Since adolescence, I have prided myself on my resilience, my willingness to serve others and my ability to achieve and persevere through any season of life. Growing up, I was captain of a competitive science team and a member of multiple other academic teams. While I was thriving academically, I struggled with my mental health; I dealt with panic attacks caused by a phobia of food and restaurants.
I survived months of semi-starving myself because my body would panic when I tried to eat, and I faced the residual effects for years. But I pushed through these challenges and continued to meet the typical definition of “success.” If I could do this, I reasoned, everything was fine.
As I reflect on my mental health journey, I now realize that “functional” and “successful” don’t always mean “healthy.”
I Couldn’t Identify What I Was Experiencing
In October of 2021, just a few months after I graduated college, I jetted off to Spain to pursue a master’s degree and teach English abroad. The first month was wonderful; I settled into my new school and began making friends in my program. But slowly my mental health began to spiral. Before I knew it, I was isolating, losing interest in all hobbies and spending the entire weekend alone in my apartment. I couldn’t even get off of the couch.
There was a reason I didn’t see this behavior as a sign of something more serious: Even though I was struggling, I made it to work and class every Monday through Friday, and I spent many days gone from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. teaching. Because I was capable of getting up and going to work all of those days — and because I enjoyed much of the time I spent with my students — I concluded nothing was wrong. Truly depressed people can’t get up out of bed and find moments of happiness, right?
I soon learned that depression doesn’t always look the way you might expect.
I Remained in Denial About My Health for Too Long
It wasn’t until early December, when I self-harmed for the very first time, that I realized I was truly and deeply suffering.
I spent the next couple of weeks constantly tugging at my sleeves, making sure that my students never saw my wounds. How do you explain to a child that you hurt yourself on purpose? Ultimately, my concern for my students suppressed my desires to self-harm.
The following week, I told myself that I was going to find a therapist, increase my anti-depressant dosage do everything in my power to improve my mental health. I had made a commitment to my students and to my school, and I still had six months of my contract left. But as I made these plans, and rededicated myself to my work, my isolation on the weekends became increasingly worse — and any remnants of motivation disappeared altogether.
I was stuck in this nightmarish limbo. Part of me believed that I was capable of staying in Spain for the next six months. I was high functioning, so I knew I’d have no issues making it to school.
The other part of me questioned that capability. Yes, you will make it to school, I thought, but is the suffering during the weekend worth it? Will you actually go out and get the help you need?
I Decided to Prioritize My Mental Health
I was distraught by having to make a choice. I loved my school, but I also loved myself. I didn’t want to hurt myself, but I couldn’t control the intrusive thoughts. After weeks and weeks of tears and phone calls with family, friends and my partner, I finally came to a decision. I was coming home.
While I was relieved to have arrived at a decision, I still felt like a failure. Why couldn’t the high achieving woman I thought I was get through this? After years of defining myself by my successes, I began to question my worth. Those feelings of inadequacy were crushing, and I am still working through them to this day.
The following weeks brought several emotional conversations, the most notable of which was with my school supervisor. During a lunch break one day, in tears, I explained everything that I was going through, and I shared that I had decided to go home. As I spoke, her eyes widened, and she seemed stunned. At the end, she told me: “I had no idea anything was wrong.”
Now, I Want to Be Seen and Understood
From my experience, I have learned that there is no standard image of depression. For those of us with high-functioning depression, we “look ok,” and the people around us don’t know that we’re suffering. We are good at hiding our pain and doing what we’re supposed to — but, as a result, we fly under the radar and can feel even more alone. With some reflection, I have concluded that the best way for me to deal with high-functioning depression is to be open about my mental health and my needs — as difficult as that can be.
While I didn’t make it through the intended stay in Spain, I made it through something even more impressive: one of the roughest mental patches of my life. While the choice to come home was painstakingly difficult, I am confident I made the best decision for myself and my mental health. Most importantly, I let myself and my struggles finally be seen.
Lauren Holmes is an educator from North Carolina with a passion for serving students and empowering individuals to advocate for themselves. In her classrooms, she encourages conversations about mental health with the hope of breaking the stigma for the next generation. As someone who once was afraid of opening up about her own mental illness, she hopes her writing will inspire others to open up about their own experiences.