Fine is such a nothing word. When are we ever fine?
Are we ‘fine’ when we’re rushing through the supermarket, trying to get the food in before Sunday closing? Or are we feeling a little stressed?
Are we ‘fine’ when we bump into someone we recognise but can’t for the life of us remember their name? Or are we feeling a little awkward?
Are we ‘fine’ when we’ve woken up with that terrible feeling of anxiety in the pit of our stomach, and our chest is thumping rapidly with palpitations as we burst into the office and say ‘morning, yeah I’m fine, you?’ to our colleagues?
According to Time to Change, the national campaign to end stigma around mental health, most of us don’t respond honestly when asked how we are. In fact, in a survey of 2,000 people, 52% were worrying about burdening people if they told the truth about how they were really feeling and 54% said they felt people might not really want to know.
Basically, ‘how are you?’, ‘yeah, fine thanks’ has become a completely meaningless exchange in most instances.
Now let’s be honest, in some cases it doesn’t matter. Do you really care if I’m running around the supermarket in a sweaty mess just because I’ve got a craving for a frozen pizza for tea? No. And to be honest, it won’t change my world either way if you do.
‘Hey, Lucy how you doing?’
‘Oh hi Johanna. I’m so desperate to have pizza for tea that I’ve legged it here in five minutes flat and now I’m having a hot flush so I feel a bit pants. How are you?
In that instance, I’m fineworks, well, just fine. We both know that the only problem is me looking a little frazzled in the supermarket at 3.55pm on a Sunday afternoon.
But what about that day I wake up feeling intense anxiety in my stomach and I burst into the office?
In that instance I’m not anything even slightly resembling fine. In that instance I’m panicking about getting through a day that feels as daunting as a bungee jump over a lake of bubbling lava. About trying to hide the fact that I feel less than confident in an open plan office that’s collectively buzzing with the assertiveness of Donald Trump circa 20thJanuary 2017 (apologies if I’ve invoked bad memories from the day the unimaginable horror of horrors happened). And I’m panicking about these palpitations being a precursor to a devastating heart attack. And about crying like a colicky baby in front of my boss.
But still, I walk in the office door and the conversation goes:
‘Morning, Lucy. How are you today?’
‘I’m fine Tom’
I sit down and fire up the laptop. Then an instant message pings through:
Tom: You sure you’re OK? You don’t seem yourself – fancy a stroll to the café for a cuppa?
Me: Oh God, yes, that would be great, thank you.
If in doubt, ask twice. That’s what Time to Change are urging us to do if we are concerned about a friend. Because the stock response of ‘I’m fine’ really doesn’t carry much weight. However, by asking twice we are showing that we do care, we are interested and that it’s OK to talk.
So what happens over that cuppa in the café? Tears roll and the anxiety pours out – which is a good thing, actually. It’s no magic bullet, but it helps me to feel a bit better, a little bit of much-needed relief. I don’t have to pretend to everyone. I can say exactly how I am feeling to at least one person, and that person genuinely wants to listen. And I can have a rational conversation about those heart palpitations and talk myself down from the terror that is overbearing hypochondria.
It’s the start of something. Of opening up. Of seeing the doctor for help. Of knowing that there’s someone I can call on if I feel panic coming on. Of just a little bit of light relief. Of comfort and support.
By asking twice we can make a huge difference to someone’s day. To find out more about the campaign, visit www.time-to-change.org.uk/asktwice.
You can read more about my own experience of anxiety and stigma in my book, A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes.
By Lucy Nichol