These four small words are ones I hear often, and ones I dread frightfully: So how are you? Other permutations: Are you feeling better? How have you been doing lately? etc etc. There’s something in the tone, the subtle drag on the end of the question, the deliberate way of asking that lets me know this is someone asking about the state of my mental health. Let me get this out of the way now: I know they’re asking because they care, I know they mean well, I know they’re being gentle. I’m not ungrateful or blind to any of this. However good their intentions, even if I couldn’t think of a better way to word it myself, it makes me Feel Things. Unpleasant Things. Dread, anxiety, the immediate pressure to make things seem better than they are – to lie, even. There are a limited number of ways I can ever answer this, especially if in public, a group, or to someone I’m not super close with (extended family maybe)… and none of them feel right.
Option 1: be honest. This will naturally vary day-to-day, hour-to-hour. Let’s take right now as a random example. My absolutely honest answer might go something like this:
I have no idea how I’m going to make it through the rest of this week, month, year. I feel low frequently, and consider suicide either actively or through intrusive thoughts every single day. I’m concerned because I still have no Psychiatrist appointment. I realise how long I’ve been managing my suicidal urges and have *no* idea how I made it this long. I feel depressed and I fear more than anything that I will always feel this bad. Constant low mood, accompanied by seemingly random and unpredictable bouts of intense emotional pain make me wonder how long I can hold on.
Well… I guess I could say this. But sitting in a pub, or at the beach, talking to people I haven’t for weeks, or maybe months.. I really don’t think I can bear my innermost turmoil so frankly. I suspect some people wouldn’t be that comfortable hearing it even if I could.
Option 2: be vague. This approach hinges on pretending to be oblivious to the deeper meaning of the question, and treating it more casually. A few useful phrases I’ve used:
Getting there. Same old, same old. Coping, thank you.
You get the idea. The thing with these kinds of replies is they’re short, sweet, and not too heavy. However, they don’t reflect my reality (i.e. what I laid out in Option 1) at all. Not even close, really. Because today, right now, I don’t feel like I’m coping.. definitely not like I’m “getting there”. So whilst I appreciate someone asking after me, caring how I am, what use is the exchange at all if I’m not telling them anything real? Based on how little I’m communicating, I may as well go the whole hog and just tell them I’m “fine”, “great”! Get the social awkwardness out of the way completely!
If you’ve managed to successfully navigate this line of questioning, maybe you could drop me a comment and give me some advice. I could use it! Right now, I’m largely going for Option 2, and feeling pretty lousy about it when I do. So if I see you in real life (cyberspace/twitter don’t evoke the same time pressure, so I can handle that much more easily), please don’t ask me how I’m doing. Then I promise not to lie.