her unrequested advice. Deciding for herself at that moment to be a caregiver in the full sense of the word, she adjusted herself, then spoke softly, the tone of a mother who sees a child of color in need of love and attention, “It’s a beautiful world.”
I feigned ignorance, knowing exactly where this conversation was headed but wanting to provide her with an out. She did not take it. Continuing, she asked, “What’s there to be depressed about?”
My nurse may have approached me with the intention of guidance and kindness, but what she did not hear over her own words of encouragement and platitudes of self-motivation and overcoming trials was the sound of my heart dropping. She did not notice my feet curl back, my ears retreat like a wounded puppy, or perhaps my most telling trait—my fingers digging so deep into my palm so hard I almost broke the skin.
No, my nurse saw an attractive girl with sad eyes and a warm smile and even laughter. She did not see, however, over a decade worth of practice in functioning as I had been asked all my life. As upset as I was, given that she was a professional who could do real damage, my nurse was hardly the first person to do that to me and I was well used to the common retort.
Two years before, I sat in a class and responded in affirmative to a question on alcoholism. My group members—both acquaintances of mine—begged to differ. I was not constantly showing up to class drunk or pissing myself next to the dorms. I certainly was not passing out where strangers could take and post funny videos and pictures, I certainly wasn’t constantly drinking.
I was, however, prone to drinking four bottles of wine before a major speaking event. Drowning myself in my bathroom to mimic the faint feeling of relief I experienced every time I thought I was going to die, and certainly, unbeknownst to them, take a shot before coming to larger classes. The only true difference between myself and those we brand as alcoholics was my ability to perform. My functionality.
Earlier on that day, I had forfeited my air pods for wired headphones and done a quick sigh of relief that I did not own the latest iPhone. Why? Because I had been applying for poverty-assistance discounts. Hours later as I went through my patient records, I noted that under my stated history of bipolar disorder, it was noted that, although I expressed 27/27 on the depression scale, I did not “display any signs of severe depression.”
It then occurred to me that, in the same ways I felt a need to perform my poverty in hopes of not risking assistance denial, I was also expected to perform my depression. A damaging practice that reaches far beyond social circles and good faith medical practitioners.
In college, I had a few professors who confessed to being hard on me because I was “that talented”—they only needed to see “drive, and wiliness.” I often joked with my sisters that, for me, college was a series of me disappointing my professors with my inability to be what they so badly wanted me to be.
My papers and assignments were never submitted past their due dates, and I had a keen interest in the things I studied, often landing me easy A’s in those assessment categories. Nevertheless, I hardly ever showed up to class. Once, a professor wouldn’t accept mini projects if I wasn’t physically present to turn it in—a fact she later apologized for.
What my professors didn’t know was that classes weren’t the only things I skipped. I often didn’t eat as well, going upwards of three or four days without even drinking water because my energy and mood were so low, all I felt physically able to do was lay in my bed and stare at the ceiling. I would also often debate the point of my existence and whether I was of any value at all. And once the mood was even barely lifted, I would return to class, but it would be too late; a day or two with no attendance or communication from me would be gone and with it, my professor’s trust in me.
There are several opinion pieces on functional depression but very few on functional bipolar depression. Having bipolar II depression is already characterized by long periods of depressive, low moods and energy, and shorter or less common periods of high energy. When asked what my bipolar depression feels like, I often say, “Like hanging off a cliff.”
With lower moods, I am buried in the hopeless feeling of life and the despondence in my heart and head, I am trying but failing to pull myself up, and with every new attempt, I am not only weaker but less willing to try. During my manic episodes, I am willfully dangling across the edge, high on adrenaline and in awe of my ability to balance myself with the use of only one hand. Often even turning the ordeal into a teasing game of persistence. One thing is clear however, I am still hanging off a cliff with the urge to let go.
In late 2018, I came to understand that, for other people, dangling off a cliff—although “high on life”—is not their description of happiness. Rather, it was a clear sign that, for most of my life, I had been experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder. And one key reason why it had never been spotted was because of how well I managed to function with it.
Even now, as I reminisce with friends and family, a common echo is how dangerously impressive it was that it managed to stay under the radar. So well hidden that, I continued unto college, heavily involved in a multitude of social groups while constantly self-medicating. However, the ugliest part of “functionality” remains—no matter the bargain, the product is still damaged.
An example of this came after a particularly well-executed presentation, after which I returned home to rip not only my room but my skin apart. Screaming and fighting to find the balance I so often did well in showing. After several visits to the bathroom to throw up, a weekend where I starved myself sans the bottle of wine and liquor I chugged the night of my breakdown, I returned to society early Monday morning with a face perfectly made up and a smile on my face.
I was told how inspiring I was, and how well I did, and once again, I was signed up for more events. Panic attacks and alcohol dependency may have been my quiet solace, but so was work. It allowed me to focus on something that I could not identify as a personal problem. It also gave my manic personality free reign to test just how much I could balance and just how well I was able to do so.
“If you want a watch that looks expensive without having to pay for it, this is it.
I am not neurotypical, but I do play the role well enough. Like my switch from air pods to wired headphones, I am expected to perform my mental health in order for it to be taken seriously. Interestingly enough, like the air pods, my functionality is hardly of high value or exceptional quality. It is simply good enough to make a statement. A statement that erases my very real lived experience.
My functionality, like most aspects of my lived trauma, it came from a need to fit in. I was never great at performing neurotypicality but rather socialized into understanding that any other option was a clear form of social deviation. People with mental health concerns are often described as “lazy”, “low performers”, and/or “insane.” They’re those who have simply given up, with no care about the damage control the rest of the world is forced to do in order to accommodate their “flaws.” I couldn’t afford to be that. If I could not be a working watch, at the very least I had to serve a function. A bargain.
In hopes of not being a societal strain, I learned to function as well as I could manage. Leading me to my current dilemma, I have for all intents and purposes become a bargain that doesn’t warrant fixing. A golden scam.
Amanda is a graduate of Political Science and Sociology. She was involved with organizing during her years in college. A bisexual author with a million stories waiting to be penned, she seeks joy in walking the road of self love and community building. Her personal mantra of “silence is never an option” encapsulates her dream of being more than a statistic.