Invisible Illness
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Invisible Illness

Responding to “How Are You?” in the Era of Coronavirus

I answered honestly, and it didn’t go well.

Photo by Des Récits on Unsplash

As a society, we ask people, “How are you?” as part of basic small talk, but we don’t usually expect an honest answer. As we enter year two of battling COVID-19, a study conducted in January found that over 41% of U.S. adults reported anxiety and/or depressive disorder symptoms, a 30% increase compared to 2019. That means that more people than ever want or need to talk about how they’re really doing.

Like that 41%, I am also feeling isolated and having a tough time managing my mental health. So, when someone asks how I’m doing, I walk a line between telling the truth and being that weird person who over-shares.

Obviously, when a clerk at the grocery checkout asks how I am, I know they don’t want to hear about how difficult it was for me to get out of bed that morning. But I recently responded honestly to someone who seemed to genuinely care about my well-being, and they didn’t respond kindly. Despite knowing that outcome was possible, it still hurt, especially at a time when I was already feeling raw.

I’m an American who moved to Ireland six months before my first child was born, and Coronavirus struck. The last fourteen months have been some of the hardest of my life. Learning how to keep a small child alive during endless restrictive lockdowns without any local support has been exhausting, and my panic attacks have returned as a result.

During this globally stressful time, even my closest confidants have not been a reliable source of support. When they ask how I’m doing and I open up, they often respond with platitudes, putting an end to any chance at an honest conversation. I understand that they could be struggling too, and can’t take on someone else’s troubles right now, but it leaves me to wonder, who can I talk to about this?

Who could be better equipped to understand what it’s like to be an ex-pat with a small child, than another ex-pat with a small child?

I met Sabina* through a Facebook group for local moms. We didn’t have a lot in common outside of our circumstances, but it was nice to talk to someone who understood part of what I was going through. We chatted on WhatsApp most days, usually about our kids, the pandemic, and our struggles with both.

As time went on, I started to suspect Sabina didn’t actually like me all that much. I noticed how little she let me speak, and how she rarely asked questions about me or the things that interest me. She also frequently talked about how she wasn’t a feminist if she didn’t have a job, and how she needed non-mom friends. As a mother who takes care of my daughter full-time, these comments hurt. I tried to commiserate, saying I also missed receiving a paycheck and having an identity outside of being a mom. I offered to keep our conversations free of baby-talk, but she always ignored me. I began to feel like she only spent time with me when she didn’t have a better option.

As the pandemic progressed, so did my relationship with Sabina, and so did my struggles with my mental health. One day I had a panic attack on my way to meet her at a nearby park. When I sent her a message to cancel, I admitted to the panic attack. She seemed to understand and told me we could try again on a different day.

Over the following weeks, my recent panic combined with high case numbers made me scared to leave the house. Sabina would send me messages to see how I was doing and ask if I wanted to meet up. I still felt raw and didn’t want to hear about how I was less-than in any way, so I would tell her I was fine, just busy.

After weeks of keeping her at arms-length, she messaged me asking how I was feeling and if everything was OK between us. I was touched by her concern for our maybe-friendship. I began to think maybe I had misjudged her.

I decided to give Sabina a chance to prove me wrong. I crafted a response that felt honest without over-sharing. I told her how I had been struggling to manage my mental health since the panic attack. I also explained that when she talks about non-mom friends and how employment equals feminism, it hurts, so I was keeping my distance while I felt so raw. She never wrote back.

I took a chance opening up to someone I thought was a friend, only to be ghosted.

I spent the next day wondering whether I was that weird person who springs their issues on unsuspecting acquaintances, but when my logical brain regained control, I realized this wasn’t the same situation. It wasn’t that I shared my honest feelings with an inappropriate person. Sabina presented herself as an appropriate person, but she couldn’t handle my truth.

It’s been weeks since those messages, and I still have not heard from Sabina. Despite the silence, I don’t regret opening up to her. How else can we figure out who we can trust without providing them the opportunity to show us who they really are? That said, next time I will wait to provide that opportunity when I’m in a better headspace. When the stakes are high, I will save my honest response to the “How are you?” question for my therapist, because no one needs an extra kick in the gut when they’re already feeling down.

  • This name has been changed for the sake of privacy.

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We don't talk enough about mental health.

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Molly Coyle Shibley

Molly Coyle Shibley

American living in Ireland. New mom. Mental health advocate. Also writes for The Mighty and Molly Does Adulting. Just trying to get my sh*t together.

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