How do you answer the question: "how are you?"
"How are you?" is probably the most frequently asked question in the world. No matter where you go, you can’t escape it. Social norms dictate that the question should be asked in all circumstances, whether you’re a best friend or a total stranger. But it’s the scariest question in the world when you’re having a bad day.
It’s okay though because I’ve become a pro at answering it. I hate lying you see, it makes me feel guilty. So instead of “Not bad thanks”, I’ll say “Not too bad thanks”. Notice the ‘too’. What that really means is “I’m bad, but not too bad because I’m still... alive”. It means I’m awful but if I’m still standing here talking to you then I guess it could be worse?
But why do I still feel the need to use these strategies? I’m passionate about ending the taboo surrounding mental health; I’m a complete advocate for the cause. A lot of people have written about the ‘how are you’ predicament and put it down to stigma. I don’t know if it’s stigma for me anymore. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s fear of causing someone else awkwardness. Maybe it’s not wanting to inflict myself on others. All I know is that it leaves me feeling exposed, like an open wound.
I’m very open about my history of mental illness
I’m very open about my history of mental illness. There’s virtually nothing that I wouldn’t share anymore. But as I write this, I realise maybe that’s it: ‘my history of mental illness’. Is it more acceptable to talk about when you used to be ill, when you used to struggle, because now you’re ‘stronger’? I always say that my experiences have made me stronger but is that inadvertently stigmatising? Is that an admission that when I was unwell, I was ‘weak’? I do feel that by confessing that I’m not okay, I’m being beaten by it again and I should be more resilient. I think perhaps I’m good at challenging other people’s stigma but don’t address my own internalised discrimination. And self-stigma is the most damaging kind.
Another phrase I use quite often is “I’m alright”, because it’s non-committal, it doesn’t really give anything away. But my best friend has cottoned onto this one, and has stared replying “only alright?” Damn. I’ve been foiled. Maybe I’m not such a pro after all. I guess the truth is, even if you think you’ve perfected that mask that hides yourself from those around you, the people who know you best will one day figure out how to take it off.