“How are you?” is a question I once thought was sweet but now leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
It wasn’t always like this. I used to like being asked this question. In return, I ask this back, especially because “not everyone’s okay; check up on them from time to time” is a sentiment I also consider. Eventually, however, the question slowly began to pester me. Whether it was a matter of courtesy or genuine concern, I often found myself squinting at the sight of such a question. How was I, really?
This feeling toward the question takes me back to the time when I kept my loved one company at the hospital, where they had been for over a month already before I got to visit.
When the five doctors and one nurse did their rounds, they all opened with the same line: “How are you?” Even if it was well-intentioned, I could feel my loved one’s frustration, who sighed deeply and replied snarkily with, “How do you think I am?” They had undergone three surgeries, multiple blood transfusions, and extreme weight loss all in the span of a single month.
I once thought my loved one could have been more patient in responding to an innocent—although overused—question. However, the more I was asked the same, the more I resonated with their frustration, too. There are certain life events that make living more difficult to accept, so you’d want people to be there for you. Apart from giving you company, they’d want to know how you are, not knowing how many people have already approached you with the same conversation opener. When I found myself in this situation last year, truthfully responding to the checkup question became difficult because it needed a lot more context, a lot more words than just “I’m not fine.”
Truth be told, sometimes it’s more difficult to explain what you’re going through than to live with it. As things continue to complicate, I also somehow become responsible for summarizing the entirety of my situation to anyone who asks. While I am given the liberty of choosing to elaborate or not, there still is a certain expectation for me to do so. And no one likes paraphrasing a line that’s already well-written—a line that is unfortunately my life. I can’t get myself to tell it well—or at all—because it’s hard to process things when you’re still experiencing them.
Whenever I meet someone new, it’s easier to rewrite things and to pretend as if there’s nothing to tell. But when the people who ask are those who know, it’s hard to completely cover things up. Because of this, I eventually learned how to choose which pieces of myself I wanted to and could show. Then I used grace to glue myself to a more positive state of life—one that was true to struggle but embellished with resilience. It worked for the first few times, using key phrases like, “Struggling but managing,” and “We’re doing what we can.”
When the questions piled up, I created a template and a routine to follow. Copy. Paste. Edit. Repeat.
One might think that establishing this routine made things easier to handle, but it didn’t. I could not even properly thank anyone who offered their words of comfort and support because it wasn’t part of the template. Every time I reply, I want my gratitude to be wholly sincere. But this proved that it was just my sense of moral obligation refusing to be unscathed.
Amid my avoidance, I felt guilty that I appreciated the silence more than the checkups. I liked that my friends didn’t regularly ask me how I was. I preferred keeping things to myself. When I can’t find it in me to voice out my pain, the struggle begets a gratitude that can only be said in silence. I couldn’t release too much of the pressure, else I’d have no air to breathe nor enough energy to keep myself afloat. But in the end, what kept me together and alive still was the existence of good, empathetic people.
Silence can be deafening; it’s an inner noise that not everyone copes with. While this silence is ambiguous and worrisome, our goal isn’t to break it—it’s to give assurance that living with this noise is okay. We need to assure people that we can be that somebody who can stick around despite the unheard noise. We need to assure people that even this noise will not be permanent. We shouldn’t be intrusive in this endeavor, however. People are not always vocal about their struggles; some choose to keep to themselves. I know this much because I do the same. But I hope that we wouldn’t need to know that something bad happened to people we care about before we show compassion and care. Even if regular checkups are sweet, I hope these wouldn’t be reactive responses. Care needs no knowledge in order to be done after all.
When we need someone to be there for us, we don’t and can’t just count on words or actions. We count on character—on sincerity of intentions. If we could be persons who care, maybe the silence will open itself to us. Maybe eventually, even the noise could be manageable.