Today’s post comes from a friend of mine, Sara Leighton. She shared these words, and I asked if I could publish them, because I felt them so deeply. Right now, in the throes of a seemingly endless pandemic, I think we all are.

She and I have been friends for a very long time, but she actually has a blog as well – she is a very talented crochet artist as well – you can check out her words and her art here, at Illuminate Crochet.

I’m going to keep this intro short, as hers are the ones I want to share today, not mine. And they are a reminder that we are all in this today – we are all hanging on through what’s the roughest seas many of us have ever faced, at least for such a long stretch of time.

When You Ask Me How I Am: A potentially ill-advised moment of honesty

I have always hated the shallow American custom of asking someone “how they are” without expecting a genuine response. In my opinion, this is worse than not saying anything at all. If I ask how someone is, I truly want to know, even if their answer might be negative or upsetting. It seems as if many folks have been at a loss for how to start conversations given the hellscape surrounding us, while at the same time longing for connection. Instead of asking, “what new ways have you found to distract yourself from the agony of our reality?”, or “tell me all of the racing thoughts that keep you up at night,” people continue to default to the same lackluster question. “How are you?”

I almost always lie in response. I just say I’m fine. I make some kind of silly quip. I deflect. But, Sara! Lying is bad. Yes, I know. I hate lying and work hard to ensure that I rarely lie when I relate to others. I was raised by parents for whom lying was a way of life, leaving me with questions about my upbringing that will forever go unanswered, or have answers that took years of rumination and investigation to sloppily piece together. However, the true answer to the question of “how I am” is so long that it is going to take this entire essay (rant? exposé?) to respond to it, even in part.

I am bursting. I’m bursting with heavy emotions that fill my chest cavity like a balloon full of sand, tightening around my lungs, filling the gaps between my ribs. They make me gag with anxiety in the grocery store, standing there with my mask on and my eyes closed, willing myself to get through the next thirty minutes. They creep over my skin in the evenings as I’m sitting on the couch, solitary and craving human contact. What does one do with these big, negative emotions? Create art, I suppose. Maybe if I stitch little bits of this pain into each crochet shawl, cross stitch image, and knit scarf, I’ll have a little less to carry around with me. Maybe if I sing a song on my karaoke app, it will let some of the sand out of that ribcage balloon and replace it with Dua Lipa. Maybe if I write this rant, I can siphon some of my tears into the words on the screen instead of having bleary, puffy, itchy eyes in yet another Zoom meeting while my coworkers look at me awkwardly, weighing the pros and cons of saying something about them. I should probably start writing poetry again. Maybe. Here’s your warning that this is about to get messy.

Stop fucking telling me to be resilient, with your semi-chastising tone that diminishes, and assumes, and smiles smugly. I am resilient by default; my mind is constantly tricking me into staying alive. I am exhausted by being resilient, of overcoming, of making it work, of being flexible, of trying again. This is not the first nor the worst darkness to enter my life. I know some of you understand what I mean when I say that. Just as there is toxic negativity, there is also toxic positivity. Expecting me to squish my emotions into a tiny box inside my heart and soldier on isn’t sustainable. The liquid is corrosive, and I am already burning.

I know that it could be worse. I’m not going to pretend to imagine I understand the unique challenges of people of color, trans and non-binary folks, the unemployed, and others who are stung all the harder by our current situation. All I can do is share my own lived experiences, such as they are.

I feel like I am grieving the loss of my still fresh, hard-won, and finally satisfying life. I feel like I have traversed hell in all its forms and finally reached a nice hill under a tree, only for that tree to be cut down to a stump in front of my face. My childhood and teen years would take an entire book to explain, filled with emotional abuse, poverty, eating habits that bordered disorder, housing instability, religious indoctrination, and occasional ostracism from my peers. Then, I made it through an insane college schedule (made necessary by my financial circumstances) only to find out that my parents had been stealing my identity since I was 18. To be honest, this was more like the last petal falling off a dying flower than a catalyst. Though the credit card companies handled the administrative side of it, for my own well-being I had to cut off contact with my parents, which left my brother as my only family. When my kind, goofy younger brother was murdered in 2016 at the age of 26, I was left with no family (except my best friend/former husband; we have decided we will always be family).

Between graduating with my Master’s in 2010 and pushing through the aftermath of my brother’s death into 2018, I made it through taking care of my mother-in-law as she died of cancer, a marriage and then subsequently a necessary divorce which caused both parties pain and hardship, financially recovering from the divorce and building myself up again, two very unhealthy relationships that I almost lost myself to, moving five times, and accepting a job promotion that (while rewarding) had me so stressed that I was drinking energy drinks every day and developing a persistent facial tic. All of this happened before I turned 30.

BUT! I rebuilt. I moved forward. I entered new relationships and learned from them. I started a small business and had a book published. I brought my student loans from about $86k to the $38k it is today. I gave myself permission to be comfortable in my own body after years of others deriding me. I gave myself permission to enjoy the pleasures of life. I started dressing myself in a way that brings me joy and stopped caring about what other people think. I went to concerts, restaurants, shows, dance parties, and art galleries. I had the opportunity to go to London and Paris, and I took it. I did things alone and reveled in my own power and presence, finding cool spots all over the city; I really felt like I had found my place in Seattle. I got a new job at an amazing company with amazing coworkers. Coming up on 2020, despite the political nightmare and crimes of the current administration, I was finally healing. I was optimistic. I was eating better, being more active, feeling bold, connecting with friends, and loving my work.

Then came COVID. As an ambivert who needs socialization, I fell into a depression. I’m still trying but finding it hard to maintain a healthy eating/sleeping/activity schedule. I don’t go anywhere except the grocery store and on a Saturday drive with Alex. I mostly wear lounge wear because I don’t go anywhere. I feel powerless. I ended both a major and a minor relationship (distance can sometimes illuminate problems), which needed to happen but has still left me lonely and untouched. The things I loved most about my job have changed significantly or been taken away, though I’m thankful to have a job at all. I’m watching friends get laid-off and businesses close and realizing that the Seattle I felt so at home in will be completely different after the dust has cleared, if it ever does.

I’m terrified by what feels like a slow decent into fascism. I stay up too late glued to multiple screens, watching cops and federal agents killing, beating, and spraying people in the face. I seethe with rage that people have so little regard for the people they share this world with that they won’t agree that black lives matter, that trans lives matter, that women matter, that children matter. There are so many people who won’t even wear a small piece of cloth on their face to keep others from dying. The rawness and despondency of living in a world such as this drives me to retreat into space documentaries, desperate to experience a universe that is bigger than this hatred, greed, and stupidity. Bigger than a pandemic.

Of course, this isn’t to say there haven’t been bright spots. I’ve been spending more time on crafts since I’m not going out. I’ve participated in a few fun Facebook groups. I’ve been able to pay down my smaller student loans because my Dept. of Education loans are on pause. Forced singledom has reminded me not to give up parts of myself in romantic relationships. I have amazing friends and coworkers, and a sweet little cat. I have reconnected with friends from other moments in my life. However, I feel like I have lost 80% of what I strove to build for myself over the past few years. Sometimes the commitment I made to take care of little Ranna cat is all that keeps me going. Will I rebound and rebuild? I have no choice, so I imagine I will. That doesn’t mean I won’t be scarred. I think when I do come back, this time I’ll ultimately end up staying more broken and less optimistic.

So, how am I? I’m fine. You?

Sara Leighton

15 thoughts on “When You Ask Me How I Am: A potentially ill-advised moment of honesty (COVID-19 Guest Post)

  1. Oh, I feel this post in my heart! Like you, I dislike the fakeness of the American “how are you.” Also, I can’t stand it when people diminish my feelings by commenting that things could be worse. Everyone has their own unique difficult situations and they are all worthy of empathy. Hugs to you, guest post writer. And, hugs to us all.

  2. Virtual hugs. I feel you. I am an ambivert as well with semi-troubled childhood and suffered losses in the last couple years (mother and marriage). 2020 was supposed to be my year of freedom but now I am still “trapped by my life” and sad about things that are happening domestically. Fortunately I have a family member that has taken me in this year so I am not completely alone in my transition period. I don’t want to say one of this cliche things to you in support so I’ll just say I empathize with you.

    1. 2020 was supposed to be “the year.” It just turned out not to be “the year” in a good, positive sense. 😅

  3. Brilliant post in its raw honesty. Perfectly written.

    Thank you for sharing Sara. I hope it all gets easier for you.

    Sending you virtual hugs from the UK x

  4. Thank you for sharing how you are doing. I hope you do have moments of connectedness with activities you can participate in. This year is certainly exhausting. Your story clearly shows growth that you’ve made over the years. You should be proud of what you’ve accomplished so far, even if the current circumstances feel like a pile of poop.

  5. I too expect a real answer to “how are you” and it makes me grind my teeth a bit when I get “I’m fine”. That triteness usually masks so much truth and pain. Why not actually get into it? So I press with more specific questions when it’s lobbed off because in my family, fine means everything is broken and terrible. So what’s broken, what’s terrible? What’s gone wrong, what can we help with?

    And in this pandemic, there’s so much to choose from.

    I *hope* people are ok but I also know most of us aren’t and so many of us are surviving one day to the next, sometimes barely. We’re grateful for the small good things but the big things threaten to eat our sanity. The world is … Such a mess.

    I’m glad you shared, I hope it was at least a little cathartic.

  6. This is a powerful and raw article and thank you for sharing, Sara. All these things that we can’t control that so many tell us not to worry about and not to pay attention to, are incredibly disheartening. And even though I have zero control over most of it, it’s irresponsible not to pay attention. I just want you to know that I think there are a ton of ppl out here who feel the same. “Also, I’m terrified by what feels like a slow decent into fascism… I seethe with rage that people have so little regard for the people they share this world with that they won’t agree that black lives matter, that trans lives matter, that women matter, that children matter. There are so many people who won’t even wear a small piece of cloth on their face to keep others from dying.” All.of.this. I don’t know if there’s ever been a time in my life where I honestly wanted to punch more ppl in the face before Covid.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing. I always find it easier to respond with “I’m fine” than bore anyone with the details of my reality, though I always genuinely want to know when I ask friends how they are. This essay so describes everything this year. <3

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