The Question That Undid Me
By Elli

“How are you doing?” It sounds like an everyday question, but me it started me on my path to recovery. This simple inquiry undid my barriers to recovery.

I had my first panic attack at 22. I didn’t know that was what it was called, or that it was symptomatic of the fact I was suffering with a mental illness. Mental health was not on my radar, not at all.

I Didn’t Think of My Brain as Healthy or Unhealthy

I didn’t think of my brain as being healthy or unhealthy, or that it had moving or corruptible parts. It just was. It existed and enabled me to get on with my  life.

When I did allow myself to think about these panic attacks, I liked to pretend I had imagined the whole thing.  I believed these aberrations were caused because of something I was doing, or not doing. It was somehow my fault.

I searched for the answer as to what was causing them in all sorts of places, but mainly in my faith. I saw my inability to stay strong and in control as evidence of sin. Weirder and scarier still, I felt it was some sort of demonic attack or stronghold in my life. Knowing what it was was beyond me, I heard the spiritual explanations more than those of biology or chemistry of the brain.

I Searched for Answers

Unaware there was another explanation, I didn’t know anything medical or therapeutic could be done about the fact that, with increasing regularity, I suffered from panic episodes. I didn’t get any professional mental health help until I was thirty. It was then that I was diagnosed as having anxiety and depression. Until then, I didn’t know I was ill or that there was anything that could be done about it.

About six months before my 30th birthday, I had met with a wise lady to ask her advice about how to care for a friend who was grieving. Someone had tipped me off that this woman was trained in counselling, and had experience with this type of situation. We talked of my friend briefly, and then she looked me in the eye and ask kindly, “How are you doing?” Then she waited.

Suddenly, I burst into tears.

Somehow, she had seen in me something I could not articulate, and something I had been desperately trying to hide.

I In Turn Have Asked the Question that Changed My Life

In the past six weeks, I have had conversations with three women I know well. They are capable women whom I admire. In each incident I have asked them the question that undid my mental barriers. I have asked them the simple question, “How are you doing?” I have then, like the counsellor who helped me,  waited for an answer.

Without exception or warning, all three of them burst into tears.

They each immediately followed this up with apologies such as, “I’m sorry, you don’t want to hear this” or excuses like, “I’ve just had a really hard day” or  “I haven’t slept well”. These statements have been followed by denial statements like, “Honestly, I don’t know why I’m crying, I’m alright. Really.”

I Understand Deflective Tactics

The thing is, I know these deflection tactics. I know what you do when you have believed lies that have said you are not good enough, and are letting everyone down.

You pretend and you hide. You hope no one comes along and asks the difficult question, and waits for an answer.

Somehow, you think it is easier to just keep on keepin’ on. It has to be easier to carry on with the to-do-list, to keep trying harder and working more. You think it is easier to keep striving towards impossible deadlines and unrealistic expectations.

Failure seems to be not an acceptable option.  You believe you already are a failure and all this activity is the only thing that might prove otherwise.

There Are Simple Messages We All Must Hear

My advice is simple. If you find yourself in this privileged situation where someone lets their guard down with you, don’t panic. I knew this wasn’t the moment to give these women chapter and verse about the truths I have learnt through therapy, and through my own pain. This wasn’t the time to suggest antidepressants, or mindfulness techniques. I knew this because I know I couldn’t have even begun to process these ideas over that coffee six months before my 30th birthday.

There is one thing  I know that has to happen before anything else is possible, you have to know and accept you are ill.
So, I listened and hugged and handed tissues. I reassured and nodded and smiled and told them they were doing amazing. Out loud I wondered whether these brilliant women might need a break, or what that could look like. Then  I offered to help with something practical, and I repeated my favorite three phrases to them.

Let yourself off the hook.

Take the easy option.

You don’t have to do it all.

I Listened More and Talked Less

I told them, and hopefully made them feel, they were loved, accepted and appreciated. The truth I spoke filled them  hope, helping their despair. I didn’t try to fix them, and I didn’t tell them it would all be alright. Neither did I minimise their pain or change the subject. It would have been useless to say I knew exactly how they felt, and if they did what I did it would all work out okay.

I listened more and talked less.

I probably got a lot of it hideously wrong, but I am hoping they will forgive me, and see my heart.

They now know I am here and willing to listen. They also know I have been to similar places and when they are ready I will be happy to talk more. If they need a recommendation for  an excellent therapist, book, or techniques I have discovered I am here.

Ask the Question, Then Wait and Listen

If someone who loves you, asks you how you are and you notice your cheeks are wet, it might be worth paying attention to those tears. They are trying to tell you something.

Also, if you have a friend who you think might not be coping and if you have got that feeling in your stomach that maybe things are not as good as your friend would have you believe, maybe  you can ask that simple question. “How are you doing?”

Then wait and listen.

Reproduced with permission, originally published here. Elli at The Hippo Chronicles offers an e-mail series on 60 second meditation for when you are overwhelmed and Seven days of hope.


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