High-Functioning Bipolar Disorder

January 17, 2011 Natasha Tracy

I have 'high-functioning' bipolar disorder so people think I'm not mentally ill. But the ability to function in public comes at the price of private pain.

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.

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 Bipolar 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.

...Followed by Low-Functioning Bipolar Weekends

I have 'high-functioning' bipolar disorder so people think I'm not mentally ill. But the ability to function in public comes at the price of private pain.

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.

Bipolar, High-Functioning Or Low, 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

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. 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.

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.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2011, January 17). High-Functioning Bipolar Disorder, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 16 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

January, 22 2011 at 1:32 am

I guess my point was to never give up. It is so hard to learn to live with this illness that many do give up and it makes me sad. I remember being physically and mentally exhausted all the time. I just want everyone to know that it is possible to lead a happy, fulfilled life.
This is the first time I have been involved in these internet site posting and discussion sites. It is important to hear others stories and ways that they cope and live with the illness. I am greatful to all of you who are will to share your experiences.

Natasha Tracy
January, 21 2011 at 6:32 am

Hi Shy Shy,
One of the greatest compliments I can receive as a writer is what you have said: you have showed my writing to someone else because it expresses how you feel and it helps someone hear your voice. So thank-you.
It can be hard to get the people around us to recognize what we're going through and what it takes to live our lives, but some people will understand. I hope you got a step closer with your mom.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
January, 21 2011 at 6:28 am

Hi Pam,
I think people approach the disease differently and identify with it differently. When I say I'm bipolar it's not suggesting that I am the disease, it's simply the use of the English language. I've written about this a lot.
It's great you've found stability and happiness. It's what many people search for. Absolutely, many people have great lives with bipolar disorder. And many people don't.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
January, 21 2011 at 6:26 am

Hi PJ,
If there's one thing I know it's that we're not alone. Glad I could help remind you.
- Natasha

Shy Shy
January, 21 2011 at 4:40 am

I let my mom read this and I think it helped her understand how hard it is for me. We work together and she has a very strong work ethic. I think she gets frustrated if I'm not "doing my best". I think this showed her that it's not that I'm lazy, I'm just tired and worn out. When I get home at night I crash and I barely get out of bed on the weekends. Making a life for yourself with bipolar is like pushing a boulder up hill, everyday!
Thanks for being my voice.

January, 21 2011 at 2:35 am

I guess I consider myself as a high functioning human being who has bipolar disorder. It is important to learn to live with it not exist in it, it is not who you are just what you have. Three years ago I could not leave my house, could not work and drank alcohal all day. I finally went to treatment and got a social worker who helped pay for my health needs and got me in touch with therapists etc. Now I am finishing college, working as a rock climbing instructor at the college and doing a feasibility study as an internship. I love my life! I eat right and get lots of exercise. I stop through out the day to descalate by playing the piano, crocheting etc. I allow myself one day a week to hibernate and not deal with people. I still have days I dont want to join the rest of the world but I push myself to do so and just by doing that my mood improves as so does the day.
I guess my point is, is that you can have a great life and have bipolar disorder. It takes a lot of work but it is a battle you can win! I still deal with it everyday but it doesnt take the same amount of energy it used to. And yes about once a month I have a meltdown but it lasts only a day instead of two-three weeks.
Keep up the fight, it does not happen over night or exclusively from a pill bottle, good counseling is a must. And remember you are worth it.

January, 20 2011 at 10:44 am

Hi Natasha,
I really appreciate your posting and can relate. I have two daughters one who has been diagnosed as bipolar and one who I suspect may be, but with bipolar II without mania but scary irritation and anger. I also have experienced one manic episode brought on by Oxycontin given to me when I had a fractured jaw, and otherwise have suffered from a major depressive episode for the last 3 1/2 years.
People also look at me and think I'm normal and not depresed. I definately want to sleep all the time. I feel out of energy after having to be on at work or if I go to a family event. I too make excuses not to go out on the weekend and even though I often want to go to a movie myself on the weekend, I can't summon the energy. Everything is a supreme effort.
Thanks for sharing and letting us kow we aren't alone.

Natasha Tracy
January, 19 2011 at 10:15 am

Hi jd,
Congratulations on choosing to seek help. You can now start the journey to getting better.
The first thing you need to do is get a proper diagnosis from a doctor. I know it's tempting to self-diagnose, but if you do that you might make an error that could impact the success of your treatment.
Here is a link to the resources page here on HealthyPlace. There are lots of agencies and numbers and one of them should be able to point you in the right direction.…
Drop by any time and let everyone know how you're doing, if you like. Good luck.
- Natasha

January, 19 2011 at 3:48 am

I was hoping someone could help me out in going about getting help for bipolar disorder. I am finally admitting I am bipolar....just hard to admit that I couldn't cope with my mood swings by myself. I am still learning about this disease. I do not have any insurance. Is their a number I could call to get me started on this process of getting help for myself? I would appreciate any point in any direction to help me. Thank you for your time and help!
Thank you

Natasha Tracy
January, 18 2011 at 8:27 am

Hi Shannon,
Well, I do like to rock...
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
January, 18 2011 at 8:26 am

Hi Matthew,
Thanks. I'm glad it helps. You definitely aren't alone in those feelings.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
January, 18 2011 at 8:25 am

Hi Jake,
A happy home life contributes greatly to how well we cope with anything, including disease. A support system is critical, every health care provider would agree on that one.
A pat on the back to you for managing an illness and being a Dad. One or the other is hard enough.
- Natasha

January, 18 2011 at 8:10 am

Thanks so much for the post Natasha. My mom has bipolar and this helps me understand what she goes through every day. Loved the spoon theory someone else posted, that is truly a must read for everyone. I also have a child with autism and this applies to her to, thank you both for helping me better understand the people I love.

Natasha Tracy
January, 18 2011 at 7:53 am

Hi Jen,
I had never heard of the Spoon Theory before but it's gosh-darn brilliant. A must-read. Thanks so much for posting that link. I may have to steal that idea some time.
- Natasha

January, 18 2011 at 4:12 am

Why would anyone use the word "crazy" to identify who we are. We are NOT crazy. We have an illness that does not define who we are. It is no different than having cancer or diabetes. It is treatable.
As far as high functioning I think most of you missed the point including the author. High functioning means that not only can you work but that you can carry on after that without all the drama you have described. Or not working and not having all the drama you have described.
I am highly educated, can produce to a certain extent, but am disabled by the disease I live with; Bipolar. There are "tools" to help us keep on functioning at a higher level. One for example, is exercise. All research indicates there is noting but positive in so many ways that come out of this...increased endorphins and other chemicals to help us keep balance. In terms of negative thinking, I say to myself..."Stop terrorizing myself with my own thoughts, think of pleasant things instead." If I tell you not to think of a pink zebra, what are you going to think about? A pink zebra. So I use distraction and change my thoughts to the color blue in my case. YOu can use whatever you like.
High functioning is not about working. It is about functioning at a high level most everyday in a way that people without Bipolar function.

Shannon Marie
January, 18 2011 at 4:02 am

Thank-you, Natasha. You Rock!

January, 18 2011 at 3:57 am

thank you thank you thank you. You put into words what I have been trying to think out loud for decades.

January, 17 2011 at 7:59 pm

I am a stay-at-home Dad. I have mixed results out in the workforce. I think I function well because my kids are happy and I live in a happy house. With that said I could not do what I do without the support system I have in place.
Good post.

Natasha Tracy
January, 17 2011 at 6:46 pm

Hi Shannon,
If I had a secret, I'd give it to you but I don't think I have one.
The thing about me, and I'm not suggesting this for anyone else, is that I'm very stubborn and hard on myself. I'm driven to perform. Period. I don't let myself off the hook. I'm not happy (so to speak) if I'm not producing something of quality.
Type A personality, I guess. I've always been driven.
And I do manage to, many times, successfully separate my mind from my brain. ie, I separate Natasha from the disease. And as egotistical as I know this sounds, part of that is my intellect. It's pretty highly trained in this area. Again, I've always been an intellectual. It's my "safe place".
But that's not to suggest that those are the tools for anyone else. It's just me. And keep in mind, it's not like I have 100% success.
You questions are good though and I think I'll devote a post to it and see if I can really answer some of your questions. Not this week though as I've already had a request for Thursday's post :)
Nothing works all the time hon. In spite of what I said, be kind to yourself. You deserve it. Just work a little every day. You'll get there.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
January, 17 2011 at 6:38 pm

Hi Kate,
Well thank-you. Sometimes it takes someone else to express what we're feeling. I'm glad it helped.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
January, 17 2011 at 2:38 pm

Hi Diva,
I've been where you are. You are right, it's a spiral. I know I'm not saying anything you don't know, but you have to step off the spiral. That spiral feeds on itself.
Put the pills and the razor blade away. Stick them in the freezer or on the balcony or in a watering can, doesn't matter. Just some place where there's a barrier between you and them.
And then call someone. Or write. Or go out. Or read. Or watch TV. Or do whatever it is that you do.
I know that by posting that comment you're stronger than the spiral. I hope it helps a little.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
January, 17 2011 at 2:31 pm

Hi Yvonne,
The term "high-functioning" actually comes from how some people describe some people with autism, I just kind of stole it for my own uses. We writers are like that.
I do identify with _not_being_able_ to go out even when theoretically I wanted to. It's an odd kind of, oddness.
Sleep for us all, say I.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
January, 17 2011 at 2:27 pm

Hi J,
Yup, sounds familiar.
- Natasha

Shannon Marie
January, 17 2011 at 2:21 pm

It can be so very lonely living that way. I have been in a place where I am not funtioning well enough to even work. It is a luxury I am afforded by a supportive boyfriend. I feared jail, death or suicide when we met. That particular kind of loneliness is a hard feeling to capture-the pain that comes from protecting our loved ones from our lameness. I hear you, Sister.
I would love to know more about your schedule in particular and how you overcame working through depressions and controlling your actions during hypomania. You have more output that most crazy people I know, myself, included. I am stuck in a wierd limbo and I am sure it is text-book some kind of something or other. I have been in and out of bed for years now. any from the hip advice?

January, 17 2011 at 1:16 pm

You expressed this so's something I try to explain to my friends and family all the time, but they don't get it. I'm going to share this with them as you explain it much better than I do!

The Bipolar Diva
January, 17 2011 at 1:11 pm

Thank you. I needed this today. I say this as I sit with a bottle of pills and a razor debating my fate, should I stay or should I go. It's the beginning of a spiral and I don't like what's happening so far. No one would ever suspect that I have bipolar, I have a "normal" life, but that doesn't stop bipolar from taking the upper hand sometimes. When these spirals start, I never know if it will be my last. Guess I just had to get that out. Thanks for listening.

Yvonne Ares
January, 17 2011 at 12:43 pm

Thank you I have never seen "high functioning" bipolar mentioned before.
That is what I am, I do go out with friends but can hardly wait to get home.
I have cancelled events because I COULD not go to them.
Thank you for relating this to us.
I also would like to sleep for a long time.
Have a great day - and get some sleep.
yvonne Ares

January, 17 2011 at 11:29 am

Perfect! I am not working now, other than my own fledgling crochet business, but this perfectly describes how I felt when I was. But even now, just being out & around other people is exhausting.
I don't go out much, keep to myself most of the time because when I do out it takes all I have to put on that mask & play normal like somebody who wasn't just thinking in the shower I'd rather stay home & kill myself than go do this - & seriously thinking about.

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