What Happened When I Stopped Saying I'm OK And Started Being HONEST

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What Happened When I Stopped Saying I'm OK And Started Being HONEST
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It's okay not to be okay.

By Claire Gillespie

The message pops up on our social media timelines over and over again. I've shared those brightly-colored, encouraging memes. I’m open about my mental health struggles (major depressive disorder: 20 years together and counting).

So why, when asked, "How are you?" do I reel off the standard, "I'm okay” anyway?

Over the course of a day, I can get through half a dozen "I’m okay”s. (I like to keep it interesting with the trusty "I'm good," or the old faithful, "I'm fine.")

Sometimes, I am okay, good, fine. Sometimes, I'm on top of the world. But sometimes, I'm not any of those things. I'm depressed. I'm lonely. I'm anxious. I'm sad. If it's okay for other people not to be okay, I have to give myself the same permission.

 

So I pledged to tell the absolute truth, for an entire week, every time someone asked, "How are you?"

 

My first chance to give an honest answer came when two friends texted me variations of “How are you?”

At this point, I definitely was not okay. The night before, I’d been told by the editor-in-chief of a publication I’d contributed to on a daily basis that budgets had been slashed — and I was one of the casualties. For the first time in three years, I would no longer have a guaranteed monthly income.

When the texts came through, it was hard not to fire back the standard, “I’m okay thanks, how are you?” response. Instead, I typed out, “I’m not so good. Work nightmare!” Within minutes, my phone beeped again. The first reply read, “Oh no! That’s rubbish. Looking forward to catching up on Friday.”

The second: “I can relate! Hope you’re okay.”

 

Related: Ask Erin: Help! I Am 29, And I’ve Never Had A Boyfriend 

 

Well, I clearly wasn’t okay. Hadn’t I already said that? Didn’t they want to know what had happened?

I felt let down by their non-responses, but I talked myself round by acknowledging that I was already in a funk due to aforementioned work nightmare, and in any case, text probably isn’t the best channel for important personal conversations. A few days later, I caught up with those friends for a movie.

By this time, I’d given myself several dozen pep talks and was determined to find a silver lining in my black career cloud. I would have more creative control, flexibility, and freedom.

So I greeted my friends with a smile on my face. Still, as we chatted away in the line for tickets and popcorn, a nagging voice at the back of my head reminded me that neither of them was checking if I was feeling better, or inviting me to talk about what had happened.

Was I at fault, for not launching into a detailed breakdown of the disheartening Skype call I’d endured with my editor-in-chief? Maybe so. But I’ve always been a better listener than talker, so I asked about their lives instead.

 

Related: Why I Won't Stop Writing About My Mental Illness

 

The nagging voice persisted over the next few days. What did my friends' reactions (or lack thereof) say about our relationships?

"People respond in different ways to intimacy, and in many ways, this is a product of their upbringing," explained licensed marriage and family therapist Allen Wagner. "Intimacy can be uncomfortable for many people as it is unfamiliar to them. Different families have different ways to show love, pride, and approval. The same friends that never ask about your family may be the people who are the first to bail you out when you really need them. Some people speak with money or support, others in time spent, other through actions, and others through verbal or physical affection."

“When we do open up more fully about what we feel, we learn a lot, and sometimes more than we want to know, about our friends and family,” said psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D.“There can be many responses and many reasons why people respond the way they do. They may care enormously and just not know what to say. They may care, sincerely, and then get distracted by issues in their own lives. And infinite other possibilities.”

 

Related: 10 Ways I'm Learning To Cope With Anxiety

 

In the meantime, I received another interesting reaction to my definitely-not-okay news. “How are you?” asked a family member during a phone conversation. “I’m feeling really anxious,” I admitted, before explaining why.

“Oh dear,” she said.

The silence that followed only lasted a few seconds, but it felt like hours. Was she waiting for me to follow up with, “But I’ll be okay. Something else will turn up. I’ll make it work. It might actually be a good thing,” etc., etc.? Hey, maybe I should just cut straight to, “This is the best news ever. I’m so glad I might not be able to pay my bills next month.” 

But I didn’t. I waited it out, and eventually, she said, “I’m sure something else will turn up.”

I sensed disappointment and unease. Not because I’d lost my biggest contract, but because I wasn’t putting on a brave face and insisting that I was okay, great, fine. I’m acutely aware that this is largely my fault.

When you behave a certain way with people over several years or decades, you can’t blame them for being a little flustered when you do something completely out of character.

"From my experience, I have found that people have often been raised to not confide or share feelings which may indicate they are upset or may not doing so well,” said Los Angeles-based psychologist Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. “Unfortunately, people may still have the misconception that if they share the truth about not feeling or doing okay in their lives that others may see them as weak or flawed.”

One person I don’t typically rely on to be sensitive or supportive surprised me when I revealed I wasn’t okay. She reacted with concern and didn’t try to downplay how I was feeling or soft-pedal me with banal pick-me-ups. “What can I do to help?” she asked me. There was nothing she could do to help — not in a practical way, at least.

 

But simply by asking the question, she lifted my mood.

“Know that some people are better at discussing true emotions and others feel uncomfortable,” advised psychologist Sonja Raciti. “These are the friends or family members who are naturally supportive and make your battles seem less significant. Culture plays a role in this, as does emotional intelligence.”

This experiment has made me rethink some of my close relationships. I certainly won’t be losing friends over this, but I’ve accepted that not everyone in my life is a go-to person.

More importantly, I’ve accepted that if I want more support from people, I need to ask for it. Explicitly, if need be. I need to let them know when I’m not okay.  

 

 

This article was originally published at Ravishly. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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