“High Functioning” is a term usually reserved for describing autistic people or others with developmental disorders who operate a bit better than expected, which unfortunately isn’t saying much. It’s also occasionally applied to mental illness and other learning disorders. As applies to ADD, which is technically a developmental disorder, I like the following quote that I turned up (I edited bad use of commas because it burns, it burns!)
The twice exceptional individual, intellectually gifted [and] with ADHD, continues to be an enigma… Because they successfully compensate for their hidden difficulties at great emotional, cost their issues rarely come to the fore.
It’s all too true. It’s confusing and frustrating and hard on the self-esteem to know that you’re damn smart, and yet constantly lose things and have trouble with the “stupid” details of schoolwork. The ones that got me were minor but telltale: I constantly misplaced +/- signs in arithmetic, which substantially impacted my GPA in college (I’m not joking), and I could not follow directions because I could not read them. It was as if my eyes could not see a sentence or two, every single time. It completely bewildered me. In primary school, I was simultaneously precocious and a space case. I always spoke at the wrong time and had to work incredibly hard to suppress that because I knew it was wrong but just couldn’t help it.
My Mom loved to relate the story of the incredibly complex lie to my teacher that I concocted in 2nd grade. I was both unable to read the directions and failing to pay attention in class, although no one else ever knew that was why it happened. In a discussion of a reading workbook assignment on barnyard animals and pets, I misread some of the directions, as usual. As we were discussing them in class, I zoned out; I read at the 8th grade level by then, so I rarely paid much attention to reading group. Everyone was talking about their dogs and cats: boring. Then it was my turn. Startled and confused, I said something about a pet duck. It turned out that we were supposed to talk about the pets we actually had, not the ones we wish we had. Oops. Covering for my error, a couple weeks later I told my teacher that the duck got loose and our dog killed and ate it. Phew. Disaster averted. Until the teacher gave her condolences to my Mom at parent-teacher conferences. “What duck?” said my Mom.
That’s the kind of thing that can happen to a high functioning ADDer. It was sorta funny when I was a kid and slipped through because I was smart enough to compensate. It was really damaging when I hit college and couldn’t cope with the unstructured learning environment. It was truly distressing when I literally could not work in a normal office environment due to constant distractedness and poor organizational skills undermining everything I did.
With respect to bipolar disorder, being high functioning can mean really different things. For me, it means that I can succeed in an incredibly demanding intellectual career and I’m wildly creative. But I’m hardly an exception in this respect. Most of us are very high functioning:
The majority of people are very high functioning and I think this is another misconception about bipolar disorder, that it’s an illness, which leads to decline in functioning. In fact, many people with bipolar disorder are higher functioning than most, and achieve a lot in their life, and very creative people, excellent business people, excellent minds.
In my case, there’s a constant negotiation of my self-esteem and self-image based on what I can and can’t realistically achieve. And let’s not forget that I can’t keep up the pace I once did. Unlike my colleagues who work 60-80 hours a week, I can sustain up to 55, which is low enough to threaten my career potential (seriously.) I can only manage 8-10 hours a day, 6 days a week, before things fall apart. I have to make every single work hour pure gold to keep up. Fortunately, I’m wicked smart, so I can usually pull that off and still outperform everyone.
The pros of being high functioning bipolar are relative. I’m able to carry on, work for a living, achieve my goals, and others rarely suspect that I have a serious mental illness. Sure, they notice and remark on my mercurial moods, but no one thinks twice about it because I continue to produce like mad.
The cons are not insubstantial: it is so draining; I’ve fooled the professionals into believing there’s nothing wrong, consequently got the wrong treatment, and suffered unnecessarily for many years; and I’m constantly being invalidated whenever I mention having problems with executive dysfunction or mood swings. I might just intentionally burst into tears the next time someone says, “But you’re so successful, there can’t possibly be anything wrong with you!” That’ll show ’em.
© DeeDee and A Canvas Of The Minds 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to DeeDee and A Canvas Of The Minds with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. This work is protected under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.