One of the most difficult aspects of living in the UK is the bizarre mix of box-ticking politeness with genuine emotional reserve.
In other words, while almost everyone will ask, ‘how are you?’, the only acceptable answer is ‘fine thank you, how are you?’
On a black dog day, this presents a problem. Either you break social convention and cause widespread panic:
‘Oh, the usual mix of abject misery and thoughts of self-harm, how about you?‘
Or, you lie.
In the short term, lying seems like the obvious option. For one thing, it creates less paperwork. I once made the mistake of being brutally honest with a colleague about my desires to end my life. Within a few hours I was being invited (that’s the British for ‘ordered’) to have a chat with both human resources and occupational health. Oddly enough, this didn’t help me to feel any better. I just felt like a troublemaker who needed processing to avoid any awkward legal ramifications.
Unfortunately, lying isn’t necessarily the easier option. For one thing, it’s very tiring. Among other things, the lie has to be convincing, else you risk being bombarded with increasingly probing questions. More questions means more chances for the mask to fall off until – BOOM – you’re in social faux pas territory.
Someone recently asked how I was, following up quite reasonably when my reply proved unconvincing. I responded like any cool and emotionally well-adjusted person, and burst into tears. They looked terrified. I’m not sure why. I was producing gentle whimpering sounds whilst leaking salt water from my tear glands. I was not wielding an axe. And they call me the crazy one! Anyway, the point is, for the lie to work, you really have to nail that first line. Since most people aren’t fooled by words alone, this means a smile or, at least, a jolly tone is essential.
‘I’m fine thank you, how are you?’
Sound simple enough? Well it isn’t. When you’re in the clutches of depression, it requires an enormous amount of energy. Many a day I’ve gone to work, said nothing except a couple of ‘fine thank yous’ , and come home utterly exhausted. Which has a knock-on effect on my ability to do it all over again the next day.
But there’s another problem – a more insidious problem – with lying. Every time you tell someone you are ‘fine’ – when you’re not – you buy into the belief that it’s not acceptable to be depressed. In other words, the act of concealing your true mood, sends a subconscious message that it needs concealing, that it’s something to be ashamed of.
It’s a very sad indictment of our emotionally-illiterate society that those or us who are suffering the most have to hide our feelings to protect the sensibilities of everyone else. One in four of the seven billion human beings on this earth will experience poor mental health at some point in their life. That’s 1.75 billion people. And over 10 billion in the history of humankind. The only shame would be if all those people lived their lives feeling ashamed of something that is clearly such a common part of the human experience.
So what are we to do if neither lying nor the truth are realistic options? Well, one of my favourite options is the deflection. To think like a politician and answer an entirely different question.
‘Oooo, I’ve been experimenting with blogging. Although it is meant to be anonymous, so I’m afraid I can’t send you the link. Or even tell you what it’s about. You?’
I’ve also come up with an answer that I can say with a genuine sense of belief (and positivity), but which isn’t a lie,
‘I’m still here, you?’
Depending on the time and the person, however, I think there is a better approach; sugar-coated honesty. To answer in a way that reflects the troubles you’re going through, that openly admits your poor mental health, but perhaps leaves out some of the grim details:
‘I’ve been struggling with poor mental health, which can make it hard to achieve much, but I’m hanging in there and I’ve just been put on some new medication, so I’m hoping that’ll help’
Not everyone will respond appropriately. Some might even say something laughably unhelpful. But the vulnerable honesty can be surprisingly empowering. And, if you’re lucky, you might even get a bit of empathy and kindness.
So, ladies, gentlemen and other black dog owners: ‘How are you today!?’