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Instead of Saying 'I'm Fine,' I'm Trying to Be Honest About How I Feel

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“I’m fine.” That’s what we all say, isn’t it?

Isn’t that the only socially acceptable answer in the rush rush rush of productivity we’re all caught up in?

“I’m fine, I’m coping, I’m achieving, I’m holding it together.”

woman lying in the middle of the road with text reading 'i'm fine'

I’m fine means so much and so little. Yet I say it every day. At work, at play and in day-to-day life, I can plaster on a smile and say, “I’m fine, thanks, how about you?”

For me this overly utilized statement mostly means either “I’m not fine but I’ve gone to quite a lot of effort pretending I am so I’d like you to play along with me” or “I’m actually not fine at all and if you show me any kind of sympathy I will cry and I’m worried that possibly I’ll have forgotten how to stop.”

Does this sound familiar?

I’ve noticed friends tend to respond in one of three ways:

1. Accept that all is well and continue the conversation, asking about aspects of my life, telling me about their recent successes and frustrations. These conversations are great; they are important reminders that there is more to life than pain. Life is still out there, and my troubles now seem small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I feel normal. The problem with this is the pretense feels fake. I’m uncomfortable with how accomplished I’ve become at deception. It’s also tiring to maintain – who did I confide in and who did I smile and wave to?

2. Then there are those who notice that all is probably not fine, ask me again or question my response but continue to go along with me. This is great too. It reminds me that people care, and I’m perhaps not such a master of disguise. I like when we can pretend together…sometimes.

3. Then there are the brave souls who call me out on the lies and ask me what is wrong or just approach and hug, forcing me to accept their compassion. This is my favorite and yet most uncomfortable response. Someone I know who I don’t see often always embraces me regardless of the situation or how I look or behave. I feel disarmed and vulnerable, but loved and accepted. I want to both welcome it and run away.

I’m sure these experiences of pretending everything is OK for the fear of falling apart and being exposed as not winning at life isn’t unique to me, isn’t unique to lupus and isn’t unique to chronic illness.

So why not just tell the truth in the first place? It’s not a secret but it doesn’t make great school gate or coffee shop conversation. I don’t know how to say, “I’m not fine, because…” I feel bad for dumping that information on you when I know you’re also having more than enough of your own struggles. I worry you’ll judge me and tell me others are worse off, causing me to feel guilt guilt guilt!

Almost a year ago I started telling people I was in pain. People were sympathetic but after a while I felt I should have news of recovery to share. People told me I looked better so I thanked them and said what we both wanted to hear, “I’m fine.”

I’ve read a lot about how people with chronic pain/illness feel they are judged by others, that they’re somehow viewed as weak or malingering. I don’t feel judged by others, only by myself. I want to have that good news conversation. I want this to be temporary. Telling the truth somehow makes that seem less likely.

Specifically in regards to lupus, some days I feel good and start to think, “It’s gone!” Only to wake up the next morning to discover it’s returned and this time, some other body part hurts or some other function has temporarily developed its own agenda. So telling the truth becomes hard. “I feel terrible today, I can’t stand up long enough to cook for my children or stay awake to see my husband” becomes hard to believe when the next day I can go to work, dig my garden and walk my dog. Again, I feel like a fraud. So do I make out all is well or all is not well? How can it be both?

I also worry people will think of me differently, see me as weak or vulnerable or incapable. Now I realize this doesn’t do justice to the people I know. But I think whatever our circumstances, we all live with a little bit of fear that we somehow don’t measure up to expectations, yet somehow everyone else does.

When I started telling people about lupus, they all reacted in the exact same way: concern, sympathy, offers of help and then they went on treating me the same way they always had. And that’s the lesson right there. Tell the truth, be brave, write it down if you can’t say it out loud. People may surprise you – maybe that person will be you.

I’ll leave you with one of my all-time favorite quotes (i’m paraphrasing from memory):

“If only because it’s the easiest thing to remember, tell the truth.” – Toby Ziegler (The West Wing)

Originally published: April 20, 2017
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