How Are You?

I remember piano lessons long ago. I remember my mom driving me to this fancy house a town or two over. I remember the immaculate lawns. I remember the two-story windows in the living room where my teacher’s grand piano sat.

I remember sitting head to shoulder to my teacher, looking up at her face. Her genuine smile greeting me each week.

“How are you?”

Like clockwork I’d dribble out the same meek “Fine.”

One week, exasperated, she exclaimed, “You can’t always be just fine!”

My mind exploded, but my mouth stayed shut. “Okay, all right, how am I? Well, that’s a tough question. Do you really want to know? Will you remain my piano teacher? Or are you prepared to become my savior? How about I just give you a quick rundown of my most recent suicidal thoughts…”

She clearly wasn’t able to see that fine was an aspirational goal for me at that point.

I wanted to be fine. For that hour, just let me be fine!

I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t take lessons much longer after that.

I still routinely get asked how I am, as most adults do. And I’ve found that navigating this question can flood my mind with deeper unanswerable questions. Hypotheticals. Useless to the asker, because they were never asked.

For longer than I’d like to admit, those unasked hypothetical questions halted my tongue; poisoning my perception of those asking, and ultimately left me disgusted at myself for even being asked.

I kept everyone at arms length, and then justified my closed heart by citing the distance. This allowed me to put off the self-work required to present anything resembling an honest answer to such a simple question.

I’ve since forgiven my younger self for avoiding this work. The requirement for survival can overpower any desire for growth. I also think it’s impossible to ask a seven-year-old to objectively reflect on their life experience. This comes with time, distance and the difficult achievement of acceptance.

I recognize now that my piano teacher didn’t want to disrupt my entire life by asking a simple question. She did care how I was, but certainly wasn’t requesting I reveal that I was drowning in patterns of abuse at home.

But more importantly, I can see now that I really didn’t want to admit to myself how bad things were.

All I knew then was that I was terrified. I was always terrified. And I didn’t have the words to communicate that without tears. So, I just clammed up.

I dreaded revealing my reality to strangers because I thought it would give them a chance to agree that I deserved it, which was my true fear, “Maybe I actually deserve this hell.”

My fear of isolation was then realized through my fear of revealing this hurt to others. I feared I was awful, therefore I receded and became a silent reflection of awful.

I still do find myself terrified at times, but I’ve also forged conviction in myself, finding strength to look inside and see just how I’m doing.

This means I’ve stopped giving myself a free pass to skate along on fine. These days, if someone asks how I’m doing, I have the confidence to do the difficult mental algebra to accurately convey how I am in that moment.

I’m not going to reveal every weakness to a neighbor, but I might find a more compelling container for the state of me than just fine.

I’ve realized that I used fine as a closed door. Fine was my conversation ender. And I found safety in that, even if that silence allowed my fear to fester, my shame to spread.

But now, by honestly looking inward, I’ve surprised myself with some optimism peeking through my otherwise dreary outlook. Not a put-on caricature of positivity, but a newfound steadiness in the face of uncertainty.

When I dismiss the fear of what I might find inside, there’s a chance that a small ray of sunshine can peek through the storm clouds once permanently overhead. Sunlight, as they say, makes the best disinfectant.

I now see that I can make my mental garden somewhere I’d want to be. I can work towards increasing the sunlight by clearing the clouds dreary self-hatred. I can pull those growing weeds of negative thoughts and hypotheticals. I can fertilize the soil through diet, exercise and good-old restraint.

I’m not suggesting that I just cherry pick highlights to share, but I do find ways to express my struggles that won’t feel like an avalanche to the asker.

And, if I feel an avalanche approaching, I know I have more work to do within. I’ve come to terms with the reality that I may always have more work to do.

In being more honest with myself, I’ve naturally become more honest with others. And in doing so, I’ve found that everyone around me is also struggling in their own way. Commiseration might sound like a small victory, but sharing our fear seems to be one way to diminish it.

I recognize that this all takes time, so I don’t blame myself for resisting the required work for so long. But I am happy that I am now ready to address this long overdue task.

So, how am I? I’m a work in progress, just like everyone else. And I’m fine with that.