Since elementary school, I’ve been an A student. My classes, with the exception of math, were rarely hard for me. During several semesters in college, I found myself working two jobs while juggling five or six courses. As an English major, I had reading and writing to accomplish almost every night, and although my schedule became extremely stressful at times, overall I thrived.
But I never thought about how my mental illness, and my refusal to acknowledge it, played a part in my academic success. I didn’t tackle my anxiety and depression in college because, quite frankly, I was unconsciously using being busy with school to ignore it, push it down, and cope with it. And for the most part, it was working for me.
After I graduated, I moved back in with my highly dysfunctional family and started a mostly fruitless job search. All of a sudden, my stress levels, anger, and irritability were 10 times worse than they had ever been at college.
I sought help for my issues, but I also wondered why my symptoms had never seemed so intense while I was running from job to job or writing multiple 15-page papers simultaneously. If I was going to have a mental breakdown, shouldn’t it have been in college when there were some days I was so busy that I didn’t even have time to eat more than one meal?
After talking extensively with my therapist and taking time to generally reflect on my college lifestyle, I realized that one of the reasons I was such a high achiever was because I used school as a coping mechanism. Homework, reading, throwing myself into my writing – all of these tasks served as a way for me to hide from my mental illness. I did genuinely like school and doing schoolwork, but it also served as a convenient excuse for me to ignore the very real indicators of anxiety and depression I experienced.
In many ways, school was a legitimate creative outlet for my frustrations and a place to be myself away from my exhausting family. But the bottom line is that I had manipulated my own emotions to serve me in a studious capacity, meaning I never bothered to tackle the root of my problems.
Going from a jam-packed schedule and moving at 100 miles per hour to sending out resumes daily and having no goals beyond finding a job ASAP was a huge adjustment. I went from having tons of structure to almost none, and nothing to occupy my time. Without weekly assignments, strict deadlines, meetings with professors, and never-ending research papers, I had no direction.
Eventually, I had to face my mental issues and deal with the fact that I had ignored them for at least all of college, if not much longer. I was finally forced to unearth what I had been ignoring for years. Doing so taught me that coping isn’t healing and by focusing my attention on large distractions such as school, I hindered my journey to mental wellness.
Transferring my feelings of anxiety, anger, and depression into hours of studying may have gotten me on the dean’s list every semester, but it essentially tricked me, and most people around me, into believing I was just a high achiever with an incredible work ethic. Burying my mental illness in the 1,000 pages of Infinite Jest seemed productive at the time, but I had no idea how bleak my world would be once I no longer could shove my anxiety to the side.
I kicked myself for not seeing a psychiatrist sooner.
High-functioning depression is real, and it’s possible to keep friends and family in the dark about your depression or mood swings for years, and see surprise on their faces when you tell them how you’ve struggled. I’m working toward addressing my issues rather than just masking them because it’s healthier to fix them than to hide them.
I continue to attend therapy and I take depression and anxiety medication. These remedies have forced me to pick apart my mental issues and my toxic home life which is great. I’m learning new tools, which help me manage my emotions so I can be more productive.
Facing my mental illness has been extremely difficult, but it’s better than fooling myself in to thinking I’m okay, which didn’t work out in the long run,.