When I was young, a margarine called Bluebonnet used the slogan “Everything’s Better With Bluebonnet On It,” and their jingle always set my imagination reeling. Everything? Shoe leather? Pine cones? Guano?
But my brother, who loved to argue, refuted possibilities. He said each would be a little better.
I feel similarly about the term “high-functioning,” which seems ambiguously redemptive. Who would want to be a plain alcoholic if they could be high-functioning? Autistics who are high-functioning explain their perspective and make the condition seem almost romantic. Even a coma victim, were he or she described as “high-functioning,” would be better off.
Forgive my black humor. I feel a right to it because I’m a high-functioning depressive, someone who struggles to see light in the gloom, who expends a lot of energy keeping his mouth above the waterline, who regards every moment of laughter—even dry and dark laughter—as immense relief, proof of life. At the same time, I’m competent. I make what contribution I can and hide the cost. I fool many by appearing as normal as possible.
The icon of high-functioning depressives is Abraham Lincoln. Because he used his unhappiness to spur his aspirations, historians regard his acute melancholia with the sort of awe reserved for superpowers. Depression made Abe more ruminative. It granted him greater empathy and contributed to his deepest devotions, his humility, his tolerance. Abe could deal with rivals’ criticisms without rancor or resentment, was immune to jealousy, because no one could possibly think less of him than he thought of himself, and relentless work was the only successful diversion for his blackest moods. He kept going and, in going, gave more than other mortals might.
Regular depression is nothing like that. People have trouble sitting up, and their emotions can be so painful the low-functioning depressed learn how to avoid them altogether, trading pleasure and pain for anhedonia, a feeling of feeling nothing at all. Battling a perpetual sense of inadequacy leaves depressives little energy for family or relationships. And, because a constantly unhappy person can be so very annoying, friends and family (and just about everybody) tries to cheer depressed people up with a zeal that ultimately humiliates them. Depressed people don’t need reminding they should be other than they are—that may be all they can think about—and yet their well-meaning loved ones and co-workers tell them, ad infinitum, how normal people appreciate the world.
My symptoms aren’t so severe, but I understand well enough.
Maybe the sort of attention a depressive gets explains high-functioning better than Lincoln’s model of noble suffering. Everyone wants you to get on with life, and the course of least resistance is to do so. Getting on with life, whatever the cost to your well-being, might at least spare you constant reminders you’re broken. You won’t be any happier, but fewer people may know it. You take muted pleasure—and, for a depressive, every pleasure is muted—in being undiscovered. Your acting improves with practice as the gap grows between the true you and the one others see, splitting gradually, inexorably. The complete rupture is a high-functioning depressive’s feared and cherished dread and desire, a moment of exposure arrived at last.
Lincoln was extraordinary, my hero as a human being as well as a leader, but historians’ version of his depression—or Winston Churchill’s depression or Charles Darwin’s depression or fill-in-the-blank’s—is the happy world’s wish. All these despondent people, history suggests, ought to get off their asses, buck-up, and carry-on like great ones did.
If I had more courage and energy left after fighting to think myself worthy of existence, I’d create a new model of high-functioning depressives, one that includes righteousness. “Why aren’t you depressed,” I might ask, “when the world seems so imperfect and most people too deluded to do anything about it, when those most sensitive to pain are instructed, overtly and covertly, to pretend otherwise, when the neediest people require so much more care than the world is willing to acknowledge?”
Abraham Lincoln might disapprove, but I like to think he’d at least understand. Everything isn’t better by being “high-functioning.” Maybe a little, but mostly the mask fits better.