Myth of high functioning

I’m often described by psychiatrists as high functioning.  They arrive at this conclusion through my ability to work, pay my bills and turn up to appointments.  This perception is consistent with how most of the people that I interact with on a daily basis, view me.  But, that’s only part of the picture.

High functioning is often associated with being driven, focused and goal orientated.  I can be all of that… and more.

The problem is that when I’m focused and goal orientated, I’m ONLY that.  There’s no balancing influence from any other part of my being.  I skip breaks at work, I work longer, I do work at home… all of this adds to the focus on work, to the exclusion of everything else.

Then something snaps, and I lose time.  I wake up in strange places.  My thoughts start coming in sing-song poetry.  And I get hurt.

But the hurt doesn’t matter; because, as soon as I wake up, I’m high functioning again.

It becomes a cycle.  All I remember is the high functioning work.

This is the place I’ve been in for the last fortnight, or so.  It feels like my only reality.  I don’t have access to anything to do with healing.  I don’t have access to anything, unless it’s for work.   I don’t care that there is nothing but work.

I know I’m losing time.  But because I don’t have any sense of that as being distressing in any way, I really don’t see the problem.

I’ve been in this place before, but not for this long.  It’s usually associated with denial, but I’m fully aware that there has been abuse in the past… I’m just not connected to it in any way.  But then, as a contradiction, I watched this flash mob video yesterday morning (which is aimed at raising awareness of child trafficking, sex slavery and exploitation), and cried.

I’ve always liked Annie Lennox, but never really connected to this song until I heard it in this context. The girl in the video is ignored, despite holding a rather large sign. Then, people come in to be with her, before leaving her again… alone to deal with the world around her. People will soon forget that anything happened, and nothing will change.

Some of the lyrics touched a nerve…

I wish that I could be that bird
And fly away from here

and then…

For I am just a troubled soul
Who’s weighted…
Weighted to the ground
Give me the strength to carry on
Till I can lay my burden down
Give me the strength to lay this burden down down down
Give me the strength to lay it down

But my my I feel so low
My my where do I go?
My my what do I know?
My my we reap what we sow
They always said that you knew best
But this little bird’s fallen out of that nest now
I’ve got a feeling that it might have been blessed
So I’ve just got to put these wings to test

Then, when the girl was left alone, there was a change to the lyrics, which highlight the isolation that is felt…

My my I feel so alone
My my where do I go?

You would think these tears would mean something, some connection; but they don’t. All there is, is an intellectual reasoning as to why the video moved me to tears. I’m not even aware of the reason for the tears now, or that it was “me” crying them. I can now watch the video with no emotion. It’s a puzzle to work out, rather than to connect to.

I know this state is dangerous, but because I’m not connected to anything, I don’t get a sense of urgency to alter what is happening.  Maybe high functioning isn’t a myth, but for me, I get a sense that it’s lonely.  But don’t worry, I’m not connected to that feeling for long either… time for more work.

Now playing: Pink – Don’t Let Me Get Me
via FoxyTunes

18 thoughts on “Myth of high functioning

  1. I’ve always found this idea of “high-functioning” to deeply offensive. In real terms, to use psychiatric terminology, I’m “low-functioning”; I can’t work, can’t devote myself to anything particularly meaningful. And yet, because I have an intellect, I am described as “high-functioning”, which makes me feel (and looks like on my CV) as if I’m just a lazy sod who can’t be bothered working.

    Even amongst those who can work, the “high-functiong” idea is still a fallacy. Despite their years of training, mental health professionals still appear to miss the fundamental truth that most of us can “act”; such acting does not mean we’re “well”, it only means we act insofar as we can to merely survive in difficult environments.

    Sorry to rant! Take care

    Pan x

    • Hi Pan,

      I’m sorry you’ve been treated this way.

      It seems misleading and inaccurate to describe you as high functioning… yes, you might be in some areas; but the impact on your entire life is much greater than that label would signify.

      I’ve only heard of high functioning being attributed to ability to carry out daily duties, not to intellect. Because of my education and ability to work, I’m often described as being high functioning in select areas. Despite this high functioning in those selected areas, I was still given a high overall impairment.

      I think the descriptions about functioning can be very misleading. It’s possibly an area where the psychiatric models and guidelines suit a few, but are generalised to the whole population. While not meaning to be, that can be harmful.

      Take care,

  2. I’m “high functional”, too. In fact, my T told me recently that “they” determine the need for therapy by looking at how functional the person is and by how much the “disorder” interrupts daily routine and the ability to function. They seem to judge the need for therapy by only what they can see. Sucks. I spend a lot of time in the scary place, too, and do it while I’m so “functional”. No clue. Just no clue. I am so very sorry for your sadness.

    • Hi Ivory,

      Yes, the level of functioning (or impairment) is what they use to determine what support you are going to receive here as well. It’s scary that they can determine this through a 90 minute psychiatric assessment. They can only find out so much in an assessment, and it doesn’t give a full picture as to how we live our lives outside of that assessment. I find it’s difficult to describe the spaces I get into, so that adds another layer of complexity.

      Thank you and take care,

  3. I am “high functioning” as well, or I can be. But, like you, I can’t do “healing” at the same time. I guess it’s a way of coping, but getting hurt isn’t healthy (it usually happens to me too). I wish I had some good advice, but it sounds from others that you’re not alone dealing with this. ((hugs)) take care.

  4. I am described as high functioning, too. But am I? Am I high functioning when I don’t feel connected to anything that I do? I don’t even remember much of what I do from day to day, but I guess I do it really well.
    In all honesty, it’s not even me who’s functioning. I just have some extremely high-functioning parts. So in my opinion, I’m not high functioning at all.

    I completely bury myself in work by working two jobs, making sure my bills get paid, laundry gets done so that I look presentable for work, working through my breaks, etc… but I’m not connected to any of it. It’s all about appearances for me. It’s not real. I only appear to be high functioning.

    This was the topic of conversation at my last therapy appointment. I have had people who come up to me at the library where I work, carry on conversations with me, and then a few days later tell me that they felt a real connection through their conversations with me. I just stare blankly at them, because I feel nothing. Then I have to apologize, and tell them that I have forgotten the conversation they are referring to.

    I think I understand that logically, they may have legitimately perceived a connection. But what they don’t understand is that for me, it only lasted for that moment. (If at all) Once the conversation is over, and they walk away, that connection is gone for me. It’s yanked away, and I have no memory of a connection. Once they walk away, I go right back to work as if nothing took place.

    The other day I recalled a note I had written the day before. I found that note, and picked it up, and saw that it was dated 10 days prior. I swear I had just written it less than 24 hours before finding it. This sort of thing occurs on a regular basis for me. So where did that time go? I have no idea.

    I’m sorry to be using your blog to ramble, and vent. It’s just so frustrating, and I know that if I never learn how to connect to anyone, or anything, I will live a very lonely life. But as you said, there’s always more work to do. 🙂

    Thanks for posting this, CG.
    This is so significant to me right now, but I just have a difficult time expressing myself. You have so eloquently described what I cannot.

    • Hi Mareeya,

      Your question “Am I high functioning when I don’t feel connected to anything that I do?” is very much what I’m facing at the moment. To anyone on the outside looking in, I appear highly functional and motivated. But I know that something isn’t right. Like you I’m losing time and any sort of connection to what I’m doing. It’s like a task that I’ve ticked off in my head and then forgotten about.

      I minimise the contact I have with others in the office, just so that I avoid the type of conversation loss that you describe. But then, I know that connecting to people helps me to build connections and awareness of the present. While you don’t feel the connection with your conversations, odds are that a part of you did/does. Healing is about expanding that awareness and connection to the rest of the system – I know that is much more difficult than it sounds.

      I’m not sure about you, but I get an odd sense of time. My time at home is so very separate from my time at work. Then within each day, I often lose track of anything that has happened which doesn’t directly pertain to what I have to do.

      It’s so very confusing; but not, because I don’t have a connection to it, other than on an intellectual level.

      Please don’t apologise, I really appreciated what you wrote. It’s so good to know that I’m not the only one who gets into this place.

      Take care,

      • Thanks for your understanding response. Yes, you’re right. It’s very confusing, and as you mentioned in another response, there is no urgency to change anything because there is a lack of connection to anything. (Sort of a vicious cycle, right?) For me, it is like I’m going through the motions, with no feeling attached to anything that I do. If I do have some feeling, it can disappear in an instant.

        As you said, connecting with people can help build awareness of the present. That makes so much sense, but the thought of making connections doesn’t feel safe because of my own trust issues. I fear the vulnerability and exposure that goes along with making connections.

        I know that a part of me must be making attempts to connect with others, but another part is fighting it, which creates a conflict inside my head.

        Expanding that awareness to the rest of the system is difficult. I have had little to no success with that. I think this must be due to my own resistance.

        And yes, I do have an odd sense of time. There is no fluidity between my time at work, and my time at home. I lose a lot more time while at home, but I’m also finding that I lose time at work as well. That is starting to scare me a little. I seem to be doing very well with both of my jobs, but it’s a bit unnerving when you lose part of your day. That’s why I really need to work harder at establishing cooperation between my parts.

        I hope that next time I come here, I can be in a more positive place. I like to be able to visit a blog, and be positive, and offer encouragement.
        I’m going to work on that! 🙂

        The most I can do right now is say that I do feel fortunate to have parts in my system that allow me to excel at my jobs, and pay my bills, even when I pay them twice…. (because I didn’t remember paying them the first time around.)

        I’m glad that you functioning in that manner, as well.

        I’ll send encouraging thoughts to all of us who struggle with feeling so disconnected, and try to have hope that we can do what we need to do in order to make meaningful connections in a way that also keeps us safe, both physically, and emotionally.

        • Hi Mareeya,

          I prefer honesty over a veil of positivity anytime 🙂

          Yes, this can become a vicious cycle, and that’s why it’s so worrying. Unless we find a way to break that cycle, it goes into a downward spiral as we become more isolated from those around us. I know, for me, that downward spiral becomes more and more dangerous, with more self harm and “odd” thought patterns.

          I know what you mean about the connections with other being scary… I, along with most survivors, have huge trust issues as well. It adds another layer of complexity, but is something that can slowly be worked on. It’s risky when you reach out, but that risk is worth it when you find someone you do connect with. I understand about the conflicts about reaching out – parts who are geared for protection, will try to minimise the risk we expose ourselves too. But, if we go gently and reassure that we can withdraw that connection at any stage, it can help. Then, as there are a few positive connections, it can show that safe connections are possible.

          I know the time loss can be scary. I sometimes find myself sitting at work in a total panic about what is going on around me. I don’t know if it’s similar for you, but I usually find that my time loss increases as I go further into the super functional mode. As I do that, I don’t allow time for the other ones in the system to do what is needed to express themselves… so they fight back through things done during the time loss. It can become scary.

          I know that the remedy to this is internal communication and cooperation… but, when I’m in this high functioning mode, any sort of communication I have goes out the window. It seems to be the first thing to go. I’m also at a loss as to how to get it back. I’ve tried doing some of the soothing things that I know have helped other parts of the system, and that sometimes works.

          I have nearly all my bills on automatic payments because I lose track of the days and bill payments too often 🙂

          I second your last paragraph…

          Sending positive thoughts your way,

  5. This is a really great subject to discuss CG. I hate being judged on appearances, it’s insulting and it can lead to resources being denied a person because someone looking at them thinks they’re ok, like you pointed out.

    I can be “high functioning” but, for me, that’s usually mania talking. On the dissociative side, there’s losing time etc. like others have stated here. I picked up on the part about conversations because I haven’t really thought about it before, about it looking like I’m functioning quite well. People often tell me how well I speak and I swear to god, some idiot once told me that I’m charming. The reason I say “idiot” is because of what everyone’s saying here. One of the reasons I went back to therapy was because I was losing time and because I couldn’t keep up with what people were saying. I would “go away” and then have to pretend that I knew what they were saying. I would scramble trying to come up with an appropriate response so that no one would know that I couldn’t remember anything. That was scary stuff. And of course, it’s not the “zoning out” that other people do.
    Anyway, people look at my interactions with them and they don’t get why I’m not around a lot or why I’m “sick” so much etc. It’s all an act because it’s not all of me being involved, it’s either parts, or mania or combinations of the two.

    It aggravates me because people judge (and not kindly) based on their own perception of our behavior and then we have to try and maintain or they expect too much from us.

    Getting off the subject of me 🙂 I’m sorry you’re so disconnected right now, unless of course you need to be to protect yourself from something that would be too stressful right now. I guess what I’m wondering is, is there a possible good reason that you’re like this right now? No? You said you’ve been here before so I’m sure you know the answer to that. When I was thinking about your reaction to the video and the music, I guess I thought that a part of you did feel a connection, even if you lost it right after and you remember crying so that’s not gone, which is good right?

    I guess my biggest worry is that you are safe and that you take care of yourself like eating, sleeping, that kind of stuff. How are things on those fronts?

    • Hi tai,

      It’s too easy to make assumptions about people. There was a great example of that at work last week… there is a hearing impaired woman working with us, and she has a tendency to vocalise a great deal, which is grating on the nerves of some of the staff. There have been requests to make her stop the vocalisations (which are shrieks and high pitch noises), but in doing so, they’re assuming that she is aware that she is making a sound, when she might not be. They’re assuming, based on their experiences that she must be aware of making those sounds, but they’ve never been in her shoes, so it’s impossible to make any assumptions.

      I imagine you could be charming 🙂

      I get what you mean though, and I’m so sorry that people don’t take the time to look beneath the surface to who you are, and how you’re really doing.

      Another favourite annoyance, is people making assumptions based on a friend who experienced something similar. They usually end up telling you a horror story, or invalidating you by saying that they went through horrific experience X and just kept on going. We’re all individuals, and we’ll all react to stress and traumatic experiences in different ways.

      There’s a major project at work happening, and I think that’s what has triggered this shift. I also realised today that at the end of next week, I’m off work for two weeks for my birthday. So, I think that’s a factor too.

      I often don’t remember conversations, but the people who know me well at work, know that about me. My cynical friend has mentioned it a couple of times… I try to cover for the gaps when they present themselves as much as possible, but there’s only so many diversionary tactics that I can do. Yet conversely, I’ve been known to remember random stuff about other people for ages. So it all varies. Like life, it’s confusing.

      Take care of yourself 🙂

  6. High functioning is a term I hear often in the context of my daughter’s Autism. There are more similarities between Autism and DID than I would have thought, and the relation seems to be in that disconnection. We disconnect because it is how we have learned to survive, they are disconnected because it is how their brain is wired. Making connections is a challenge, especially when our knee jerk reaction to stress, pain, body memories, or just life ingeneral is to disconnect so that it doesn’t hurt, confuse, or overstimulate us.

    Yes we function, as you say we work, we pay bills, we make it to appointments, but that becomes sometimes just a routine that is comforting in it’s emotionlessness, with the simple purpose of just getting through the day with no real reason why that’s at all important. The good thing is that connections can be made, and with effort they can be maintained. But as you say above, everyone is different, and everyone recovers differently and recovery means different things to different people. If connection isn’t important to you and you are content (not necessarily happy but content) with your life as it is, then that’s o.k. It’s also ok to want and to work towards more at your own pace. It’s your choice no matter what, but please know that no matter how disconnected you feel, there are those of us out here that connect with what you write, and wish we could offer more than words as support.

    • Hi Storm Dweller,

      I think the term high functioning is applied to many areas of physical and mental health. I’ve heard it used mainly in terms of access to assistance, and it’s usually a term used to curtail that assistance. It’s one of those comparative terms which never seems fair, or aimed at really understanding what is going on for the individual.

      Making connections is a challenge, for everyone… there wouldn’t be so many people on Internet dating sites if it was easy for everyone. Humans are meant to connect with others, and when someone doesn’t for any reason, there is often some of impact for the individual.

      I usually can make at least superficial connections, but even that is slipping. I know I need to make connections in order to heal – for me the lack of connection is all about a lack of trust towards people. So the place I’m in at the moment isn’t positive. There’s also the problem that I can’t be consistently high functioning and keep safe. Whenever I go into high functioning mode there seems to be a high level of compartmentalisation, and I lose more time. It becomes a war inside my head, one that I’m not really aware of, as I only am in touch with the high functioning areas. So I’m neither content or happy with where I am, but because I’m so disconnected from everything, I don’t get a sense of urgency to change anything. I know on an intellectual level that this is nonsensical and dangerous, but I’m at a loss as to how to break out of the cycle.

      I’m glad my writing connects with others, but also not, as it means that others know of this pain. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

      Take care,

  7. Can I provide another view? Yours is a bit pessimistic about yourself.

    Mine isn’t.

    High functioning is how you coped. And it’s how you still cope. It’s not all negative. It serves a purpose. I know a very many people who lose their high functioning, myself many times, and that’s not satisfactory either. I also know you have lost your high functioning at times.

    While high functioning coping is what you are used to, and you have a lot of the missing time, not caring about anything else, there are some very glaring differences now.

    The tears, the song, the acceptance you were abused, those pieces you would not have before. So, instead of looking at it as what you feel is not adding up about those areas, think of it what is adding up. That it’s all a step (or many steps) towards more co-consciousness, towards more wholeness, towards more sharing.

    That’s what I took from reading this.

    • Me, pessimistic about myself??? Never!!! 🙂

      High functioning is my coping mechanism… that need to stay invisible and not draw any attention to myself is incredible. I know that can be a positive, and I know it has got me through many situations… I know it gets many people through tough situations. I am grateful that I have, largely, managed to maintain that over time, and through this healing journey. I just worry whenever I do an “all or nothing” thing. I know it leads to imbalance and lost time as parts push back against the restrictions imposed by this way of being.

      I was about to refute your idea that I wouldn’t have had the knowledge of the abuse or been able to even be aware of the song and tears before… but I suspect you’re right. I’m aware of them as being off to the sidelines now, as a constant awareness; before I would have had to look for them in order to acknowledge anything about them. So maybe that is progress?

      Thank you for giving another perspective Paul, I appreciate it.

      Take care,

  8. WOW! I am never a regular in therapy, I go then stop over and over again so I have never heard the ‘high functioning’ term but my lord do I ever know what you’re saying!! It’s all in or nothing at all for myself and people only get to to see the all in side because the other side doesn’t go outside…

    • Hi tiffany sams,

      The high functioning thing is a good screen to hide behind… People don’t question you when you’re like that. They usually start demanding more from you though, and that’s where one of the danger lies.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, although I’m sorry you identify with all of this…

      Take care,

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