I suspect that many of us living with mental illness, or any other chronic illness, for that matter, have a standard set of responses that we sometimes draw on when answering questions about how we are and what we do. “Not okay” just isn’t something most people want to hear.
For me, these standard responses may come out if there’s an expectation of judgment, but also if I know the person isn’t actually interested in the real answer, if I don’t like the person sufficiently for them to get a genuine answer, or if I just don’t have a short but still accurate answer for how I’m doing.
Here are some examples from my repertoire.
How are you?
- “Great” = anywhere from good to great
- “Good” = okay
- “Okay” = not okay
- “Alright” = not very good, but there’s no point getting into it now
- “Um… ok, I guess” = really not okay, but I don’t have the words/energy to describe it
It’s been a long time since I’ve come out with the first two responses, but they were standard practice when I was well.
What have you been up to lately?
- “not much” = I’m doing my usual thing, but I have no interest in telling you what that is
- “Um……. not much” = a) I’ve literally done nothing, or b) I don’t remember
I don’t have enough contact with people to run into this situation anymore, but this is something I’ve struggled with in the past. Mostly, I tried to keep the word count below five. “Where are you working right now?” “I’m not.” End of story. People seem to feel very entitled to ask about work. But, as I said, I don’t deal with that much now because I’m not around annoying people enough to have to put up with it. Plus now it takes me an extended period of time to even get five words out of my mouth, so that shuts things down rather well.
Smiling versus not-smiling
I sometimes try to smile to be polite. Psychomotor retardation doesn’t always leave that as an option, though. The slower I get, the less I’m physically able to move my face into expressions. Even if I wanted to smile, I couldn’t; it’s like my face just doesn’t move that way. And really, forced politeness is pretty low on the list of things that matter to me, so I can’t be bothered wasting energy on people I don’t care about.
It should be okay to not be okay
One in four people will deal with mental illness at some point. That’s a lot of not okay people, and it really should be okay to talk about it. Maybe to create change we should consider answering honestly rather than turning to our stock phrases. That’s definitely easier said than done, but maybe
Do you have any preferred go-to responses to “how are you?” when you’re not okay?
The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.