Recent events have me ranting on about the label “high functioning” to the point where I’m almost frothing at the mouth. I’ve had this label all my adult life and I’d like to shove it up the mental health industry’s collective ass. Where it was once meant as nothing more than a measuring stick to those who had been trained in understanding such things (those people with PhDs behind their names), it’s become nothing more than a banner for the media and Hollywood to wave around while they pretend they know what they’re doing. In truth, this label does more damage than help and there is little or no understanding that comes with it.

Originally, the term “high functioning” meant someone who was able to function within society with minimal difficulties. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? The insidiousness of it is disgusting and we should start demanding it be dumped from our collective lexicon. Here’s what happens; the mental health professionals, psychiatrists and psychologists and such, get together and determine what is normal functioning in society. They decide on this narrow band of behaviour that includes employment, socializing, learning, etc. Now, if you behave according to those parameters, then you’re high functioning. There’s a few problems with this.

No one really knows what “normal” is. Is a family with a single mom “normal”? Then what about a family with two dads? Does that become abnormal? Or what about a family with a mother and father? Is that supernormal or ultranormal? What is the goal we’re reaching for here? Truth is, no one really has a lock on this. Psychiatrists and psychologists have an idea of what normal is but it’s a narrow bandwidth that isn’t able to adapt to a society that is in a constant state of flux. What was normal in the 1950s is no longer normal today and that’s all right. Society changes as humans adapt to their environment and needs. It’s what evolution built into us. So now we have a bandwidth that defines normal functioning in society that can’t adapt to change.

Right.

When I was about 8 years old, there was a boy living in our complex who had autism. He liked to sit at the door and watch the cars go by. He was especially enamored with trucks and would excitedly scream when they went by. Some of the truck drivers got used to him sitting there and would honk as they went by. This would send him into fits of excited rocking and arm waving while he giggled happily. We kids loved playing with him. He was always up for a game of tag, even if he didn’t really understand the rules and was always good natured and happy. We knew that we weren’t to touch him, he didn’t like that, so we’d wave at his face and that counted as a “tag”. The adults, though, tried to discourage us. They were concerned about us playing with the “retard”. He didn’t know his own strength, they said, and he could hurt us. Didn’t matter. We played with him and he played with us. That boy taught me more about acceptance and understanding than anyone else in my life. Yet, he was considered “low functioning”. To us kids, he was just a playmate. We didn’t care about his functioning.

I have Nonverbal Learning Disorder. If autism and ADHD had a love child, NLD would be it. Very little is known about it and very little research is done on it. Yet doctors classify me as being “high functioning” as I can navigate society. So what makes me different from that boy? A Bachelor of Arts degree? An ability to weave words into a magical world? My determination? Why am I any better than that boy who was able to teach me so much about compassion and happiness? Yet, if you look in the media, there is a clear difference. Watch any episode of “Criminal Minds” to see the difference between someone with a mental illness who is “high functioning” and someone who isn’t.

The difference? I learned to hide who I am and that boy didn’t.

That’s it. I’m able to navigate society because I don’t make the normies uncomfortable. I don’t make them cringe inwardly when they talk to me. They don’t have to suppress any feelings of pity when I’m around them. I can look, act and talk just like them so I’m acceptable. If they knew the cost I paid to be able to do this, they wouldn’t be so comfortable. I would give them more nightmares than that boy ever could.

I learned how to act and talk like the normies at the hand of my abuser. I was psychologically and emotionally abused all my life and learned fast to please my abuser. One of the things I learned was how to not talk about my “stuff”. To keep the anxiety fears buried deep even as I smiled and shook hands. To never cringe when someone touched me. In all things I had to make sure my abuser was happy and nothing was sure to bring down her wrath like talking about stuff best kept to myself or in the family. To this day it’s nearly impossible for me to talk about what goes on in my head because I’m afraid of being punished.

Until people start accepting that normal is a spectrum and not a bandwidth, we will get nowhere with mental health issues. We won’t ever accept men talking about depression or women talking about eating disorders. We won’t be able to see people in all their quirks and strengths and weaknesses. We will always demand they behave within accepted norms. Until the term “high functioning” is banished, we will get nowhere.

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