The High Functioning Trap


More than what you produce.



Standing in an empty kitchen in an apartment in Brookline, my boyfriend and his new roommate talk about their experiences with hospitalization. They swap programs, talk about partial hospitalizations and residential stays. I stay silent. Somehow, despite being actively suicidal several times a week throughout high school and self-harming on and off for six years, I managed to avoid ever being hospitalized. Always stopping on the edge something that would be majorly self-destructive, something that would get noticed.


My therapist finally mentioned recently that I probably have Borderline Personality Disorder, confirming a suspicion I’ve had since high school. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is defined by a pervasive pattern of instability in moods, behavior, self-image, and functioning, often causing impulsive actions and unstable relationships. I remember Googling stories of people with BPD and feeling shocked and scared, immediately pulled out of identifying with a symptoms list. In high school I was having bouts of severe panic, paranoia, and dissociation multiple times a week and was self-harming, but I made good grades. I ran organizations. The first semester of my junior year, arguably the worst period of time in my emotionally abusive relationship and with my mental health, I made straight As in 5 AP classes.


For as long as I can remember I’ve loved personality tests. I used to spend hours on website taking quiz after quiz from “what is your soul type” to “what color describes you in relationships.” It was an obsession. I made graphs to help me remember zodiac signs and learned the ins and outs of Myers Briggs. I never managed to connect this to the fact that I found it easier to describe myself as a Scorpio INFJ than to actually understand myself as a person.


I think, too, I sought to define myself through academic work. When my teachers told me I was a good writer or were impressed with my work or my grades, I could be somebody. I was always the smart one, and the label seemed to work well enough. I was even voted smartest in my high school class (along with the aforementioned abusive ex, our relationship now forever captured in a picture of us together in the yearbook). I don’t believe that my academic achievements in high school were a triumph over my mental illness. Rather, they were a coping mechanism, a way to simultaneously define myself and distract myself from my tenuous mental state.


When my therapist said BPD, he used the word “high-functioning.” It’s a term I know well because of how it’s resented in most of the mental health communities I’m involved with. It’s often used to draw a distinction between mentally ill people who are still productive under a capitalist definition and those who are not. Furthermore, it implies that this sort of production is a proper measurement of functioning. In high school I may have come across as high functioning, but the acute and constant strain of my mental health was only masked by my ability to perform.


Now in college, I fall into old habits. I make straight As during my most mentally taxing semesters. I run organizations, I plan events, I make posters, I write papers professors praise. I imagine I’m one of many here who has heard the label high functioning tossed around. We are all overachieving while trying to play neurotypicality.


A friend from outside of Harvard recently told me they met someone who went here in the psych ward. I thought of all the people I’ve known and heard of who have ended up there. So many of us, high functioning by most standards, end up hospitalized for mental health. I have never been hospitalized for my mental health only because I’ve learned to fake it well enough to stay off anyone’s radar.


I wish this piece could end with a call to action. But the truth is, as long as there are institutions to validate our worth based on our academic performance, there are those of us who will sit on the high functioning cliffside, precipitously close to collapse. We will always fall asleep wondering if we’ll make it through tomorrow, and we’ll keep making it through tomorrow under the guise of thriving until we don’t.


I suppose my call is this: We’re all scared. Every person on this campus is scared of something. If you see someone who seems off, reach out, check in. Take care of yourself and, if you have anything left over, make sure your friends are ok. I never would have made it through nights waiting for UHS counselors had friends not been on hand to drop everything and bring snacks from CVS and their company. Your company is valuable. Your presence is valuable. You are more than what you can produce.


Please contact for questions or comments on this article.