"How are you?" The dreaded question for the chronically overwhelmed

Updated: Feb 2

It's such a common way to start a conversation, and we don't think twice about it when things are going ok in our lives. Of course, it's almost always answered with a lie "I'm fine, how are you?" The automatic reply which almost always slips out, bypassing conscious thought, followed by an immediate deflection. The ball is once again in the questioners court. A hot potato that neither party wish to hold for long. I can't decide if it's because we can't bear to 'go there' ourselves, or we don't want to be a burden or bore others (or ourselves!)... It's probably all these, and more...

It's a question we DO need to ask of eachother, and that does need full transparency, why shouldn't we be truthful? Why should we hide our suffering from those who care about us? But answering with authenticity requires a sense that we'll be heard, especially when there's worries about 'being a burden' or boring people. If we ask this question, we need to be willing and available to trully listen, as the answer might be much more complex and emotional than we expected. It's amazing how many of us are able to put on a facade. We excell at appearing 'fine', when inside we're crumbling. It's so easy to do, perhaps easier than facing things ourself too. I know that I can be a master of denial when it suits me. But that's not the whole picture. I often find myself falling into this pattern. When I do I call myself out, and wonder why... there's no easy answer. It's so culturally ingrained for one thing.

The issue with this social conditioning is that it's often simply a turn of phrase, not a real question asked from a place of deep care. It's just what you say, then the conversation moves on without a backwards glance. When I'm chronically ill or in the middle of overwhelming life stress, the last thing I want to do is suddenly be confronted with trying to summarise all my woes, potentially to someone I wouldn't necessarily choose to share them with. In fact, the last thing I want or feel able to do is talk at all. With chronic fatigue, talking is SO exhausting. Repeating the dreary liturgy of symptoms, ponderings, hopes, fears, and random stuff you've Googled (although I try not to!) gets incredibly wearing. Especially if you're going through a long process of diagnoses with many medical professionals. Sometimes I feel like a record stuck on repeat.

A little aside here -

This diagnoses process is in itself a roller-coaster ride where there's never really much up, just lots of lurching down rabbit holes of horribly real potential futures, followed by plateaus where you're held in suspended animation, treading water, a never-ending process of eliminating scary possibilities and not daring to hope but at the same time clinging desperately to any new possibility, however awful it might be. At these points I often sink underwater then find myself scrambling for the surface, spluttering and gasping, somehow summoning a shred of energy from who knows where... I think we've probably all been here in the last couple of years to some degree. The pandemic feels like a never ending and increasingly more complex groundhog day.

So, how am I, really?

It's a question I encourage people to ask themselves frequently as part of their self care routines. You need to know where you are before you can meet your needs, that's the idea.

Problem is, it can be such a HUGE and overwhelming question in itself. Where to start? It's important to try, but it's not easy. Getting in touch with ourselves, mindfulness, isn't all about serenity. It can be devastatingly brutal to face your reality, like really face it, and accept that's how things are...for now... It's not necessarily a pleasant process. When communicating with others, or myself, about this, I often don't know where to start. How long is a ball of string? And it IS a big messy, wiggly ball, no simples lines here. Everything gets so tangled and the emotions are intense, complex and many-layered. Burnout and chronic fatigue are one of the few experiences in life that I find indescribable. If you've not been there you might empathise but you'll never trully know.

And if you don't, I really hope you'll never know.

I'd never wish this on anyone. Feeling that the very vessel that contains your being and carries you through life is an unsafe place to be, well, where do you go? How do you escape that? You can't. Trapped but desperate to be free, to be 'normal', not that normal exists, but to be able to do 'normal' everyday things without them being utterly draining, or impossible. That's the dream... Once, when confronted with the dreaded 'How are you?' question, I tried a new response;

"That's quite a big question for me at the moment, can I come back to it if I feel I can".

It worked quite well. For me anyhow. My friend accepted it with understanding and didn't make a big deal about it. I felt in control. A rare thing when you feel your body is constantly failing you. It feels intensely vulnerable. Amplified of course by being in the midst of a global pandemic. The mental health impacts of feeling so physically vulnerable whilst navigating all this has been and continues to be an immense strain. And of course as things open up it doesn't get any easier. Thankfully I have great coping mechanisms honed over decades, plus excellent support networks. I really feel for anyone in a similar situation alone. If this is you please reach out to me. I'm here for anyone who's struggling.

We can meet each-other in it. My life-long health journey fuelled my desire to support others. It's been a tough road and it's still ongoing, yet I've gained a great deal from it already; tools, insights, gifts and most of all unending patience. And SURRENDER. Surrendering to things as they are. Because in my experience (and naturally I can only talk from that), resisting pain or pushing through fatigue only compounds it. Increasing tension, depleting energy reserves further. It feels a tough ask though.

It feels like giving up or giving in. Or at least that's what I thought.

It doesn't have to be.

It's simply meeting yourself where you are.

It's not easy. As I said, it can feel challenging and uncomfortable to descend into presence with physical or mental discomfort. Yet I've found that somehow it's a necessary first step towards healing. Some wise person once said "you can't heal what you can't feel", but it's worth saying here that it's also ok not to feel it for now if it's too much. You've got to feel resourced enough to 'go there'. In the meantime cutting off from it is a valid coping mechanism, but it will only get you so far. Numbness isn't a state that can be inhabited for very long without devastating mental health impacts. Depression isn't somewhere anyone wishes to go. We are all struggling in diverse ways. This is my battleground. My world is so very small. I'm basically isolating apart from medical stuff, but I can't isolate from myself, there's no vacation from what's going on in my body. The pain, the fatigue, it's always present and always dominating. Yet I'm getting by, somehow. I'm managing to do a little work, and thus to support others, to find meaning and purpose in my life despite the suffering (which is crucial for wellbeing). I'm also managing to maintain friendships (an essential supportive/ regulating factor), to advocate for myself when doctors want to give up, to stay hopeful, and to watch my birds. The brids make my heart sing, and I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to find and increase these small things that uplift us. Sometimes it's the smallest things that can keep us going through the toughest times.

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