To Ask, or Not to Ask...That is the Question

One of my favorite results of this blog so far has been seeing the way it has impacted the way people in my life interact with me or others in a more intentional way.

  • One co-worker asked me via Google chat, "How are you?" and when I replied, "Fine thanks, you?" she took time to say, "But wait...are you fine or 'fine'?"
  • After a conversation about seeing what's hiding in people's negative spaces, my aunt noticed that a friend who was caring for her seriously ill husband was struggling but trying not to say so. My aunt let her know it was okay to say that things were hard, a statement which allowed her friend to open up about how she was really feeling.
  • Last week a colleague shyly asked a question that I would guess many of you have also wondered, either about me or about other people dealing with hard things. He said: 

"I never know, do you want me ask how your husband is

or not?"

First of all, I LOVE that this co-worker had clearly had this internal debate for quite a while, which shows that he cares and wants to honor my experiences and feelings. Second, I admire that he bravely came out and asked me for my preferences.  Let's all be more like that guy, shall we? 1000 points for him!

Here's the answer I gave him that I will also share with you in case you, too, have been wondering: You can't win.

There are days on which all that is going on with Sean is like heavy metal rock music, blaring in my ears via Bose noise-cancelling headphones, drowning out the sounds of every other noise around me. On those days the experiences, feelings, anxieties, details of it all fill my pores and dance menacingly behind my eyelids. In those moments, when I hear others talking about things like what to have for lunch or which team is playing that night or when the next meeting should be, I have to hold myself back from screaming, "NONE OF THIS MATTERS! MY HUSBAND IS LYING IN A HOSPITAL BED/WAITING FOR RESULTS OF HIS PET SCANS/HAVING A MENTAL HEALTH EPISODE AND ALL YOU CAN TALK ABOUT IS LUNCH/SPORTS/MEETINGS? REALLY?!?!" On these days it feels like my whole world is revolving around something that no one else seems to care about, and to add insult to injury, they seem to care very much about things that seem downright trivial to me. 

HOWEVER...

Do I want, in those moments, for the conversation to switch from March Madness to all eyes on me, set to puppy dog mode, heads tilted at the perfect angle, lips pursed while asking, "So. How is your husband?" 

Nope. First off, let me say that the puppy dog thing is not helpful....although to be fair/confusing if you asked about my chronically ill husband with eyes bright and chipper I may have to punch you in my mind. (Did I mention that you can't win? You can't.) 

Even if you somehow manage to make your eyes the perfect level of sympathy and caring, if I am full to the brim and trying to hold it all together and you ask about how things are going with my husband, you may just release the Krakken, and no one wants that.

Let's review what we've learned so far:

1. If I am in full on crisis mode (which you won't know because I am so darn good at making it look like I am A-OKAY 100% of the time), I would appreciate it if you would not talk about anything other than how my husband is, but certainly don't think about asking how he is either. That would be insensitive.

Got it? Great. Let's move on.

There are days that things are crazy town at home and I use work as a chance to put on my Alter Ego outfit. Those days I am certainly not Allison, wife and caregiver to seriously ill Sean and mom to pre-pubescent rising pop star Maya, but instead I am (in my head) a single, childless, fancy free lady going to work like it is the only thing on her mind or her schedule. Tra la la! Life is so simple! Let's schedule more meetings! Nothing would please me more! I have nothing else to do/think about/fret upon/clean up anyway! Happy hour? Sure! Every one of my hours is already happy, but let's add one more!

On those days, asking how Sean is doing is like walking up to Clark Kent in the newsroom and saying, "Hey there, Superman! How was your flight in this morning?" Don't mess with the facade, folks. Let a girl have her day of pretend play. She doesn't get to the spa much, so at least give her this. This is especially true on days when I am facilitating trainings for large groups of people. When I've got my trainer mask on, please don't ask me 45 seconds before I'm about to begin how things are with my husband. Just don't.

Therefore: 

2. If it is a day in which I'm playing the role of foot loose, husband-free Allison (which you won't know, because that show is only playing out in my mind), certainly don't ask how my husband is doing. Talk about a buzzkill.

Then there are the moments (I had to erase the word "days" because, let's be honest we work in small increments when it comes to stability) when things at home are stable and fine and I'm moving through the day with a clearish mind, focusing on the tasks at hand. On those days a well-placed, "How's your husband doing?" may actually be okay.

But...it can also:

  • be a reminder that wait, is he not supposed to be okay? Things are "fine" right now! Why are you even asking?
  • be really difficult to answer because even if he's "fine," what does "fine" mean and if I say "fine" will my family be crossed off your list and no longer receive sympathy and support tomorrow when things inevitably fall apart again?
  • cloud my clearish mind by making me start to ponder the last time things were not fine (don't usually have to go too far back for these memories) and starting to worry when the next shoe will drop and how.

So:

3. On a "good" day, asking how my husband is may be fine...except for the avalanche of thoughts and worries that you will have just unleashed in my mind.

Before I offer any more super helpful tips, I'd ask you to think about this: What is drawing you to ask this question in the first place?

  • Do you want to know how he's doing?
  • Do you want to show me you care?
  • Do you want to know how I'm doing in relationship and response to his health?

Answering that question can help you decide if, "How is your husband?" is even what you really want to say.

If it's a medical update you're looking for, check the Lotsa Helping Hands blog or ask others who may know, so that when/if you talk to me, I don't have to recount all of the gory details. (One of the most thoughtful things a dear friend does is makes sure she's up to date on the medical blog before we get together so that we can spend time processing ((or not)) instead of me rehashing details that I've already lived AND written about).

If you want to show you care, try using a statement instead of a question, such as, "I've been thinking about your family and I hope you're all doing okay." This makes it so that I can choose if I want to smile, nod, thank you, and move on, or if I want to open the door to give you more information. Either way I feel more comfortable and in control.

You could also send an email, note, text, bouquet of flowers, Dominoes pizza, and/or personal masseuse that just lets me know you're thinking of us, which I love because then I can react whenever and however I want. I love it when these bits of communication also tell me that I do not need to respond, therefore not adding something to my to-do list. I also find myself rereading these little pieces of encouragement when I need them.

If, after all of this, you are brave enough to ask how Sean is doing, how I'm doing, or any other potentially hard question, here are a few recommendations:

  • Consider adding the caveat, "...but you don't have to answer if you don't want to." I love and appreciate when I know someone cares enough to ask AND is sensitive enough to know that I may not want to answer right then...or ever.
  • Take into consideration the surroundings. If we are in a group and this question may turn all eyes towards me, try to wait until a time when it's just the two of us. Likewise if Maya, other children, or people who don't know anything about my home situation are around.
  • Timing is everything. If we are waiting to walk into a big presentation or about to start an important meeting, please don't ask, as that pulls the trap door from beneath me and throws me off my game.  
  • If we are in a social setting and I seem to be having a delightful time, please don't choose that moment to bring your puppy dog eyes on over to ruin my drink. I don't get out much, so if you're witnessing that rare and beautiful occasion, please replace, "Ask Allison about her husband," with, "Get Allison another beverage and a delicious snack and tell her she looks great." You can never go wrong with those.

I do realize that there is irony in the girl who says, "Let's talk about the hard things!" writing about how she often doesn't want to be asked about those same hard things. This is very much a Yes...And situation. Yes, I'm encouraging all of us to reveal what's hiding and overlooked in our negative spaces and to start to see, notice, and appreciate what's hiding in others'.  And...there are places, times, and ways in which that process will be more comfortable and fruitful for everyone involved. 

If this post has caused you to sweat and replay all of the interactions you and I have ever had, please don't. I know that every question, puppy dog eye, and pair of pursed lips are laced with love, concern, and friendship. I love you and I appreciate you for caring enough to try to get this "right." Like I said, you can't win, but I love you for trying.