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What 'I'm OK' Really Means When You Have a Chronic Illness

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“How are you?”

“I’m OK, thanks! How are you?”

Seems like a simple daily conversation, right?


When you’re chronically ill “I’m OK” takes on new meaning. “I’m OK” no longer has a simple definition, or even a single definition.

On any given day “I’m OK” may mean just that — I’m OK. It may mean I’m not great, but things are going OK.


It may also mean I’m really struggling, but I assume you’re sick of hearing about it.

It may also mean I’m in an incredible amount of pain, but I’ve become accustomed to hiding it.

It may mean I’m having an emotionally hard day, I’m feeling bitter and frustrated and hopeless, but I’m terrified you’ll run away if I tell you these things.

“I’m OK” may mean I’m having a decent day, or it may mean I’m just trying to make it through the day without crying (again).

It may also mean I’m afraid if I acknowledge my suffering out loud, it will become more real and more tangible and more painful.

Please don’t take offense if I tell you time and time again that “I’m OK” instead of telling you the truth. It’s just that I’ve become accustomed to saying this in order to preserve my relationships. I’ve grown tired of trying to determine who wants to hear “I’m OK” and who wants to hear the real answer, and it feels easier to not have to guess.

Without me even realizing it, “I’m OK” has become a default protective mechanism, one I’m only now learning to recognize. It protects me from judgment from others, from distancing friends, and sometimes even protects me from having to recognize my own struggles.

Please don’t stop asking me how I’m doing. Please forgive me for not always telling the truth. Someday I’ll learn that I can trust you with the real answer, and someday I’ll be incredibly thankful you never stopped trying to get it out of me.

Getty image by Bokan76.

Originally published: July 31, 2019
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