The third sentence you’re taught when learning another language always seems to be, “How are you?” Hello; goodbye; how are you. My name is Stephanie; I need to go to the bathroom; how are you. When I began learning Spanish in sixth grade, I was already acquainted with ¿Cómo estás?, words that floated through the hallways of my junior high and over the dinner tables of friends whose tongues were loyal to the old country, at least in front of their parents. To the parents and the hallways I’d respond “Bien,” or “Muy bien” — my limited vocabulary didn’t leave many options, not until classes began. But once that happened, I could be mal o contenta o cansada. Casi todo el tiempo, estoy triste.
As my knowledge of the language heightened, so did the expectation that I begin to detail my emotions in class. ¿Por qué estás triste? And I did not know how to say, “I think I might be depressed,” or “I’m afraid to leave this classroom because of who I might run into.” The language was becoming more difficult, but it was expanding on my feelings — giving them agency, admitting that they even existed — that was the real challenge.
I haven’t taken a Spanish class in over a decade, but there’s one thing I remember: “How are you?” is the same in any language. You avoid answering it for too long, and you eventually forget how to.
At the suggestion of the high school dean, my parents drive me to therapy one Friday morning. The catalyst for this session looks a little different to each of us; my dean is concerned because I’ll be spending my last months before college in summer school; my parents are fed up with the door slamming and the exploding and the unexplained distance between us, recently upgraded to ‘immeasurable.’ We correspond mostly through tears (mom), screaming (me), yelling (dad), silence (all together, now). Occasionally they’ll leave a message on a friend’s answering machine when I’ve been gone a few days, another one of our tailor-fit communication methods.
My parents believe I agreed to the session because of an ultimatum they gave me, but I actually have things I need to talk about — things I’m too ashamed and confused about to tell anyone with a familiar ear. I feel isolated in plain sight, always surrounded by people but never discussing anything important, never trusting that I can. I believe my situation is unworkable, that I can’t have a healthy and open relationship with anyone I know; I require a fresh slate, a second life, one with new players and no memories.
I mean to tell her all of this, the therapist, but instead I tell her a story — an hour-long story I hadn’t been able to tell anyone else — and before I know it the hour is gone, with it the chance to be honest about how I feel, how I am. I never see the therapist again after that, told my parents, “I don’t think I need to,” and I believed it. Sometimes all you need is for someone to listen.
“Okay, for example. Say you found out that your mom is sick; your mom has terminal cancer. Suddenly, there’s this outpouring of support for you that never existed before. People are actually going out of their way to make sure you’re all right, from every direction it’s coming — it’s inescapable, the support. And initially, that’s great because all of these little interruptions, these phone calls and messages and cooked meals distract you from the terrifying reality that your mother is going to die; but at some point, it becomes not-so-great. At some point, you begin to feel as though you solely exist in the context of your mother’s illness. And it’s bad enough that this morbid inevitability is following you every second of every day, but now it’s what people refer to you as — ‘my friend whose mother is dying of cancer’ — and the things you thought about before you got the news — your crushing debt and your crumbling relationships and just… a f-cking traffic ticket you still haven’t paid — these things have taken a backseat, they are not supposed to matter anymore. No one asks about these things. No one asks how you are. It’s just “How’s your mom?” And the irony is that talking about these trivial, meaningless things is all it would take to distract you, to keep your mind off of your mom for one f-cking second, but everyone’s too afraid to ask and you’re too afraid to tell. You’re too afraid to say, ‘My job is killing me,’ without adding, ‘…and my mother is dying’ to the end of it. This is how your existence is defined, for the foreseeable future. Is there a name for that? Is there some sort of… psychological term that you know of?”
“Sounds a little like mild PTSD. Maybe Survivor’s Guilt? Not Munchausen by Proxy… hm. I mean, this feeling you’re describing, it’s pretty common.”
“So, no word for wishing someone would just ask how you’re doing.”
“Maybe just loneliness.”
“I know you didn’t know how bad it was. No one did. I mean, no one asked.” My friend is explaining his addiction, how it ended (silently, privately) and I’m ashamed to admit that just hours ago I’d told him all I wanted was to be asked how I was. How people ask, but don’t expect a real answer; don’t even wait for one. And as he recalled his last few nights using, I realized I was guilty. One of them. A person who doesn’t require an honest answer. Sure, I’d asked him how he was doing, just not in a real way. Not in a way that told him he could take his time, tell me something naked. And he’d acted accordingly.
We always act accordingly when asked, “How are you?” We say, “Fine,” or “Okay,” or sometimes even, “Great,” because it’s just a formality, right? You’re just being polite, you don’t actually want to know. I’m guilty of that, too. Of pessimism, of choking out one-word answers, of making sure you get to your lunch date on time, that you’re not held captive by my benign emotions. My friend, he’s guilty too. We’re all guilty of not asking, of not telling; but mostly we’re guilty of wanting people to love us without knowing how to let them.
How I am right now is this: terrified of the future. I pretend everything will work out, because recognizing the implausibility of reaching the traditional adult milestones I once believed were givens is enough to paralyze me completely. It’s overwhelming. I’m overwhelmed. I’m disappointed in myself for blaming someone I care about for my emotions when I know I’m the one who controls them, when I know it’s a privilege to be responsible for them. I’m afraid to be more honest, but I’m ready to stop hiding from myself and from people who want the best for me. I’m ready to stop pretending everything is “fine.” I’m ready to ask how you are — and not when we’re about to rush off in opposite directions, not at a loud party, not like some automated machine that spits out rhetorical questions veiled as interest. I’m ready to ask you halfway through a long conversation, in the middle of your day, when I can tell it’s all you want to hear. I’m ready to listen.
How are you?