#37. Telling it like it is

How am I? Me? I’m fine. By which I mean: I’m sad. And I’m scared. I’m sore—so much pain it feels sometimes it might drive me crazy. I’m exhausted. I’m overwhelmed. I’m anxious and nervous. I’m feeling lonely and inadequate and doomed to failure. I’m fed up with other people. I feel undervalued. I feel overrated. I’m hungry. I’m bored.


I’m also: happy. Grateful. Giddy. Blessed. Excited. Thankful for so many great friends. Elated that it’s fall, my favorite season. Madly in love with my husband, even after all these years. (More so after all these years!) Enthusiastic.  Content. Comfy. Did I mention I’m happy?

In any given week – sometimes in any given day – that is what I mean when people ask me how I’m doing and I respond, “I’m fine.” All of it. Often in fleeting moments. But because it’s easier and less risky and doesn’t fill me with fear and anxiety, instead of telling people how I really am, I just say those two magic words: “I’m fine.”

I don’t think this is a particularly uncommon affliction, responding to inquiries about our state of being with some sort of pat response. And there can be a number of reasons for that. I suspect some people say it just to get that part of the conversation over with. Some say it in order not to make themselves vulnerable. Some say it because they’re afraid of how people will react if they knew the truth. And some say it because, let’s face it, not everyone who asks how you’re doing really gives a rat’s ass. They’re just being polite.

I do it for all those reasons and then some. It’s difficult, in fact, for me to parse sometimes why exactly I go about telling people I’m fine when I’m not at all at that particular moment. I used to think it was because I’m so selfless and generous that I simply make room for other people’s feelings to take center stage. There’s no question I feel far more at ease comforting, rather than being comforted.

But let’s not pretend that makes me the next Mother Theresa. Because it’s not selflessness; it’s self-preservation. I’m far more comfortable with other people making themselves vulnerable without doing the same in return. Sure, they can emote and cry and tell it how it is, but not me. My ego can’t take that sort of exposure.

Or could it? What if I spent an entire week honestly answering the question, “How are you?” Or, even more bravely, what if I didn’t necessarily wait for the question before telling people what’s really going on with me.

Oh. My. People, let me tell you. I have given up meat for a week and it was a piece of cake. I have tried to give up caffeine and cursing, both of which were struggles and – ultimately – huge failures. I have stepped outside my comfort zone and met a new person every day. But none of the changes I’ve attempted thus far were nearly as torturous as this one.

I started the week off with a bang. As many readers know, I participate in a 12 step program, and that means showing up at meetings on a regular basis, surrounded by people, most of whom I know. It’s a fascinating social experiment in which, sometimes, people in horrible pain and at a crossroads in their lives show up and bare their souls. I mean, bare their souls.

They cry. They wail. They are sorrow and pain, held together only by skin. They are afraid and they are angry and they are lost. It is a singular experience, to be present for someone else’s moment of truth and, as trite as it sounds, I can’t possible express the power of it to those who haven’t had the privilege to experience it. I marvel at these people.

And it’s not just the newly sober, either. Over the years, I’ve been witness to friends and strangers with years and decades of sobriety walk through life’s most horrible experiences and show up at these tables and dissolve. These are, without question, the bravest people I know. I said it in the previous paragraph, but it bears repeating here: it is a privilege to be present when someone is so open.

Then there’s me. I am perfectly comfortable showing up at the tables – and in life – and sharing a bit of my experience, strength and hope, as the saying goes. I’m perfectly fine talking academically and intellectually about What I’ve Learned and What I Know. But what I seem to be missing, what seems to have gotten harder to reach the longer I’ve been sober, the older I get, is the ability to show up and admit when I’m not okay.

I resolved, on the first day of this week of change, actually to tell people how I was faring, good and (gulp) bad, starting with the people at my tables. The people who do that same thing every day. It was – depending on your perspective – either lousy or perfect timing for this undertaking. I was already feeling a little denial-y, because I’d just walked through the anniversary of my mother’s death, whistling and staying busy and pretending all was fine, pushing my sadness aside to hear other people’s problems.

And because the universe is mean and cruel and out to get me, that first morning I learned of the sudden death of a friend of mine in St. Louis. We were not the closest friends by any stretch of the imagination and we had been out of touch for a few years. But for a while there, he and his partner were frequent dinner companions for my husband and me. He was a good and kind soul, a really nice man. And he died two days after the anniversary of my mother’s death, in the exact same sudden and unexpected way she did, entirely too young, just like her.

Reader, it slayed me. All this fear and sadness bubbled up to the surface in a way that seemed entirely too fitting for this experiment. I found that I couldn’t possibly go to my regular meeting, sit at the table and open my mouth without admitting to all of it. It was just too big and too present. And so I did. I went. I sat at the table. I waited my turn, with a hollow ache in the pit of my stomach, knowing I was about to say how I was really doing and stunned by how many feelings and fears I had about it.

At the risk of reducing a moment of great personal growth to something crass and inelegant, I will say: it blew. I was squirming on the inside as I let other people see me cry. (Well, almost cry. There was welling.) I endured their kind glances and their loving hugs and words of encouragement afterwards. And I tell you, it nearly killed me.

I’m becoming aware as I write this that it’s ironic that someone who will so freely blather about her personal life in print balks at honest human connection, but maybe that’s why I write. Because, it turns out, it’s not the actual confession part that is toughest for me (although it’s plenty tough) – it’s the discomfort of people’s reactions. If I write this stuff and put it out in the universe, I don’t have to experience people’s immediate reactions. I don’t have to endure their glances. I don’t have to worry that those kind looks are actually pity. It turns out, that’s a big part of what I hide my feelings: I don’t want people feeling sorry for me.

Which is – sigh, of course, of course – ego. Again with the ego. It will be the death of me.

This level of emotional withholding is also, of course, about control. Controlling my vulnerability, not letting myself be exposed or risk being hurt. What’s at the root of it? Fear of rejection? Hell if I know. I’m sure there are many professionals who’ll be more than happy to help me figure out the specifics for $150 an hour.

I should note that it’s not as though I don’t tell anyone how I’m really doing. It’s just that I keep that circle really small. Sometimes, it’s a circle of one, which may be mathematically impossible. I wasn’t good at geometry. But there are a few other people I trust enough to tell how I’m really doing, a couple of coveted friends who demand honesty from me and who can tell when I’m not doing well. And I’m truly grateful for that – for being known. For being understood.

As is my style, I want the payoff of being known without the vulnerability of letting people get to know me. I want people to know how I’m really doing without my having to tell them. I want them to have compassion for me and appreciate how difficult my struggles are without it – God forbid! – turn into pity. I want to manage the whole thing exactly to my specifications.

Well, I told you it was a control issue! Stop judging!

Oh. There’s the other thing – my fear that I’ll tell people how I’m doing and they’ll judge me. “She’s such a whiner,” they’ll say. My physical pain – a one-two combo of fibromyalgia and muscle damage from two car accidents – is something I hide from almost everyone. I’ll say it here: I am always in pain. It’s just a matter of how much. But how boring would that be? How am I? I’m in pain. Yes, still. Yes, again. “She’s always complaining about her pain,” they’ll say. “God, she’s tiresome and annoying.”

Then everyone will hate me and I’ll have no friends and I’ll be sad and alone forever. The end.

So this week I told people, despite worrying I’d be alone when the seven days were up. I told them my pain was increased. I told them I wasn’t sleeping well, that I was tired and cranky. I told them my jaw pain was giving me headaches and making me crazy. I did it. I told the truth – and no one dropped out of my life. At least not yet.

Honestly, I’m not sure what I’ll do with this change going forward. It was deeply uncomfortable for me and the timeframe for change was so limited that all it did was serve to expose my fears, make me hyper-aware of them. I certainly didn’t end the week feeling like anything was resolved, any inhibitions calmed.

But it did give me the chance to do some pretty relentless and exhausting self-assessment throughout the week. After all, if you’re going to be honest with others about how you feel, you sort of have to know the answer. And I was pleasantly surprised to discover that when I got full-on honest with myself about the difficult feelings I was having, I also became more aware of their positive counterparts.

I realized that my feelings don’t exist in a vacuum and they’re not static. Nor are they one-dimensional. By that I mean, I don’t think we feel one single thing at a time. It’s all far more complex than that. But if I’m working hard to deny the negative stuff, the positive stuff becomes collateral damage. I can be in terrible pain and be stupid grateful for the life I’ve been given. I can be sad about loss and be happy for the fall colors. Nothing is as black-and-white as I tend to make it.

Not sure how I feel about that.