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What I Say When Someone Asks 'How Are You?'

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I am now retired on permanent disability, but when I was in the office, I would very often get asked a really hard question in an inappropriate setting: “How are you?”

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This was a tough one, because I usually felt like I chiselled through a rock wall just to get to the office. Dragging myself out of bed, hanging on for balance in the shower, waiting for my meds to kick in, my husband shoveling me into the car with my muscles still spasming all the way to work and fighting with the thought: “I just can’t do this today.” How do I answer truthfully without glossing over my experience and without making the person uncomfortable?

I know that 90 percent of the time when someone asks “how are you?” it is a social greeting, not a real question meant to elicit my deepest thoughts and feelings about my current experience. But my current experience is intense and I do have deep thoughts and feelings that I want to share. I feel so alone and unseen most of the time.

I find that generally people don’t want a list of ailments or complaints; even I don’t. I save my list of hardships for a heart to heart with a dear friend who understands, or a therapist or someone who actually wants to know how I am doing. I am also trying to focus on the beauty of my day rather than the hardships.

So how did I answer this very difficult question without being untruthful or a complainer? The answer I came up with is: “I’m here.” Truthful, poignant, provocative. I think it sort of hints that just being here is a feat for me. It doesn’t make a judgment, good or bad — I’m just here. Sometimes “I’m here” is a triumph; sometimes it is all I’ve got.

Now that I am retired and life is a bit simpler, I rarely get asked the “how are you?” question as a social greeting. If I do get asked I can answer truthfully. I am trying to focus on things outside of my illness, like my son, my writing, what I am reading, and noticing beautiful things. So I can answer based on those things. If someone wants to specifically know about my illness, I can say “I am thankful I have lots of help” or “I am making it through the day” or “I have been struggling lately.” This is not because I feel pressure to be OK, but because I am choosing where to put my focus.

I don’t want to put anyone in the same predicament I was in at the office. If I ask someone how they are, I mean it. I want to know your deep thoughts and feelings. I often ask: “What’s got you excited these days? How are you managing? What are you doing with your downtime?” If I am just passing you in the hallway or greeting you and don’t have time for a heart to heart, I will say “nice to see you.”

Getty image by Kritchanut.

Originally published: September 6, 2018
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