Performing: I make a living out of it. I get on stage and make people laugh. I’m currently on tour doing just that. And I love it. But (and there is a but) even in a dream job, I’m constantly acting like I’m fine when sometimes I’m not. Don’t we all do that though? I mean, that’s part of my job, to entertain when sometimes I hurt inside. But aren’t we all putting on a mask when we are asked a simple question:
“How are you?”
This simple question used to put panic in my heart. Do I ‘fess up and reveal how I feel like I’ve swallowed an anvil? How I’ve not felt hopeful in months? How I wake up crying most mornings? How I have a panic attack and feel faint at least once a week? Friend, family member, stranger behind the counter in the newsagents: how will the real me be received by this particular audience? At this point we’re all performers and we all know the “correct” response. We’ve learnt our lines since we were young. There’s only one polite answer. That’s our cue to say, as a reflex response…
“I’m fine, and you?”
And we expect to hear what in response? The same thing every time. That little song we play, that little jig we all dance:
And on we go with the conversation. It’s polite. It’s direct. It’s done with. But does it really say anything. How terribly polite. How terribly predictable. How terribly unreal.
In that little song we had an opportunity to pause the beat. We could’ve grabbed the opportunity to make a proper human connection if either of us had been brave enough to be honest about how we’re really doing. Because if we’re honest, none of us are completely fine.
‘Fine’ is a nothing word. It’s like “nice”. There’s so many other words we really mean. Fantastic? Elated? Terrific? Euphoric? Manic? Hectic? Busy? Excited? Fraught? Struggling? Sad? Angry? Stressed? Anxious? Depressed? Worried? Overwhelmed? Scared? Alone?
There are so many other words but if words aren’t your thing you could answer with colours, songs, films, clothes, artworks, GIFs.
There’s a chance to understand each other’s more nuanced stories if only we’d take just a moment to ask again.
“Ok, but really, how are you?”
I’ve a few friends who have a mental illness themselves. They look out for me. They ask twice. They ask. And then they ask again. That second time I know they really want to know how I really truly am.
We’re all busy in our very busy and important lives full of stress and worry. But it only takes another minute to maybe see beneath the chink of our armour - if we’re really ready to be there for each other, which I believe a lot of us are.
‘I don’t want to be a nuisance, attention-seeking, a pain’. I think to myself when people ask me how I really am. They don’t really want to know. But I can’t do their thinking for them. Isn’t it a sign of respect if I treat them as though they really do care and really are ready to hear how I truly am? If I’m scared to be real then no one will ever really know the real me. And that dissonance is unhealthy. I needed to be brave enough to really tell people how I was. And I need to ask others… twice.
So I started applying that logic to my conversations. I stopped giving the impression that I was totally fine when really I wasn’t. And I started to ask others how they were, twice. Very quickly I discovered the braver I was in being that bit more real, people weren’t scared to know I wasn’t entirely ok. In fact, they took it as an invitation to be that bit more open themselves. People started to open up more to me about their own worries, concerns, stresses, insecurities. I was able to be there for them in a more real way because I trusted they would be there for me.
Being more honest hasn’t instantly cured my mental health conditions. But my friendships have deepened. My day to day life and well-being has improved. I have a stronger faith in humanity. Vulnerability is a sign of strength. It’s an invitation to be honest. It’s permission to admit to our flaws, our humanity and that life is just that bit tougher than we feel allowed to admit to. So now I’m being brave to shop assistants I barely know who ask me “how’s your day been?” I’ll take them up on the offer. Yes, I have to reign myself in from time to time and remind myself they’re not my therapist. They don’t have the appropriate amount of tissues for such a role.
Asking twice may seem a simplistic idea. But it might just be the invitation someone needs to take off their mask. Just for a moment, to stop performing. And that lifting of that weight might be life-saving.
Ask twice. Be brave when you answer. Appearances can be deceptive.
@Juliette Burton is a stand-up comedian. Find out more about her work at www.julietteburton.co.uk/