How are you really?
"How are you?" I ask my therapist over Zoom. Sometimes I ask how she is when I enter her office, but mostly, it's just a formality. Now I really want to know. She tells me she's doing OK and asks how I am. "I've been telling people I'm hanging in there," I say. "I guess that's true."
And we talked about how loaded that question - how are you? - is now. It's changed, now that none of us is really alright. We're asking, are you healthy? are you safe? Will this all be OK? We're asking each other to bear witness, to be there and mark our existence and our suffering, to validate, to connect. To be honest. To show their humanity.
"It feels kind of like the day after the 2016 election," I tell my therapist. "Remember when I came in that day?" I ask. We'd spent the whole session talking about this strange new world and how we were both walking around in a daze, incredulous, not able to accept what was now reality. "That's how it feels," I say. "Like everything is wrong. Like going out and being around people in the grocery store is wrong, like everything we've ever known is no longer true."
While I laid on the bed in my guest bedroom, we also talked about how that phrase - "how are you?" - is perceived differently in different cultures, how, in the U.S., it mostly just means, "hello." And I tell her what my Czech teacher told us when I was studying abroad in the Czech Republic, the story of the first time she'd come to America and was asked by a sales clerk how she was. She immediately launched into all the details of her trip, to the confusion of the salesperson. She hadn't understood that, in the U.S., we don't really expect an honest response. We just want to be acknowleged. "How are you?" has, once again, changed.
Everything in our lives has changed. There's still so much uncertainty. Human connection is so much harder than ever. We have to face parts of ourselves we may not want to, as we're stuck with ourselves. For a lot of people, especially those living with mental illness, this is incredibly difficult, even traumatic. We don't have our regular coping mechanisms, our norms, our lives. How can any of us be alright right now?
My husband commented this morning on how so many emails are now signed off with "I hope you're well," or "Be safe." "'Be well' has kind of been my go-to," I say. I also see "stay healthy" a lot. This is our new language, the language of immobility, an in-between space, a world over which we have no control. That's all we can offer each other, honesty, love, the knowledge that we exist and matter.
"How are you?" means "I'm here, too."