Have you ever heard of high-functioning mental illness?

Just like high-functioning alcoholics, there are also high functioning people struggling with mental illness. But, before we get into all that, you need to know this question: what is high-functioning mental illness? High-functioning mental illness is when someone is living with a mental illness that is just about undetectable. This covers a broad spectrum. They may be entirely able to care for themselves, work impressive careers, share relationships, and seemingly thrive in day-to-day life.

Types of high-functioning mental illness

These types of mental illness aren’t usually undetectable to the naked eye: borderline personality disorder, depression, addiction, anxiety, etc. The term high-functioning mental illness is a relatively unused term, but it is important for you to know there are very successful professional people battling against these maladies daily.

Being a sober professional with high-functioning mental illness

Mother of Kinkajous by night, professional by day. At this point in my life, I wear many hats while staying sober. I’ve survived some pretty dark times and my, what a hell of a road it’s been. These days, many people assume I am a stay-at-home kinkajou mom. That is hardly the case! Not only do I work a full-time career that I am very proud of, but I also run a nonprofit. It’s called Kinkatopia and it’s the only 501c3 kinkajou sanctuary in the world. Oh yeah, I also personally care for those kinkajous so every single day I’m responsible for mainly 10 nocturnal animals and a human. So, how do I manage to be a sober, professional with high-functioning mental illness?

I learned lots of skills that would help over the years

My 20s were a whirlwind of trying to get sober, established as a human being, and graduate college. I was literally on the 10-year plan. Finally, in 2018, by the grace of God, I was hired at a publishing company. Ten months prior, I was tirelessly applying to jobs in hopes of getting out of my early-recovery job working the front desk of a spa. I faced many challenges at that job during my first year, but it entirely served its purpose. Slightly after my one-year anniversary, I launched into my profession.

Mind blown — I had a career path where I could use my degree

Up until that point, I was mostly directing my work future out of sheer convenience by settling for various jobs within the drug and alcohol treatment industry. Now I was going to be a “real girl” among “real people.” I no longer had to be defined as a recovering alcoholic working in the field. 

Alexandra’s coworker Nicole meets a kinkajou for the first time

My job is amazing, and I am not just saying that because I know some of my coworkers are reading this (shoutout to my homies). My Higher Power really hooked me up with this one. The company is very special — not only does it care about my work life; it cares about my overall life. I am able to follow my dreams inside and outside of work with open and understanding support.

Finding a work environment I felt I could be safe in was an important piece

When I started, I was very guarded about my status as being an alcoholic. After my first year sober, I carried a lot of guilt and shame. Fear made me think that I would be judged as I had been so brutally in my past. Having used to be very open about the malady I fight against everyday, I severely dialed it back after my relapse in 2017. I learned the value of balancing discretion. Slowly but surely, after about 6 months at my job, I started opening up when it was appropriate. Now, 2 and a half years later, I am comfortable and proud to share that I don’t drink because I am sober — I allow my coworkers to get to know me and the kinkajous; can’t forget them. This experience has helped me realize that I am so much more than a label or stigma. 

Being able to merge my different lives together has also been helpful

Speaking of kinkajous … Kinky has even joined me at the office! Just a brief anecdote before I get back into the gravity of my message. Kinky kinkajou spent a day meeting my coworkers, assisting with proofreading, and co-managing meetings with me. He was amazing! I could only allow it for one day though; he was surely to be promoted before me if we kept that up. Okay, back to it…

Kinky kinkajou at the office

My life is full and can easily get overwhelming. My job can be driven by the pressures of deadlines, managing a department, and chaos from current events affecting our services. However, I wouldn’t change it for the world, but I can healthily admit that it can be a lot! We work hard and are rewarded kindly. A true beauty of being sober in this field is that I have the 12 steps to help me work through everyday challenges.  

I work 9 to 5 during the normal workweek and care for the animals, while running the nonprofit, in the evenings and weekends. On top of that, I see a therapist, keep close to my sober network, attend meetings (I’ll admit, I can always attend more), help newcomers, and spend time with God. And on top of that … I work out, execute freelance writing work, spend time in nature, socialize, and schedule downtime. I saw a post a bit ago that said: 

Learning coping skills in recovery was a critical piece to making this all work

I really think there is truth to that statement when it comes to alcoholism. Many of us are smart, successful, active, and highly motivated — how could we possibly be suffering? Removing the drugs and alcohol leaves me with a malady that has blessed me with the inability to cope. Fortunately, with the self-improvement sought and tools utilized every day, I am granted reprieves from the overwhelming frustrations I can suffer from. Disclaimer: I am not saying that I feel viewed as the above post suggests; I have been blessed with many open-minded people in my life, especially within my work place. I am saying that I think there is validity to it. 

Alexandra exploring Buck’s Island off St. Croix

I will be the first to say that if I am not taking care of my well-being and putting my recovery first, I get to be a bit of a monster at work. I can be easily agitated, self-righteous, and put up walls. My feelings emit from my energy, which can be very easy to read; a blessing and a curse. My defects can come out sideways so I have to be vigilant to keep myself in check. 

Self-care, time management, and honesty are the final components to having a successful life

I schedule everything, stick to my plan, and stay rigorously honest with my support network. That being said, most of my mornings start out with an internal battle of whether or not I should get out of bed. Am I good enough? Is this going to be the day I break? Not today, Satan! I know without a shadow of a doubt that I never want to go back to the person my disease wants me to be. So I say a prayer, get myself together, and scrub kinkajou poop for an hour before my drive to the office. My life is truly beyond my wildest dreams.

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Alexandra Ashe
Alexandra is a sober woman who loves animals, writing, nature, horror movies, fitness, and self-improvement. After suffering a relapse in late 2016, she revamped her lifestyle and has been sober since March 2017. She is also the CEO and founder of Kinkatopia, which is the only kinkajou-specific organization in the world. Alexandra literally lives and breathes kinkajous — in addition to working a full-time career, taking care of her health, and giving back to the world in other ways. She is a woman on a mission ... the Mother of Kinkajous. Follow Alexandra’s articles to relish her experiences staying sober and running a kinkajou sanctuary. There is never a dull moment, that’s a promise. Kinkatopia.org

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