“High-Functioning” Bipolar Disorder

Sometimes people don’t believe I’m particularly sick. They meet me, I look fine, I interact, I charm, I wit and all seems, if not normal, at least something reasonably normal adjacent.

And that’s fine. It’s by design. Being a high-functioning mentally ill person, I can’t really afford to run around with my hair on fire. But faking normalcy, happiness and pleasure is a tricky and very expensive bit of business.

High-Functioning Bipolar

Being a “high-functioning” bipolar doesn’t really have a definition, per se. The term indicates that I’m not in a mental hospital, and I do things like live on my own, pay rent, work and whatnot. I would suggest that being “high-functioning” seems to indicate that I can fake not being a crazy person.

High-Functioning Weekdays

It’s really important that I be able to put my bipolar on the shelf. I have to be able to put the crazy away so that I can talk to people, engage in business, produce technical documentation, write articles and so on. I wrote about 12,000 words last week for clients. You can’t do that if you’re pondering where on your wrist the best place to slice is.


Low-Functioning Weekends

The trouble is, using all my control, sanity and energy during the week to try and produce enough work to pay my rent then leaves me with a really large deficit when I’m not working. I’m crazy. Remember? Not normal? I’m just faking the normal. And faking normal requires more effort than you can possibly imagine.

So then, as soon as I’m not working, I break into a thousand pieces all over the tiles on my kitchen floor.

Sure, you go out Friday night with friends. My Friday night is usually spent fairly catatonic trying desperately not to get suicidal.

Energy is Finite, Bipolar is Exhausting

As I see it, everyone has a similar tank of energy. We expend that energy in lots of ways. We run after kids, we go to the office, we jump out of planes. All fine uses of energy. Me, on the other hand, I spend a massive amount of energy just trying to keep my brain in one place. I have almost no energy, or brain left, outside of that.

I Give Up a Life to Survive

So all the appearance of my functioning is paid for by utter decimation and exhaustion the rest of the time. I don’t have energy or brain space left to read, see friends, date or do pretty much anything else. The last thing I want to do is leave the house. I want to sleep. Forever. And ever.

I do know wonderful people and I do adore them. But that doesn’t overcome the inertia of having every drop of energy sucked from me so I can pay rent.

Bipolar Sucks the Life You Don’t See

I’m the least fun person in the world. I work. I sleep. I have a schedule. I keep that schedule. I’m tired. I make excuses not to go out. I’m sort of the lamest person ever.

But that’s the mental illness sucking the life out of my ears. I want to go out. I want to see my friends. I want to do something fun. I want to have a drink with you after work. I just can’t. I’m too tired.

So yes. I’m capable. I’m talented. I work hard. I produce stuff. Yay me. But the price I pay for that is not being able to be anything else.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter or at the Bipolar Burble, her blog.

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270 Responses to “High-Functioning” Bipolar Disorder

  1. susan rivas says:

    Well,,,now I’m jobless. Best thing really. I was not functioning well at all. And it was noticible to others. I lasted a whole 60 days. I went ahead and filed for total disability. My official diagnosis was made 10 years ago but I had problems way before then. Worst of all,,my short term memory has really gotten worse. In that 60 day period I was not able to remember a lot of my coworkers names or even place them with a face. Since there were less than 25 of us it did not fare well for me. And keeping track of patients and their names was a nightmare,,I also consistently misplaced important paperwork. I could no longer do it. My sister suggested that I file for disability prior to taking this job but I held off. Who wants to admit that at 50 years of age that I’m no longer able to be productive in the medical workforce. I sure didn’t but I’m forced to. I’m going to retire my license and I just thank God that I didn’t end up killing someone.

  2. jeanne says:

    That just anserred my question. I’m “high functioning” too. To add to it, I’m homeless. Because I’m high functioning, am not a drug addict, have no kids, and never been to jail no programs will help me. I lost everything when I had a nervous breakdown and the cruelty of a few saw it possible for me to not make it through the toughest time of my life. In addition to the job I lost last year, I ran my own grassroots production company. Now I have just that and having a project coming up I was doing very well once my life stabled out. But, once the lady who I was renting a room from decided last minute she wanted to rent that room to someone with a car, I have been bouncing like a ball from place to place an the instability is keeping me from focusing and my brain is awefully tired. It scares me because I have a show coming up soon and I am zapped of brain power. At first I believed I could get through this despite the lack of support from these programs. I do have friends who are doing their best to help. But now, my hope is slipping with my ability to function. I am even trying to get low level jobs so to lay off stress but I’m over qualified. Geez. But. I am beyond exhausted.

  3. Jacqueline M says:

    My son we were told was high functioning, but military kicked him out last March and he took his own life last April with the 3 month’s worth of antipsychotic drugs they handed him all at once, we are still recovering from our loss and Trauma, anyone who reads this Please Tell someone if you feel suicidal, it shatters many lives :(

  4. SkyBlue says:

    Hi Natasha, recently diagnosed bipolar 2 and currently trawling through the Internet researching what this means. Came across your blog and posts, this one resonated a lot. It made sense, it is something I have tried to describe to friends pre diagnosis for a long time not knowing why I feel this way. Funnily enough, at diagnosis when I asked about high functioning, I was told point blank there is no such thing. Good to see others experience it and glad you were able to put it into words. Thank you.

  5. r says:

    Three years ago I had a melt down and ended up in hospital due in large part to how I was being treated by management. Shortly after I came back to work my newly appointed supervisor went on sick leave. Everyone said she wouldn’t be back. I assumed she had quit or been fired. Rumor had it she’d lied on her application which grieved a lot of other people who’d applied for the job but because she was favoured by management she was hired anyway. Both she and her boss made my life a living hell by a constant barrage of various forms of harrassment. I was being bullied to take a buy out due to downsizing. Somehow by the grace of God I managed to survive all that. I even got some pretty decent yearly work assessments after she left. But today I found out that this woman may be coming back again and I feel sick to my stomach. This is the last year for the organization to balance the budget… I know there are laws against harrassment but how does a ‘crazy’ person protect themselves when management has an agenda, knows how to skirt the law and get away with it.

  6. Ann says:

    Hi SkyBlue,
    I was diagnosed a year and a half ago with bipolar (not sure if is I or II). I don’t do drugs, would never cheat on my husband, don’t drink, exercise, am a good mom of 3 (my kids are all doing well in school etc), don’t consider suicide an option ( I resolved never to entertain those thoughts and don’t), am financially stable and have been a successful professional in the same career for 15 years. With my manic phases I have accomplished some amazing things. I took some major risks and frankly I didn’t consider the possible consequences. Definitely manic, with all the characteristic signs, being really talkative, racing thoughts, increased energy, over exercising, losing lots of weight and feeling superhuman. One time, I didn’t sleep more than 2hrs a night for four months. I’ve traveled the world, played competitive sports, have a rental property, done lots of charity, joined boards, created lots of unique artwork, written a bi-law for my municipality and lots more. Fortunately, despite my not having good insight during those periods, I enjoyed success with my creative endeavors and people were very grateful and benefited from my work. During my depressive months, I just sucked it up, as it were. I truly believe I’m dying when I’m down, it’s actually funny how I believe it when I’m in that place. The pain is unexplainable and intense. I gain lots of weight because I am so tired and I binge eat. None the less, no one (not even my husband) could know how badly I am feeling when I’m depressed because I hide it convincingly well. I usually say I’m sick, overstressed at work or come up with some other acceptable excuse to get into bed and cry for a few hours a day. I am better now at reigning in the mania which helps avoid the depression, but I used to drag my sorry ass to whatever I had committed myself during a manic phase and did my best at work, home and in the community…Many days I felt like I actually had lead in my body…lifting myself out of bed was painful and an enormous chore. I love my job, so I just coped mentally by telling myself this is just the waiting time, “things will shift”. I actually used to believe it was God’s will. I thought God was wanting me to “wait” and that he would reveal my special purpose again soon lol (in retrospect I was having religious delusions). Anyhoo, people do think I’m crazy, but “good” crazy. I tried all the drugs out there over the past year and a half and frankly the side effects weren’t worth the small improvements in clarity I felt. I did feel relieved by Risperidone, like the thoughts on loop in my brain were now under my control to be stopped or started at will. That is how I know I actually have bipolar. The drugs made me binge eat more and there were some other really nasty side effects as well.
    What I am wondering is; are there other people coping with Bipolar like me? Are there others who never allowed it to interfere with their dreams and goals? Are there others who found the strength to cope during the depressions and harness the creative energy during the manias? I’ve always been into yoga, self help books, nature and anything that seems to give me a sens of peace and love. I did a lot of talk therapy in the past two years, have tried neurofeedback, had cognitive behavioral therapy and did a mindfulness training course. I have always understood that to give to others I’ve got to cope with my very deep emotions and that only I have the power to do that.
    Ultimately, I am the one who is responsible for my thoughts and feelings. In my case, my desire to give to others outweighs my bipolar so I control it no matter how difficult and exhausting it is. I’m “high functioning” so I know there is such thing… Am I alone?

  7. Mark says:

    I read a few of the comments by other readers and I know exactly what your going through. Many of us are not perfect and some hide it better. I have seen people flat out deny the illness. Are we sick or just being taken advantage because we lack the skill sets to socially play the game. I say who cares what anyone thinks and they can have the job. They can go do the work. Focus on moving to a lower income area and reset your expectations level on a home and car. Save 10k buy a mobile home get a 1k car. Resolve your roof and transportation issues first. Do whatever makes you happy we only live once and we are all going to die. One more thing I think most people are mentally i’ll due to the society we have built were just plum crazy over here in the USA.

  8. Gayle says:

    I have had Bipolar 1 since I was diagnosed 22 years ago. I know both spectrums of the disease because I was suicidal at age 16 and again at 23 (That year I had a psychotic break – mania) and then a suicide attempt with a summer in hospitals. The following year a psychiatrist that happened to work at the private hospital where I was admitted had written a book on Bipolar Disorders. This story is very long, but I took mood stabilizers since that time and was able to work professionally full time for over 12 years and raise a daughter with my husband. After my brother died of cancer and my father was diagnosed with Alzheimers, I suddenly had a unexpected manic break at work. I was not hospitalized, but my Dr. was trying different medicines to stabilize me. That was between 2007 and 2012. Without going into detail, my marriage almost broke up while our daughter was attending college. I began to work part time in a non-professional field. Then I heard about the NAMI Family-to Family, free 12-week, class and my husband and daughter completed it. I began going to therapy more often and going to a weekly peer support group similar to DBSA. I also took the NAMI Peer-to Peer class, and recently took a WRAP class (Wellness Recovery Action Plan). I have a routine…I have a part time job, I care for my dog, and I facilitate the weekly support group. This summer I also added another fun volunteer job. My problem is not dealing with depressive episodes, but managing hypomanic (mild form of mania) Yes, my cognitive skills slightly diminish, I get hungry and gain a little weight, and am irritable…from my (PRN) extra medicines needed to get me to sleep more than 5 hours a night. I use my WRAP skills such as recognizing warning signs…(rapid thoughts and over-planning). I wake up very early in the morning and don’t want to stay or go back to bed another hour or two. My Dr. is aware of this pattern and helps me track my medicine while I track my moods and behavior. I consider myself “high functioning” because people around me don’t know of my illness unless I choose to tell them. I also have to work hard to manage my symptoms and it can be very tiring. There are many tools to help beside medication and therapy, such as mentioned in these posts. I highly recommend you by the WRAP workbook by Mary Ellen Copeland, PhD. Journal, do art, listen to music, yoga, meditation or mindfulness, get a massage or pedicure, simple gardening, ride a bike, take a walk, make a healthy meal, call a friend, etc. Do what makes you happy and healthy. Don’t judge yourself against others and don’t feel like you are alone either. Take care,

  9. BipolarII says:

    my therapist and I have been working together for 3 years. I was misdiagnosed with major depression, panic disorder, insomnia, and PTSD. As time went on, we have come to a conclusion of bipolar II. I have taken DBT Dialectible Behavior Therapy twice, mindfulness meditations, and medication, as well as talk therapy.
    Socially interacting is quite difficult for me, for I am not able to hide my symptoms to well any more. I am no longer working, I am no longer fostering children, I am no longer involved with children’s lives as a mentor and a safe adult. I no longer design and sew for people as a living. I fill my days with fist assessing my moods and moving accordingly. I have regained 100lbs and I have not career. I live on disability and I am a 41 yr old living below the poverty line at 900 per month. i am living in low income housing and have aknowledged my bisexuality this year. I met and fell in love with the most amazing woman, when I told her I had a crush on her, she was gracious and let me down gently. The next time I saw this dynamic woman, was turning the other way whenever she saw me, that was painfully difficult, for I was admitting to liking her after she winked at me twice on one afternoon. To my dismay, it was harmless flrting, that I saw as total acceptance and a sign of love. Wrong! I went from this woman being a positive conversation that could have led to friendship, now it is awkward and unpleasant. Self help books tell you to surround yourself with positive people, but it doesnt say that these positive people may not want you around. I am a work in progress. I binge eat all the time, for I am in the downs more than I am up. When i am up, I am bored and have a burning desire to work or do another hobby project (repurposing furniture). I used to be high functioning, but now I am fighting suicide on a weekly basis.

  10. Highfunctioning2 says:

    I am high functioning as well. It sucks. I appear fine but the reality it does suck the life out of me. What is worse is that I am a nurse. I am smart, organized and utilize my critical thinking at work…

    Then I come home to pure chaos. I have all I can do to wash my scrubs for the next week. Intrapersonal relationships suffer. I can’t explain how frustrating it is to explain that I need to follow my schedule. I need someone to accept me for me. That to be “normal” during the week takes every last bit of energy from soul. I barely have enough to keep myself together at home. Every night I cry myself to sleep. Wishing that it would just stop.

  11. lila says:

    I need help. I want to talk to someone.. anyone that will understand that being bipolar 2 is hard. I am having a difficult time lately n need help.

  12. Hi Lila,

    I’m sorry you’re having a hard time right now. If you need to talk to someone, please see our hotlines and resources page here:

    Someone is waiting to listen to you.

    - Natasha Tracy

  13. lila says:

    Thank u! I have been researching bipolar 1 & 2 I was diagnosed 5 yrs ago but had suffered thru ups n downs since age 22. I am now 41. I always just thought.. hey Im emotional.. never understanding… what I was going thru. I had my own place held a job for 10 yrs. Moved held a job n learned a new trade for 7 yrs. I always spent my money on bills n necessities. I never fit it anywhere.. but i had good friendships that lasted.. I just dont understand how now I am falling apart.. I have always had an inner fight for what was good n bad.. I use to tell my dad that when i was really young. I have to fight so hard to do whats right. Its exhausting.. I never understood my need for sex n the guilt afterward.. i still fight that daily. ..Being a Christian is hard enough but to add the ups n downs.. its a bit much. Im saddened on how hard this is n how devastating it can b. For the ppl going thru it n family n friends..
    finding support groups is very difficult. Being honest at church is difficulft . Being told just take ur meds without realizing how hard that is on ones mind n body. Sometimes it just feels so overwhelming that u just shut down..
    Where do we begin to live.. ?? I have had good days n bad.. but in all of this is soo much..

    needing help n asking for help has been a huge challenge for me.. falling apart n being so terrified to even breathe is so hard to come back from but God is good n u take it one day at a time…

  14. lucy says:

    I have been suffering with rapid cycling bipolar for diagnosis 23 years ,I work as a nurse .I’m married to a wonderful man and have two great sons. But there are times where its easier not to talk to single soul.It not the nicest disease to have. Sometimes I say something that is just plain rude or meant ,and I drive people away.
    Tonight my husband and I had a discussion about what this disease does to me ,versus what his folliclIitis does to him .I wasn’t very nice to him and by stating they are different like apple and oranges ,one makes your mind dark and sad and the other just on the skin . Well I don’t understand his problem. He doesn’t have a clue about having your mind turn on you. I’m very sad that he is missing the big picture that I am trying to present him.

  15. Elijah says:

    I’m impressed with how well this is written. I was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I find it so difficult to explain to people exactly how it affects me. No one ever thinks I am struggling, and the biggest challenge is balancing my energy levels between work and my social life. By biggest challenge I mean impossible. If I don’t give work everything I have to maintain myself, I crumble. Living in Vancouver is too expensive to be jobless. It runs in my family, though I am the only one considered high functioning. Thanks for writing this. Not only do I realize.the way I feel is “normal” based on the diagnosis, but now I can use this to explain it to people when I cannot find the words to do it myself.

  16. ellana says:

    Like im tired of everyone using mental illness as a scape goat everybody is a fine tuned individual. And the way you think is not a mistake. Even when your emotions and thoughts seem out of sorts it may just be a side affect of you. For instance I talk alot academically im gifted socially well I proboally overwhelm others I have blamed it on me being manic when in reality I was lonely sure I had people around but they were uneducated and not driven like me. I get around intelligent people and suddenly I don’t feel so crazy. I think you need to take accountability for the way you are and do what makes you happy working the way you do is making a part of you feel suppressed. If meds help great but look into other reasons you feel how you feel and try not to label yourself even if you do suffer from those symptoms labeling it will make you feel like you are not a part of these negative behaviors its just illness well giving up and letting this illness take the heat for your lack of self control is not going to fix anything so stop generalizing yourself. You are a fine tuned individual and I hope you get well.

  17. Trish says:

    Please, after reading this if you don’t know Jesus Christ as your creator God, then please put your faith in Him. Please read the Bible and understand why you are alive and for what purpose. The bible says “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

  18. Liz says:

    I just came across this article and I feel like you sound exactly like me. This resonates so much (I am not diagnosed as Bipolar yet but feel strongly that I am type 2). Thank you for putting it out there, it helps so much to know that there are other people in the world that feel the same as I do.

  19. Avolitionist says:

    I can identify with so much of your writing here … I was going to say I ‘enjoyed’ it but that is not the right word … sometimes it’s very difficult work to admit these things, or in turn, see the mirrored reflection in the words …

    While I am no longer suicidal (3 attempts between age 13-19) I still struggle with fast shifts – I go thru the process of complete avolition to high productivity about 4 to 6 times a year.

    Recently, I discovered Asperger’s syndrome … within the first few chapters I realized a complete description of my entire life. (also tests confirmed my self-diagnosis)
    Because of so much overwhelming info about my life, which would have answered so many questions my late mother had (she passed away 10 years prior to my discovery) I sank into a regretful, bitter depression. But then when I came out, I was very excited & felt freer bc I had answers for things – I no longer felt guilty, or could be made to feel guitly for LIKING to be alone a lot. I also became more tolerant of the people who think neurotyically (just about everyone. I also have a new understanding of my depressions – which are largely born of coping mechanisms. Like you, I ‘act’ around people all the time. It is not insincere – it is a form of forcing myself to model socially appropriate skills, such as smiling, eye-contact, listening – all of which do not cme natural to me, and including the actual thinking, planning, and DOING of my job. (I’ve been self-emloyeed for 30 years)
    I became a Christian many years ago at 20. I learned very very early on that others in this faith do not allow themselves to be equipped with what is required to be helpful at all to depressed people. Also, I no one even.knew about Aspergershose days – so … well, I was just a ent’ cookie. When I was productive I was valued, so I maintained productivity. When I attempted to share personal struggle, I was told to just pray, or that I would have ‘complete victory’ if I prayed more … or worse, I was scolded for allowing the enemy of my soul a weakness.
    This highly adjusted way of dealing with a human is not Christ like, but I forgave, because I actually DID pray more, and developed a very personal relationship with God. Many depressions were spent in intense crying out to Him, something I could never do with any other person. Yet, I knew He heard, understood, & felt, and many prayers were answered and many depressions ‘turned’ and much sanity is restored – but because I am simply human, not immortal or a god, or even ‘normal’ minded, this activity is like shampoo … wash, rinse, repeat.
    I do not go to doctors bc they can make you really sick.
    I prefer herbal or natural remdies for everything..
    Thanx for your forum Natasha.
    I will be thinking of you and reading more here.

  20. Ellie says:

    I so relate to everything written here. I was diagnosed at 23 after being hospitalized for a suicide attempt. Since then, I had trouble with work attendance at my last job, and despite disclosing my diagnosis and hospital stay to my boss they pressured me into resigning. I was able to, by the grace of God find another job shortly after and things were going great for the first five months- my meds had been figured out and I was finally doing all the things i needed to to be a “normal” person. However, I found out I’m pregnant and have been off my meds for approximately two months now. My husband has been amazing and supportive, but I’m so afraid i’m going to lose my job because of the depression I’m experiencing- being pregnant and having Bipolar Disorder is NOT easy!

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