Conversation-Sized

“How are you?”

I feel bad for anyone who asks me this question recently. The best I can do is a give vague, single-word answer, such as “vertical,” “headachey,” or “tired.” On a bad day, I get angry and snap when asked this one simple question.

And I get it, I shouldn’t be so picky. The phrase “How are you” is a colloquialism that serves as a drop-in replacement for “Hello.” Most people (in America, at least) don’t expect to hear a long story in response to the question, “How are you?”. What they expect is for you to say “Fine” or “Good” or “Okay” and then everyone moves on with the conversation. But chronic health issues aren’t simple, and they can’t always be summarized into a conversation-friendly size. Sometimes all I have to offer is a long, venting story. Or maybe I was in the ER yesterday and the experience was so overwhelming that I don’t know where to begin. Then- just like that- I’m a conversation showstopper! And it’s not the case that every single soul who asks “How are you?” is ready for me to hijack what they thought was going to be a short and sweet conversation. So I get stuck, and angry that I can’t handle simple things anymore. And if I don’t have a one-word awkward answer coming to mind, I dodge the question like this:

Other Person: “Hi Natalie! How are you?”
Me: “Ohhhhh hi there! How are yoooouuuuu?”
Other Person: “I’m good! I spent the weekend doing blah blah blah…”
Me: *phew*

It’s the great “you” reversal!

But what the heck are you supposed to say if you want to know about my physical, emotional, or overall state of existence, and you don’t want me to get stuck? Here are some ideas for you…

  1. Give me yes/no questions. They are easy to answer even with only 3 hours of sleep, so these are my favorite. Is your headache very bad right now? Are you in a good mood? Have you been sleeping well? Is this week so far easier than last week?
  2. Ask about specific points in time. What happened last night after we last talked? Are you in a lot of pain right now?
  3. Infer how I’m doing from how I answer other questions. How many doctor appointments do you have this week? How long has it been since you managed to go on a walk? What are you allowed to eat?
  4. Don’t ask any questions! If you really just mean to say hello, then just say hello! Or give me a hug (or a 🤗, if over text). Or if you are a praying person, tell me you are praying for me. I won’t emotionally barf all over you unless invited…most of the time.

You may find these ideas helpful not only for me, but also for other people who are going through chronic illness or pain. This is you helping me to make my life-altering, overwhelming problems into something that is conversation-sized. Or we could call it bite-sized…or even fun-sized! Because not getting stuck in conversations is fun.

And I’m learning to answer questions better, too, as I adjust to my life as it is right now. I try to remind myself that my friends ask “How are you?” because they care about me, and I don’t have to pressure myself to tell them everything that comes to mind in order to graciously accept their love in a conversation. If someone asks me “How are you?” now and I don’t know how to answer, I pretend that they asked me one of the questions above and get myself unstuck that way. (If you just thought, “Wow Natalie, you are super insightful and introspective!”…thank you very much! But my ultra-intelligent husband is the person who keeps telling me to be more gracious, and I’ve finally got it through my rather thick skull. So all credit goes to him.)

And, on that note, this post is dedicated to my dear husband. I’m sorry for giving you the stink eye when you ask me how I’m doing. I can’t guarantee anything, but I will try to be less stinky eyed in the future!

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