Why isn’t “How are you doing?” a good question to ask someone who has severe depression?
When I was young I took the question at face value and answered it accordingly. Being young and healthy the answer was usually easy to give and pleasant to hear.
As an adult I began to struggle with the question. The easy answer is of course “I am fine,” or a more cordial “I am fine – how are you?” which has the added benefit of turning the question back on the person asking it. But the fact that neither of us was being forthright or truthful bothered me. It was the social version of an airplane touch and go — zooming in, having super brief relationship contact, and then zooming out into the wild blue sky.
Later, when I struggled with depression, I came to have a lot of difficulty with this question. It never felt like whoever asked the question really mean it. Even amidst the depression I could recognize that depression was tainting my perception of the question, but how I felt about it was still very negative. The question was particularly difficult if the person asking it appeared to genuinely believe that they meant it. But it seemed that people wanted very much to tell me that they cared only to the extent that they could handle a difficult response in that moment. An seemingly innocent question had many different layers of meaning and possible responses.
This is how the question felt to me — an intrusive attack that put me on the defensive.
If you ask someone who is struggling with clinical depression “How are you?” and get an answer:
- Was it an honest answer? (Hate to tell you this, but probably not.)
- Was is it helpful to the person that you were concerned about?
- Was it helpful to you?
This question was most difficult when it came from a loved one and I was severely depressed and suicidal. When we are that depressed, how can any of us begin to put what we feel into words, let alone words from which another person can glean intellectual or emotional meaning? Music and painting appear to be the only arts that can describe it. That is why this week I am referring you to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 2nd movement, as the best depiction of bipolar melancholia of which I am aware. I claim this composition for bipolar depression because the melancholia has a strong thread of agitation and even anger in it.
But more importantly, is it actually good for the questioner to know how badly I am doing? If telling them had any real chance of helping me, or even better if it could benefit them, then it would have been a moral and emotional slam dunk. But what if instead the answer harmed them? In trying to navigate my way through the morality of all of this, I always remembered the ninth step from Alcoholics Anonymous, “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” It is a mistake to think that all honesty is helpful. Even when somebody wants a straight answer and believes that they are entitled to it (because it is obvious that it is in every one’s best interest!), that is not necessarily so. Instead a truthful response might cause them stress, worry, and gave them feelings of powerlessness.
Usually when I heard this question I felt backed into a corner.
Then some ignoramus would say “I know just how you feel. I’ve been depressed myself!” believing that his experience of feeling blue once for two weeks after a relationship breakup was equivalent to major depression. Dante must have imagined a special ring in hell for these yahoos.
One person’s creative and successful way to get past this impasse
I met a warm, kind man online in a forum for people with bipolar and unipolar disorder. He was loved by many people and they were all concerned about him and wanted to hear that he was doing OK. (Important note: not how he was, but that he was doing okay.) Finally, he was asked the question one too many times by loved ones (it requires a lot of energy to answer that question truthfully and tactfully when you’re depressed). His symptoms were somewhat what people expect with depression (feeling depressed, suicidal, or anhedonia) but he struggled much more with the vegetative symptoms – no energy, no appetite, difficulty sleeping, etc.
He got creative and started adding a number, to his internet name, that indicated how much depression he was currently experiencing, on a scale from 1 to 7. This way is friends and family could know quickly approximately where he was at the moment, without taxing his scant energy. When I was making a big, complicated move from one state to another and my loved ones wanted to keep track of me, I kept a website just for that purpose. Without it I just would not have responded much to well meant queries. His modest system was much more simple and elegant, to similar effect.
What is a “ping”?
I can happily report that I am reasonably comfortable with this question. I understand that “How are you?” simply does not mean what it says. When we ourselves ask this question we are not in fact asking how the other person is! We need to know this and respect it. And when we answer this question, if you’re severely depressed we should not respond by saying how we really are. When I was in the midst of my depression there were all sorts of creative ways I got around this impasse — changing the subject, telling only part of the truth, feigning catatonia, etc.
In fact, when we play relationship badminton with this question, 90% of what we are actually doing what software engineers call a “ping.” The word comes from submarine sonar terminology. To ascertain if a target was there, a submarine would emit a pulse and wait to see whether or not it bounced back and if so how long it took to return, which was then used to estimate the distance to the target.
In software engineering today, ping is a software utility used to test whether or not it is possible to reach a computer on the network and how long any round-trip takes. Similar to the submarine ping, the questions are whether or not there is an object out there and how long does it take to reach there and back.
This is an example of a computer ping. “TBaines pinged “nexon.net.” This computer sent out 1 packet of information four times, waiting a period of time each time. Then the request timed out and the ping program stopped, reporting that 100% of the information sent to nexon.net was lost in the internet ether.
[In writing this, possible high school dating applications have occurred to me several times. In my time, wouldn’t it have been more efficient and much more humane for us to have some sort of dating “ping” technology instead of the painful gossip and nonverbal language gaffes? Today there is Facebook and texting etc., but that can be extremely cruel. Wouldn’t it cut to the chase to say “Hi, I’m here, are you there, would you respond, and how far apart are we from something meaningful?”]
The last time that I used ping myself it was to see whether or not my laptop could talk with the Internet. Since Amazon.com is always there I pinged Amazon to see whether not I could communicate with the Internet. But the real conversation went something like this.
Applying the “ping” to successful communication with bipolar depression
When you are doing a ping with computer networks you do not want detailed information of the contents of the other computer’s hard drive. It is a simple “I am here, you are there, good.” Similarly, when we ask other people, “How are you today?” we are simply making sure that we can communicate, that they will communicate with us, and gain some rough estimate of how far we are apart.
So “How are you?” simply equates to “ping.” Can I reach you, are you available, are you able to reply, and what is the relational distance between us. You want to know that the other person is there and that you can talk with them if you really need to.
How does this inform those of us who suffer from depression? Well, even when our brains are coated with cobwebs, we need to stay aware of the fact that when people ask us how we are doing (which for depressed people is painfully frequent) it does not mean what it says on the surface. People do not really want to know how we are really doing or in great detail — no matter how much they argue against it!! But that is OK — that is as good as this gets. What they do desperately want to know is how to ping us — to know that we are still alive (that we have not killed ourselves since last we spoke, they are usually worried about that) and they want to shorten the distance between us. So what we need to do is to draw upon whatever compassion and energy we have remaining, and even dip into our tender reserves if needed, and be kind. Be kind as we can to them. It is very difficult to care for us. We find something kind to say to this loving, bumbling person.
In contrast with the taciturn depressive, there is the manic giving us “Too much information!”
In contrast with the depressed person, with whom it is many times difficult to pry a vague description of how they fare, we have all probably talked with a person who actually believes that this question is asking for a “core dump” (telling us more than we would ever want to know about their life from an early age onward). Maybe they ignore the simple question and use it as an excuse to dump. We have seen the chilling effects that this excessive narcissism can have on a conversation and upon a relationship. “Too much information! “as my sister-in-law would say.
Conclusion and possibilities for future ping applications
But now you are better equipped. Those people who you love that are depressed — please!! do not interrogate them, but keep the “ping” in mind — can you reach them, are they available to you, and what is the approximate relational distance between you. And the next time you see someone that you care about fall afoul of this simple but bottomless question you can explain to them what a “ping” is. It may reassure you both.
But why don’t we give up “How are you? ” altogether and simply say “ping” and “pong.” At first it would feel tremendously silly, but we can survive that. Eventually our need to expedite and economize in the information era might win out.