If you have any manner of disorder and have been labeled as “high functioning” then I probably don’t need to explain to you what a misnomer this label is… Whether it’s autism or anxiety or fill-in-the-blank, the “high functioning” label is never assigned in the interest of the individual who has the need, but rather in the interest of normative society. And hear me out because this is important.

As a person who has functioned, highly, with anxiety for my whole life and who is currently coming into new understandings of my neurological makeup, I can tell you that in the grip of anxiety or a full blown panic attack, I have never—not once—felt high functioning, despite appearances. What the world experiences and what I experience are separate and distinct, and honestly, very upsetting for me.

For as long as I have experienced any sort of abnormal mental episodes, I have heard it all, from “you seem fine,” to “it can’t be that bad.” And every. Single. Fucking. Time. It guts me. While I may appear completely placid on the outside, I am experiencing a complete, internal collapse. The walls of my nervous system are caving in… while the physical world around me moves like unstable jello. I’m hot. I’m cold. The room is spinning. I may run. I may disintegrate… It feels like is trying to do an obstacle course hopped up on psychedelics while simultaneously trying to act completely sober. But you experience me as…. Totally fine.

Which is cool for you, but paralyzing for me. Add in a dash of self actualization, and it’s hard for even great therapists and professionals to treat me because, what the heck can they do about my neurological wiring?! There is only so much talking I can do about what I cannot change, so in some ways, being “high functioning” has been a barrier to treatment for me.

And it’s all so hard to explain… why I’ve set my life up this way, and why planning is such huge thing for me. Why I my first inclination is to say “no,” or why I cannot return items I hate at the store. Why I smell my food to see if it’s still good, and wonder if it’s going to poison me… Why, if I don’t sleep, I feel dizzy and I wonder if I will actually pass out, and WILL THIS HAPPEN WHILE I AM DRIVING MY CHILD SOMEWHERE?

And yet… I can give awe-inspiring presentations to rooms full of people. I can communicate with such ease in written form. I am creative and bright and, under the right circumstances, illuminating. I am a complicated, spiritual being. And none of this is really “bad” or “good” it’s just a part of who I am.

The way it appears to me is that we are a society so completely obsessed with being normative that we assign this label in an effort to normalize our differences at the expense of ourselves. It grates on me. And it’s not that I want to be malfunctioning or anything… The truth is, I don’t actually believe that any of this makes me any “less” than anyone else. But trying to explain that in any given moment can be so flowery in nature that I am reduced to sounding like some idealist, granola munching, fringe scientist … when in reality,  I want to be seen for what I am. I want to FUNCTION in the light of my own truth, and not someone else’s idea of what I am. Isn’t that the real point of a diagnosis, anyway? To self identify in meaningful ways that ultimately help you?

I believe that anxiety and anything else that can be labeled under the neurodiverse umbrella, is like a superpower…. We all have our kryptonite, just like our traditional superheroes, but they never dwell on the darkness, they dwell in the light. My anxiety and my other neurodiversities are like hidden talents. My ability to over empathize and see all sides of a situation give me a super unique ability to analyze. My anxiety is a superhuman alarm bell system that tells me to get R&R right away so I don’t burn out—and FYI, I tell my friends the same thing! I am the “take care of yourself” preacher AND I am my own choir, too!

I have a super human algorithm built into me that if I haven’t talked to a person in a specific number of days, I will remember to text them and see how they are doing. I write letters. REAL FUCKING LETTERS. I am abnormally grateful, genuinely, because I feel like life is so fleeting and random. And I am fiercely loyal. I love without limits… arguably, maybe there should be more limits. So, yes, I have my downsides… I am intense AF. If you love me, prepare for a level of intensity that you may not have met before. I struggle to leave the house sometimes (read: all the damn time). I don’t like to go outside my routine. I sometimes have to cancel plans because the anticipation makes me feel physically ill,  and I am afraid more than I am not afraid… but I overcome these things daily and sometimes hourly, and isn’t that amazing?

However, there is little credit given to a person who never seems to have a problem in the first place. And that is the misnomer of the high functioning label. I am working really hard to seem normative and it’s exhausting. As I get older, I try to break this barrier down as much I can. I’m beginning to get more comfortable doing what DOES serve me best… like wearing headphones in the grocery store, or explaining that I have depth perception issues (I'm not trying to park like an asshole, I swear!), or that facial recognition and recalling names is a particular challenge for me… or practicing my improv skills so I can be more flexible in everyday life. But I will never be “normal,” even if the world does see me as “high functioning.”

The people who love me best understand these things about me. They know that when I show up, maybe it took me three days of internal battle to get there because it was THAT important. They likewise understand that if I don’t show up, it was never personal. They will humor me as I talk about the same thing 10 different ways, and when they finally tell me to shut up about it, I get it. As the world becomes a better, hopefully more progressive place for the neurodiverse amongst us, I hope that everyone will learn to come to center a little more. I hope that typical people will be changed by their interactions with neurodivergent individuals and vice versa.

Because what it really takes to be high functioning in today’s world, typical or divergent, is a group of people behind you with undying love who lift you up and are a little bit changed by your you-ness. 

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