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Why I Gave up Saying 'I'm Fine' for Lent

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For Lent this year, I challenged myself to stop answering the question “How are you?” with “I’m fine.” As a phrase, “I’m fine” has become almost completely vacuous – an everyday phrase, said over and over, but that communicates nothing at all. Perfect for when we are afraid to be too honest about how we’re feeling.

Turns out, when you’re feeling good, it’s fairly easy to ditch “I’m fine.” But not so much on the bad days. “I’m OK” or “I’m not too bad” has become my new code for “I’m really not doing well.”

And I don’t think it’s just me who struggles to express out loud any sentiment more negative than “I’m fine.” So much so that “fine” has itself become a negative adjective.

Part of it is undoubtedly that it’s just the thing to do to automatically reply to “How are you?” with “I’m fine,” in the way that “How do you do?” is just a generic introductory phrase, not an actual inquiry into your welfare. This is a plausible explanation regarding people you don’t know, but we still tell people who care about us — who care about the answer — that we’re fine, even when we manifestly aren’t. It’s not helpful to either party. Why then, do we persist?

There are a few factors I think drive this behavior, at least that I personally experience. The fear of being a burden to other people and the feeling that if you tell someone you aren’t fine, they will feel obliged to go out of their way to look after you. But most of all, there’s a stigma associated with not being fine. No one wants to be the “Debbie Downer,” the girl who mopes and is sad all the time. Everyone wants to be the bright bubbly girl people look forward to seeing.

And then there’s the little issue, in my case, of how to explain what’s wrong. If I told you I was scared by Trump being elected or that I was really tired or that I was worried about getting work finished on time, you would understand, sympathize and know what to do – offer a cup of tea, an encouraging smile, a hug. And after all, because I’m not missing work, not spending whole weekends unable to leave bed, not lying on the bathroom floor sobbing late at night, it seems like I must be doing fine — with my ups and downs, sure, but generally fine.

And how can you understand if I tell you I’m upset because I’ve just thrown away my breakfast in case I poured bleach into it without noticing or remembering? That I’m late today because I’m terrified of being in contact with anything that could be contaminated and had to change my clothes three times this morning? That I’m tired of counting my shopping items when I get back from the store to make sure I haven’t stolen
anything by accident? That I haven’t sent that email because I don’t know if for sure if it includes any swear words even though I’ve checked it over and over? That I can end up in tears making a cup of tea in case I use a mug that isn’t clean and could make myself or someone else sick?

These kinds of thoughts are something most people probably experience at some point, but are usually fleeting, gone in a second, barely noticed. For me, they are on repeat, in my head. A 24 hour news cycle of fake news, designed to terrify and subdue. And damn, it works.

I don’t want the times I don’t feel fine to define me. And I’m afraid. I’m afraid the people who think of me as an intelligent, committed, competent, funny, generous girl will suddenly see me as “the crazy one” — the one to be avoided, the one whom there is no chance of understanding, the “unstable” one, the “loopy” one, the “mad” one. So I hide behind being “fine,” plastering a cracking smile over a tear-stained face, simultaneously hoping someone will notice I’m not alright and praying that no one will be able to tell.

So a heartfelt plea from me to all you folks out there. Keep in mind this girl, who knows all the lyrics to “Mamma Mia,” who can debate politics for hours, who is always delighted by coffee and cake, who loves clouds and dancing and bookshops and cheese fondue, and this girl who can’t always cope even with simple tasks, who can’t always fight her thoughts, who some days is so desperately sad that she crawls away to hide by herself where the light can’t find her, these girls are one and the same. And the former would not be who she is without the latter.

And in return, I will stop saying I’m fine – properly this time. And I will listen more carefully to how you answer the dreaded question, “How are you?” Because if we all speak a bit more and listen a bit more, we will be able to help and strengthen and fight for each other that much more easily. And maybe then, someday, we all really can be fine.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via katyau.

Originally published: March 31, 2017
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