Living with a chronic condition, such as multiple sclerosis, brings with it a heavy load of emotional, physical, and social challenges. The symptoms alone can be perplexing and are never the same between two people. Lately, there’s one social challenge that has been on my mind—how to respond to the question, “How are you?”
When in a group setting, I almost always respond with “I’m fine,” or “I’m good,” without thinking about it. An upbeat “I’m fine” is automatic. When in a one-on-one setting, I may pause and consider how exactly I want the conversation to go. If I’m with a very close friend, I might expand my response and go into more detail, regardless if the update skews positive or negative.
When talking to my husband, I want to be honest but I also know how much he wants me to feel well. Depending upon what type of support I need at the moment, I might allow my empathy for his feelings to color my response. I don’t like to feel as though I am dumping all my crap on him. But when I need extra support or understanding, I feel safe in sharing what’s really going on and how I feel about it. When I tell my husband “I’m good,” it generally means I feel confident that I can manage things at the moment.
Earlier this summer, I was experiencing increased pain due to knee osteoarthritis and was seeking care from my orthopedic doctor who prescribed a series of injections. My mother-in-law has had her own knee problems, so she felt sympathy for what I was going through. I visited her following one of my knee injections and she asked how I was. My response was a neutral “I’m okay.” Her brow furrowed and she replied, “Not good, then?” “No, I’m doing fine,” I insisted. Her experience colored how she heard my simple words.
I think that in the MS community, our gut response when a friend says “I’m fine” or “I’m good” is colored by our own experiences. If I’m feeling poorly and someone says that they’re fine, I might initially think that they’re masking some negative experiences (something I might do). Or, I might take that as a cue to ask what’s been going on. I’m thankful that my close MS friends are comfortable in cutting to the chase and sharing when things are “not so good.” This provides us each an opportunity to offer and receive support.
I once heard a clever interpretation of the phrase “I’m fine” as meaning “Feelings I’m Not Expressing.” That’s brilliant. Perhaps you have used “I’m fine” to quickly move onto a different topic. I have.
How you choose to respond to the question “how are you?” is often made in a split second. If you don’t wish to delve deep into the sludge of life with MS, you don’t have to. But if you know that the person asking sincerely wants to share in your joys and your pains, then consider letting them through the wall of frequently unexpressed feelings.
It is only by extending the conversation beyond pleasantries that we can truly connect with others. And by all means, if you are the person asking the question, but don’t want an honest answer, consider whether or not you really want to ask “how are you?”
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Lisa Emrich is a patient advocate, accomplished speaker, author of the award-winning blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA, and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers. Lisa uses her experience to educate patients, raise disease awareness, encourage self-advocacy, and support patient-centered research. Lisa frequently works with non-profit organizations and has brought the patient voice to health care conferences and meetings worldwide. Follow Lisa on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.