From the Comments: What It’s All About


The Worst Flow Chart Ever Made: an illustration of feedback


In a comment on a recent post, forum member Alan Smithee commented something I thought should be brought to the front of the discussion. The comment included the following sentences:

I do not like the idea of ‘functioning.’ I do not like the idea of being on meds for the rest of my life. I do not like just getting by.” (Follow  the link above to read its full context.)

This forum’s very name asks that we challenge what it means to “function,” but perhaps we should also challenge the implications and rhetoric of “functioning.” Briefly, the term itself comes to English from Latin via Middle French. Despite any contemporary connotations toward mechanistic working, etymologically speaking it implies an evaluation of performance and execution of a given task at hand, usually involved in fulfilling some purpose.

Here’s where I start spouting off, expecting no one to agree with me but eager to read your opinions and interpretations: We, in the mental illness community, whether to our faces or not, are classified in terms of how well we perform in society. (The ramifications of this classification system are immense and often tragic.) I interpret my diagnosis with both sides of an individual-versus-collective coin. On one side, I was diagnosed because I was destroying myself (that’s the individual side of the coin). On the other (collective) side, I was diagnosed because I run with scissors and don’t play well with others. I didn’t function (i.e. perform or fulfill my social purpose) well. I would like to define “functioning” for myself, because I find this social performance criterion destructive. How well I execute the task of being one among many does not correlate with how well I execute the task of being the healthiest, happiest version of me.

So, I’m bringing Alan’s comment to the front hoping it presents an opportunity to assert some individual control over the “idea of ‘functioning’.” Although this probably repeats themes I’ve touched on before, might there be definitions, criteria, metrics, ideas, or expectations, that operate without pandering to external judgments of performance? Might there be ways to reclaim the language of “functioning” with respect and sensitivity and specificity? Might “functioning” be synonymous with “thriving” rather than “just getting by?” Or might this post be semantic esoteric bullshit without pragmatic application?

  1. Questions are always an opening. I was struck by Alan’s specific words as well. There’s a lot in the world I don’t want to do. But I do it. And so I just get by. I have been doing so for so long that I fear thriving. However, back to the question at hand. I do not think it is merely (to quote a word) “semantic esoteric bullshit without pragmatic application.” but this is what I DO think, for what it’s worth. In the post, ∃, you have described every human, MI or not. Everyone is judged based on their function and, thereby, functionality. If you can’t “do” you’d better move out of the way of those who can. I don’t believe this is specific to our society. (I think the level of doing or the quantity of doing is what varies.) there are plenty of people who run with scissors and don’t play well with others (Congress) who are not diagnosed. Therefore, I challenge the criteria for diagnosis and/or the lack of diagnoses for the others. I think we all know this, though…it’s complicated. At any rate, even undiagnosed non MI people are judged based on how well they perform in society. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. I think some individuals can look beyond that, but overall society teaches us that that is how we know each others’ worth, and our own. Besides, define thrive.

  2. said:

    Agreed on all counts. I (unsurprisingly) worry. And I worry about the conventional usage of “functionality” out there in the world, because it tends to imply that the MI don’t perform a social role. The HFMI get to be “special” only because we’ve proven (most of the time) to, indeed, perform an expected and accepted role. I worry when anyone, MI or not, is understood in terms of the performance of tasks identified by others. To some extent, this is a good thing, but there is a tipping point. Further, if there are places on the planet where this kind of valuation doesn’t happen, those places are probably disappearing rapidly (thanks, Globalized Economy!). OK, I’m digressing.

    Let me rein myself back in to something productive and maybe even helpful or interesting: I believe the word “functioning” has a certain and specific impact on the psyche and self-worth of the MI that it doesn’t have on others, despite those others being subject to the same judgment. Without devolving into complete and utter relativism, I think it is important that the MI be able to define the term and its inclusion of social norms…especially as it affects one’s treatment.

    Alan, perhaps I wrote the post as a roundabout way of asking whether there are ideas of “functioning” or “getting by” that you might like, if you were in charge of creating those ideas?

    Meredith (laughing hysterically), if I start defining “thrive” then this will most assuredly devolve into complete and utter relativism.

    • I knew I’d get you on that one! I AM thriving AND just getting by. So there! Yes. ok. so here’s something. Long before I knew there was anything MI about me (I was just special), I decided to have children. That meant leaving my “career” at which I was barely functioning (it was a bad fit) and staying home with the children as that’s what my ex and I decided would be best. My self-worth plummeted. Ok, don’t blame the postpartum, pre-diagnosed depression yet or solely. It is a valid thing in our society. Suddenly I was not contributing financially (at least in the traditional way) and no one saw what I did (not even my ex, sadly). I felt useless. So ingrained are those functional definitions or definitions of functionality, rather. And how apropos that I am reading Brave New World again right now. WOW! Connections covered!

  3. Alan Smithee said:

    I am having an episode right now. Things are going rather poorly and I am having suicidal ideations. I am allowing myself a brief cry and a thought about the G line, and at the same time answering the phone at my work, transferring calls, doing some accounting work. To my boss, I am “functioning.” To the person on the other end of the phone who believes that I have allergies and doesn’t sense the quivering in my voice, I am “functioning.” Inside my head, I am thinking about the G train. I am not functioning. My brain is not functioning. My brain is broken.

    “Functioning” connotes a superficial value judgment based on tangibles. I eat. I sleep. I take my meds. I occasionally do laundry. I don’t punch people. I don’t cut anymore. I get out of bed. I hold down a job. I shop for groceries. Occasionally I bring myself to answer my phone.

    True functioning to me would be complete, and would include the intangibles of emotional and mental (and spiritual? as if I believe in that anymore) checklists/accomplishments. I am not functioning. I eat too much or not at all. I sleep whenever I can. My meds have destroyed my ability to have sex. I don’t shower more than once a week. I scream silently. I punch myself in the head where no one can see the bruises. I hate my job.

    “Good enough never is,” is a quote by Debbi Fields, Google says she is some sort of middle management business expert. I’m sure I picked it up from some Dale Carnegie crap. I hear that in my head and think: “functioning” never is.

    I believe there is a path of mental illness healing: chaos->functioning->peace. I am not at peace yet. Peace would mean that I shower, and I have sex with my husband more than once every four months, that while I am waiting for the G train, I am only waiting for the G train. It would mean that I would have the ability of a non-MI person to accomplish goals such as losing weight, stopping smoking, not drinking too much.

    I hate that the world looks at me and thinks that I’m functioning. As long as I keep “functioning” they don’t have to give a crap about the mess inside my head.

    • Alan,
      I am sorry about your thread and your hanging. You are right. As long as you keep “functioning” the world doesn’t have to care about what’s really going on. Peace is elusive for most (non-MI and MI) but one’s peace is another one’s functioning. Why do we choose to show our functioning as opposed to what is really going on?

      • Alan Smithee said:

        Hmmm. I think I choose to show my functioning rather than what is really going on because A) I need an income, B) I don’t want to be hospitalized, and C) I don’t want to be given any more medication. And also “fuctioning” is to me, the highest point I can be at. I could descend again into “non-functioning” but that would just be much much worse.

        On the other hand, I do not openly share what is going on in my head. Why? A) because I’ve shared too many times and been demeaned, rejected, retaliated against, and punished, and B) I am not really the sort of person to share information without someone asking. Were someone to say, Hey, how is your Crazy these days? I would absolutely be able to tell them everything. I think that is what this site does for me. Why does someone have to ask for me to share information like that? I don’t know. I think it’s because I need to know that they want to know before I reveal that. If I can tell they are being insincere, I won’t share.

        • Gawd, totally get that. People just don’t want to hear it unless A)they’ve been there or B) they’re just compassionate souls. Don’t know if you’ve visited my blog ( but my friend JM and I talk about that. Most people don’t want to hear about it all the time. They don’t have any idea that we don’t want to live it all the time either. But it’s our lives. And we have to talk about our lives. Most of my talking has been online because I don’t know anyone else. JM is depressed so it’s a little different, no mania. But we can talk about it.

          so Alan, what’s really going on?

    • said:

      I have lines from baseball movies in my head, but figure those would not be much help. For others reading this comment: I know Alan IRL, and thus will probably write things that I wouldn’t write to others.

      I honestly believe your ability to vocalize what you’re feeling (from frustrations onward) is a good sign. I also believe (no surprise here) that clarifying where you are and where you want to be in concrete terms is a good sign. I’m compelled to offer some perspective on specific crap because I’ve known you long enough and I know you like to laugh. Laughing doesn’t discredit the severity or validity of your emotions, but it helps both of us work through the darkness.

      (1) The G train frickin’ sucks. It would cause a psychotic break in Gandhi. TRY to tell me this isn’t true. Seriously though: Have I told you that I do everything I can not to ride the subway? I’ve been known to walk 120 blocks because I can’t go underground. There are things — overwhelming things — about life here that are particularly difficult for the MI. Functioning (however defined) is hard anywhere, particularly in this city. You’re doing a good job.

      (2) Maybe a middle management business expert is not the person you should be deriving motivational cues from. Just a thought.

      (3) “…have the ability of a non-MI person to accomplish goals…” Really? How many supposedly normal people do you personally know who suck at accomplishing goals? Also, how many goals (big & small) have you personally accomplished despite your illness? (In some cases, because of your illness?) Answer: tons. I know. I was there. For me, it’s downright impossible in an episode to see what is and is not insurmountable. I’m not suggesting that you should be more objective. I’m just saying that…

      (4) “the world looks at [you]” and sees what it sees, but the world is not monolithic. Which people in the world matter in terms of what they’re seeing? If anyone, I hope not the ones who don’t give a crap. Screw them. Even if you don’t currently know this, I know that you can and will get where you want to be. You’ve been there before. It’s an episode; it too will pass…you just need to help push it along on its merry little way.

      (5) I like your chaos -> functioning -> peace flowchart. Maybe because I like flowcharts.

      • said:

        Alan…It has occurred to me through the course of my day that I’m wordy and don’t always get to the point effectively. Here: You ARE doing a good job. Hard times and dark days and just plain sucky-ness are the crappy crap we deal with and go through. As my husband says to me when I just can’t anymore and want to give up: I can’t believe how strong you are. For having the strength to go through this crap, be proud of yourself. It’s difficult, but empowering.

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