“I’m Fine.”

“I’m fine.”

I can’t count how many times I have said this in my life. When I ask the question, “How are you doing?” it’s the answer I expect, and often people are thrown off if you answer in any more detail. I have heard people refer to the word “fine” as an acronym which, in good taste, I won’t expound on in detail in this blog post- but I think the point of the acronym is that fine almost never really means fine. In my experience people’s lives are always in flux, and in the ebb and flow we always are experiencing a struggle on some level. So, I guess my question is, why do we feel obliged to say, “I am fine,” when most of the time we are not? In this week’s post I want to answer why I felt the need to say “I’m fine” for so many years, and why I don’t say that anymore.

I think there is a huge misconception about the attitude behind “I’m fine”. I was taught, by many people at many times in my life, that self-reliance was a virtue and that needing help was a sign of weakness, the folly of children. We are taught that there is something stoic to a person who handles their problems with no help, who can put on the appearance that everything is OK. This narrative deeply affected me as a young child and I can remember the very concept of it feeling so alien. It left me with a lot of questions.

“Am I the only one that feels this way?”

I would wonder, “Why does everyone else seem to have a clue when I don’t?”

“These feelings of self-doubt, this knot in my stomach, does no one else really know what this feels like?”

I learned the lessons quickly. I learned to put up walls, to not show weakness, to hide my vulnerabilities lest people pick and prod at them. I learned to answer “I’m fine” like everyone else, thinking that I was being brave, I was being strong, that the appearance of self-reliance was a replacement for the real thing. I remember a poem I wrote in grade school that ended with the line “no one can hear when you scream inside”, I thought that it was important to keep those screams inside- because I never heard anyone else screaming. “I’m fine” they said, “I’m fine.”

Over the years this narrative became like a suit of armor. It looked strong and resilient, and with each passing day there were less and less weak spots. It covered every inch of the man inside and I thought, “Now nothing can ever touch me.” For me, this is what the attitude of “I’m fine” was supposed to bring. Safety, respect, adoration. I was a model of strength and on the outside I gleamed with perfection. However, the view from inside the suit was much different. Yes, the suit covered every inch and had no weak spots; but because of this it was very heavy and made it difficult to move. The very act of getting up each day became a strain on the man inside the suit. The helmet was stifling, and it was hard to breathe. I could see, but as if through a long hallway; and I could hear, but it echoed as if from a distant dream. I thought my suit would give me freedom, but hiding the man inside the suit became the greatest burden I have ever endured, and after a time I collapsed under the weight of the very armor that I built to keep me safe, to set me free.

I remember awaking from this collapse in a place full of other people. People who had lived their lives in suits of armor that had broken down and rusted, and we all sat together exhausted from the journey that lead us here. A journey of self-reliance, alone, in silence. There were some though, that I remember with vivid clarity. It was the look in their eyes, a look that I hadn’t seen in so long. I remember looking at others from my suit of armor and asking, “How are you?” and they would smile with their mouth, but not with their eyes as they parroted back, “I’m fine.” These people, though, smiled with their whole being. I remember how deeply their hope inspired me, and inspires me until this day. Their strength did not come from armor any more, nor did it come from anything outside at all. It came from within and it exuded from them in a way that amazed me. They had found their true voice.

Following in their path, finding my own voice, has been a perplexing journey; a series of contradictions that once I accepted, changed the way I saw myself and the people around me. Despite what I was told as a child, I have learned that people who ask for help are some of the bravest people I have ever met, and that it takes an immense amount of strength to be able to work on yourself. I was taught early in life that my struggle should be my secret, and I planned to carry that burden for the rest of my life, until when early in my recovery a beautiful thing happened. I remember talking to a person who had followed a similar path to mine. I shared with him my experience and how far I had come since then and I watched that little glint of hope sparkle in his eyes, as it did in mine when I first met those bright eyed people the year before. As I watched that glint of hope change that man’s life as it had changed mine, I noticed that how I felt about my experience began to change, too. Suddenly, my secret was helping other people and that burden of guilt and shame began to melt away. As I opened up I met hundreds of people who had struggled in their life like I had, and I started to realize just how much the attitude of “I’m fine” was affecting those around me. I began to see that every person I had seen in the past 22 years was carrying a burden I knew nothing about, and that deep down inside each and every one of those people would have loved a person to share that burden with. You are not alone. People around you every day are walking around thinking, like you, that no one can know the depth of their pain, their struggle. So I challenge each and every person reading this- to be brave enough to drop the “I’m fine” and to keep an eye out for someone struggling through what it is you have been through, and when you find that person go tell them that they are not alone. When you watch that little bit of hope change their life, you’ll see that it changes how you feel about yours- and that has been the most freeing experience of my life.

Today, I don’t want to be fine. I want to be free.

-Carl Antisell