Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

Strategies and alternatives for coping with fibromyalgia, bipolar disorder and other chronic illnesses

How are You? How Do You Answer the Hardest Question Ever When You Live with Chronic Illness?

Posted by wendyburnett on May 20, 2010

I think we all hate that question when it’s asked by “normals.” Unless it’s someone you know well, you never know whether to tell the truth (I feel like shit, thanks for asking.) or lie (Fine, how are you?)

The best thing about a support group is that when we tell the truth, the others actually “get it.” Whether we have fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome, lyme disease or multiple sclerosis, IBS or Chron’s, or any of the other hundreds of chronic, debilitating diseases and syndromes out there; we’ve all dealt with similar issues. We’ve all had days when the pain was so bad we’d do almost anything to make it stop, or the depression was so bad all we wanted to do was drop dead so it would be over. We’ve also all had people in our lives who betrayed our trust by refusing to believe us when we said we’re in pain, who told us that if we’d only “try harder” we could be well again, or just walked out of our lives because our illness was too difficult for them to deal with.

We’ve also dealt with the ones who assume because we had a good day last week, we’re “better” and won’t have any more problems. The ones who just don’t (or won’t) understand that having a chronic illness means we have days that are better or worse, but that we won’t EVER have another day where we don’t have SOME symptoms. That don’t understand that just because the pain and fatigue levels are low today doesn’t mean we can spend all day walking around the mall, or working in the yard, or whatever it is they want us to do; because if we do, we will pay with days or weeks of excruciating pain and/or fatigue.

We’re all special, because no two of us have exactly the same experience of pain; but we are also all the same, because we all deal with the same kinds of issues on a daily basis. We deal with taking so many medications that we rattle when we walk, we deal with uninformed people who hurt our feelings and discount our suffering, we deal with strangers who abuse us for using the accommodations we need because “you don’t LOOK sick,” we deal with the anger and guilt we feel because we can’t do things; and, hardest of all, we deal with our own feelings of being “less”: less worthy, less deserving, less useful, and less lovable.

Over the last 15 years or so of living with my various illnesses, I’ve built up a set of “stock” answers to the question, with different answers for different situations:

  1. Fine, how are you? (for work, this is really the only appropriate answer)
  2. Could be worse, how ’bout you? (strangers, acquaintances, casual friends that don’t know I’m sick)
  3. Any day I wake up on this side of the dirt is a good day. (casual friends who know i have “something” but don’t know any details)
  4. An honest answer (for those I know well, who “get it”)

So how do YOU answer? Please share, either in the comments, or by email if you’d rather not have your name “out there.” If I get enough responses, I’ll do a follow-up post to share them; after all, we can all use new ways to answer the hardest question ever.

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9 Responses to “How are You? How Do You Answer the Hardest Question Ever When You Live with Chronic Illness?”

  1. “I’ll do, if you can’t get anybody better.”

  2. I understand your quandry of what to tell your loved ones, your friends, your co-works or strangers. What don’t you tell? If you tell some of them the truth (on your bad days) they might lose their lunch! Right? In hindsight, remembering back then, I guess I pretty much said the same things as you. However, there was one type of circumstance that would really get to me. When someone stopped me (you know the type of person who doesn’t really listen at all, but wants to talk anyway) and they would be “fake” polite. Maybe even a little uplifted sneer to the nose? Almost immediately they would launch into, “Well, I’m tired too lately. Do you think I could have what you have?” As if I knew or cared at that point… Now, don’t get me wrong. Of course, if a genuinely interested person asked me, I would go out of my way to explain the facts and hook them up with information and people to help them. I’m still helping others now, just in a different way now. Wishing you better health, Cinda Crawford
    (Contact me if I can be of any assistance. Ater more than 15 years of suffering, I’m now 95% well.) :-))

  3. ammy said

    Great blog! Yea, I hate the “How are you?” question. I know they mean well….but I also know they don’t want to hear my litany of health problems at any given moment…lol Thanks!

  4. cinderkeys said

    For the most part, healthy people don’t answer this one honestly either. It’s just a social ritual. “How are you?” I discovered my boyfriend was cheating on me and I think I’m about to lose my job. “Fine, how are you?”

    If I were sick and didn’t want people to assume I’d gotten better just because I performed the social ritual correctly, I’d probably come up with a stock answer like, “Oh, about the same. You?”

    • Susan,

      That is so true (and I love the subtext – LOL) Your point about assuming you’re better because you correctly perform the social ritual is why the question “How are you?” is such an issue for those of us with chronic illness (or at least it is for me.) I don’t want to be a “negative nelly” and give everyone a blow-by-blow because that annoys them and depresses me, but if I just say “fine” they assume that I really AM.

  5. Maureen said

    How are you? Oh don’t we hate to hear that question! I have a close girlfriend that is so painfully truthful that she makes me laugh. When she sees me on a bad day, she will whisper in my ear…”You look like shit, is that how you feel?”

    My standard answer to the “question” is…”I’m good today thanks.”

    Smile…walk away…say a bad word…keep walking


  6. cinderkeys said

    I thought of another one.

    Smile brightly, ever so happy to be asked. Say, “Oh, how are YOU?”

    I’ve put this into practice inadvertently, without thinking about what I was doing. Granted, this has mostly been with cashiers at the grocery stores, people I don’t know at all, but if that’s any indication, you can totally get away with not answering the question. Bouncing it back is all you need to do to help complete the social ritual.

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