How Are You, Really?

If people realized how dangerous that question is, I think they would stop asking it.

Ever since my mother’s stroke, I have struggled with how to respond when people inquire after her health and my emotional state. These dear, kind, lovely people are genuine in their desire to express concern and offer support. I don’t know what I would do if no one asked.  The support of others may be the only thing that is getting me through this challenging time.  On the other hand, I don’t seem to know how much to say.  I’m okay at responding quickly and generally when someone politely asks how she is doing. It is when they follow-up with a subsequent, probing question about how I am “really” handling it that I have the problem.

On one hand, I want to tell them. Oh, how I want to tell them! There is a huge reservoir of unexpressed thoughts and feelings living in my mind that constantly threatens to breech the levy of my composure. On the other hand, I don’t want to a be an emotional drain or a tedious attention-guzzler. I don’t want to be someone who can bring nothing to the relationship table except her brokenness. I have been that person and I hate myself when I am so pitiful. I also don’t want to be crying in public all the time, as I am wont to do when I start allowing all those thoughts and feelings to creep over the dam. Crying is not my best look and I seem physically unable to control it.

I am always resolving not to take the bait the next time someone asks me how I am, really. I’m afraid I usually fail. When someone asks probing questions, I tend to reward their kind concern by vomiting out a string of words, words, and more words, punctuated by awkward pauses and wrapped in weird syntax. The friend who has asked the question tends to look engaged and concerned at first. As the words keep coming, the friend’s eyes tend to go somewhat blank. Finally, when it is clear that I am either going to have to stop talking to take a breath or lose consciousness, I notice the friend’s eyes darting around in a panic, searching for an escape route.

I am pretty sure that the long outpouring of words is rarely lucid. I know it does not accurately describe what is going on in my heart and mind. That may be why I keep talking and the words keep coming out. I guess I figure that, if I say enough words, I’ll utter some that will actually reflect what I’m feeling.

It isn’t like writing. When I write about how I am doing, I can write all the words I want without burdening anyone. I can reread all those words I have written and focus on the few that actually ring true. I can highlight those genuine nuggets and expound on them, while excising all the words that seem unauthentic or unhelpful. On the other hand, when I’m in a live conversation, all those words just lie there between me and the other person. They litter up the personal space and often create a barrier between us. Once I’ve said them, I can’t edit them or “unsay” them. I think that is one of the reasons I have a hard time sleeping at night. I tend to replay past conversations, editing them in my head. I will surely be prepared for the next time that exact same situation occurs and requires a better version of the exact same conversation. I also anticipate future conversations, writing the script for what I should say when the time comes. Of course, since no one else gets a copy of the script, it may be a little bit difficult for me to say my lines without the other players giving me the right cues.

The other day at the nursing facility, one of the hospice nurses asked me how I was doing. I responded by saying I was okay, as well as could be expected. She asked again and I responded similarly. I was hoping she’d stop that particular line of questioning, but she just kept standing there, staring me in the eye, saying nothing. I’ve always known that a person who is comfortable living in the awkward silences of a conversation is a person is who is likely to get the information she seeks. It is a technique I employed often in my working life. My familiarity with the strategy didn’t help me in this situation, though. The hospice nurse didn’t have to live in an awkward silence very long at all before words started stumbling out of my mouth. I don’t even know why or what I was saying. I just had to talk.

The hospice chaplain saw what was going on, because there is basically no place that is private in a nursing home. He hustled over to hug me and add his voice to the “how are you doing, really?” chorus. Trying to stop the flow of tears that inevitably accompanies the flow of verbiage, I started babbling about completely unrelated subjects. The nurse and chaplain seemed to find the whole exchange pretty alarming.  They kept suggesting I needed to get away from it all much sooner than a trip I was toying with taking in September. They also thought I should do relaxation exercises, ask for help, and remember to put on my own oxygen mask before assisting others. This required even more words to convince them that I am doing things to take care of myself and actually feel like I’m approaching the situation in as healthy a way as I can muster. It is just a sad, exhausting situation, even if you do all the right things. And I come from a long line of easy criers.

Despite all the words, I don’t think I convinced them.

Do you have difficulty responding when people show concern for you during difficult times? How do you reply?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com. 

Have a FINE day!

Terri 🙂

4 thoughts on “How Are You, Really?”

  1. Oh, Terri. I don’t want to overstep any boundaries but I’m sensing that you are very tied up in an outcome instead of surrendering to your mother’s situation. You said it – it is just a sad, exhausting situation even if you do all the right things. It sounds like you need an outlet; would counselling be in order? Would the hospice chaplain might be a good resource? You are grieving and grief, like garbage, needs to be put out so it doesn’t start to stink. Maybe we wouldn’t breech the levy of composure in day-to-day encounters if we hadn’t stuffed our emotions all day every day. I don’t know. I’ve been told that when we’re asked, “How are you?” and we answer, “Fine,” it’s because parts of us are fine but parts of us have been changed indescribably. I offer you this prayer; maybe you can offer it up to your mom:
    I bless you. I have faith in you. I behold Jesus in you…I place you lovingly in the care of the all caring one.

    1. Thanks, Mona. I think I understand what you mean. I truly don’t think it is the outcome in which I am overinvested, but I do think I have trouble releasing the process sometimes. When I can concentrate on just living in the moment and dealing with whatever the situation is on a given day, I usually do pretty well. Sometimes, I start letting my mind focus on the unknown future and trying to control the heck out of it. Obviously, that’s futile and only makes things more difficult. I do pray frequently for the strength to just live with what is and, most of the time, God and I keep me reasonably steady.

  2. Dear Terri….you made me realize how close it is to crying when I read your blog….your dear mother is going through such a difficult time and you do all you can to help her, I know. So sorry. Do you feel you could use counseling every once in a while to be able to vent? I do pray for you, but know the daily life is so hard to get through. May the Lord comfort you and give you peace.

    Love you, Lois

    1. Thanks, Lois. I love you, too. i thank God for the strength He loans me during these difficult times. Most of the time, I do fairly well. Everyone can’t be emotionally healthy and mature all the time. Sometimes, I crack a bit. Besides, this situation just IS sad. If I didn’t feel sad and overwhelmed and anxious at least some of the time, there would be something wrong with me. The hospice people do provide bereavement counseling. I will probably avail myself of it at some point.
      Thank you!

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