Lately there’s been a lot of talk about something called “high-functioning depression,” also known as “smiling depression.” I read up on it because I thought I’d prefer that disease for myself, rather than the low-functioning, decidedly unsmiling variety of melancholy that I have, over the years, become so accustomed to sharing my body with.
To my dismay, however, none of the articles I found about this enviable affliction were how-to articles. They painted a picture of a certain type of depressive who somehow manages to be extroverted, involved, and successful at life. These people apparently fool everyone, appearing to be happy and well-adjusted while simultaneously feeling as if life is a meaningless, tiresome, and painful chore that they’d rather be excused from. The articles warned that such individuals were at especially high risk for suicide, since they tend not to seek help.
I was intrigued. It seemed like such a paradox – a logical impossibility, even. I marveled over it: if one remains involved with life, if one continues to see friends, participate in work and other activities, and get out of bed every single day, then surely, such a person is not actually depressed. Isn’t the very definition of clinical depression the constitutional inability to do these things?
I’m not talking out of my ass here. I’ve struggled with depressive illness since childhood and have missed out on countless opportunities, many relationships, and entire epochs of my life because of it. I have never hidden my depression, nor have I ever stopped trying to help myself overcome it: I spent the first ten years of my illness trialing various antidepressant medications and various types of psychotherapy, and the second ten years trialing a dizzying variety of self-help methods, from light therapy to meditation to exercise to a ketogenic diet to iboga. I did not find any sort of lasting success in any of the conventional or unconventional approaches that I tried and, let me tell you, after twenty years of trying, that is a very weary thing.
Reading about smiling depression, I realized that there was one thing I had never, ever tried, because the inauthenticity of it was abhorrent to my nature. I had never tried pretending that the depression didn’t exist. I like things that are true, and I like to be honest about my feelings. But perhaps, in this case, my existential attachment to truth and honesty just makes me a fool. A sick, low-functioning fool.
Maybe I ought to shift my goal, I thought to myself two months into my latest episode, as I drifted in and out of a depressive sleep that seemed to have no beginning and no end. Maybe I couldn’t make the depression go away. But maybe I could pretend like I had made it go away, and maybe that would be better than experiencing a slow, excruciating soul-death from within a moldering pile of refuse and blankets.
And so, shortly after Christmas, I decided to become a high-functioning depressive.
I have a friend who is one. You’d never know she was depressed, unless you were very close to her and happened to be the kind of person who brings these topics up for discussion. Because of the way she carries her depression, I have alternately envied her, admired her, and disbelieved in the veracity of her illness. Now, I decided to ask her for advice.
“So, I’ve decided to become a high-functioning depressive,” I said. “I want some of that smiling depression—that’s what they call it.”
She laughed. “That’s a great goal.”
“Well, I need your help. You have to tell me how to do it.”
“You just stay busy,” she said. “That’s literally all it is.”
It took me several weeks of thinking about it to gather the strength to give it a try. My first day of being a high-functioning depressive was terrible. It was really, really hard. I forced myself to do things all day long when I really felt like I ought to be lying in bed, contemplating my own death. I dragged myself out in public, knowing the whole time that I was simply the most disgusting creature to ever crawl over the face of this blasted space-rock. By late afternoon, I couldn’t hold the tears back. My busyness could not knife through the suffocating coagulation of my despair. But I didn’t give up. I kept doing things with my ugly red tear-stained face. My mantra was, “It doesn’t matter how you feel. If you don’t want to do it, then you must.”
When I woke up the following day, my second day of being a high-functioning depressive, I noticed that something onerous had lessened. The light of morning was not quite as terrible or oppressive as it had been for the rash of days prior. I still felt like my body was a hostile territory, but I felt that perhaps the enemy might be amenable to negotiation. I did many more things that I didn’t feel like doing, and I felt quite badly very much of the time. But something curious happened. For a few moments during the afternoon, I experienced a surge of energy and, dare I say it, joy. I felt like my old self—the one I’d been grieving the loss of ever since she slipped away several months ago, when the black cloud had settled over me again.
I would be foolish to draw any conclusions from this, or to make generations based on my paltry personal experience. If there’s one thing I know for sure about depression, it’s that it’s a slippery thing. You think you’ve beaten it, or found some clever work-around, and it knocks you down again. Not only that, but it has any number of causes, and so no two depressions are alike. This is precisely what makes it so hard to treat, even for someone like myself who has dedicated her entire life to understanding and uprooting it.
But those few precious moments I had wherein I felt like myself—the girl that I like and love, the girl I very much enjoy being—they were like a drink of water given to one who has been thirsting for a very long time. There are big words for this sort of experience: grace, hope.
And so I want to say thank you to all the high-functioning depressives out there. Your illness has inspired me. May we all keep on smiling through clenched teeth and saying yes to things that feel terrible, because, after all, isn’t this better than the alternative?