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 

Have a FINE day!

Terri 🙂