A few weeks ago I dropped my oyster card onto the tube tracks. Berating myself for clumsiness, feelings of annoyance and upset creeping in, I actually contemplated climbing down to get it. I checked the time before the next train, and even ran through it step-by-step in my head: jumping down, grabbing the damn thing, and clambering back up before being hit. Crouched in a squat, I leant over the platform ledge, peering at my out-of-reach prize, poised and ready to go. Just as I was about embark on my daring mission, a fellow commuter asked me with (not entirely misplaced) concern in her voice if I was okay. ‘I’m fine!’ I shot back cheerily. Except of course, perhaps I wasn’t. In fact, clearly my emotional wellbeing was not where it should be if there I was, 7:30pm on a Tuesday evening, considering risking my life in front of a moving train to retrieve a tiny bit of worthless plastic.
As I stood up again, with a mounting sense of anxiety, still obsessing about getting the damn thing back, I got to thinking, that maybe indeed all was not ‘fine’. There it was, something niggling away in the back of my mind that I was surely refusing to give voice to.
Wondering exactly what the hell had gotten in to me, unease began slowly spreading through every pore. I realised it probably wasn’t coincidence that I’d had a recent string of physical health complaints (including a rather glamorous three day stint in hospital); as if my body were waving a red flag: ‘hey sister! Slow down, something ain’t quite right here!’. A not-so-subtle signal that something might be amiss.
But so often we ignore these early warning signs, and before we know it it’s too late; what was once a single snow flake has become a terrifying, cascading avalanche. Simply because we insisted on pretending everything was okay when, if truth be told, it wasn’t.
So why do we do it? It’s not a sign of weakness to admit that things are a little off kilter, yet for some reason, being honest about feeling as if things are getting on top of us, or that we might be a little low emotionally, is something we are – sadly – often too quick to shy away from. We aren’t always willing to answer the question of ‘how are you?’ with a ‘not so great’, even if we are the ones asking the question of ourselves.
Taking stock, as I stood there on the train platform, and thinking about all of the huge changes i’d made over the last six months it almost seemed ridiculous to think that I could uproot my entire life, turn it on it’s head and somehow I’d just be completely ‘fine’ without a single negative consequence. That there wouldn’t be days where it didn’t feel not worth the effort at all.
And yet, I had to admit, I felt this teensy pressure each time someone said to me ‘so is it just fabulous??’ to retort back with a perpetually-chirpy ‘yeah, it’s awesome!’. I felt obligated to justify that all those changes I’d made had magically paid off and resulted in some immutable happiness of the highest cosmic order.
There I was, so busy pretending to everyone else that I had, along the way, forgotten to be honest with myself. A real failing on my part, when I should have admitted that in fact, it’s mostly great, but some days still really needed to go f**k themselves.
Instead of saying all this though, when people asked, somehow I’d fallen into the ‘I’m fine’ trap.
My favourite cowgirl Kacey sings a song all about it, appropriately titled ‘fine’. The gist of her beautiful lyrics is that she’s experiencing sadness, but that instead of sharing these woes when anyone asks, she’ll say ‘I’m fine’. Hiding behind a veil of false pretence.
It’s something we are probably all guilty of on some level from time to time, but it’s important to recognise the difference between a little fib to yourself, and when this lie starts to spiral, becoming detrimental to our health and wellbeing. When it’s become that avalanche.
In fact, the Mental Health Foundation launched a campaign last Autumn to raise awareness of, and to challenge this trend. In a study of 2,000 adults they found that the average person will say ‘I’m fine’ 14 times in a week, but that just 19% of those people actually meant it. Worse still, almost a third of those surveyed said they were often dishonest about their feelings to others, and 1 in 10 went on to say they consistently lied about their emotional state. These somewhat shocking statistics highlight this worrying pattern of behaviour – that I too had succumbed to – and identify a real need for us to be more open and honest about our feelings, and to be able to admit when we are unhappy and might require a helping hand.
In today’s society, with insight into other people’s lives a mere scroll and click away, it’s tempting to have this expectation that we should all be having a bloody amazing time all of the time. And for sure, there’s plenty of books and products out there that will tell you there’s a secret key to unlocking everlasting happiness – the ultimate goal to pursue – but it is perhaps more useful to instead acknowledge that happiness is not a forever state. It ebbs and flows as the tide, and that’s the real secret.
By admitting this, and taking the constant pressure off ourselves to appear to be ‘fine’ at all times, we might, in fact, feel one step closer to having a more fulfilling life; a real one that has its ups and downs, that is not perfect and shiny all the time. No-one is superhuman, (no matter how many cosplay outfits they may own…*ahem*) and no one is truly ‘fine’ all of the time.
We shouldn’t feel obligated to appear to be happy at every given moment just because of some perceived societal demand to be so. Adjusting your expectations that normal life is a mixture of good and bad is not the same as giving up on your aspirations, it’s being realistic. It gives us the permission to be ‘not okay’ on some days, and not to be so hard on ourselves when we aren’t actually doing so great.
Contemplating all this as I stood on the train platform, I realised sadly, it probably also wasn’t a coincidence then that I’d been struggling to write an article for a while. I find this blog not only a wonderful outlet for creativity, but most of all, I find it a cathartic space I can be honest with myself, and quite frankly, I hadn’t been doing that for weeks.
Time for honesty then. Is this new life I have created back down here in London okay? Yes. Sometimes. But other times it’s most definitely not, in fact it’s down right rubbish and really not ‘fine’ at all.
So when you read my blog, you will of course find a whole chunk of pieces on my worldly travels and humorous escapades, but also interspersed, you’ll find some articles like these, about how life isn’t all hunky dory because, well, that’s real life.
It might not be rocket science, but it seemed that the fates had intervened that night to give me a little reminder to take a step back, stop pressurising myself and admit on occasion that things weren’t okay, and that was a completely acceptable and valid way to feel.
So I took a final lingering look at my oyster card there on the tracks, waiting to get run over by a high speed train (never a more perfect metaphor to be had) and I walked away, smiling, and feeling just that little bit happier.
Because maybe everything wasn’t entirely as fine as I’d like it to be, but you know what? I’m okay with admitting that.
For more information about Mental Health Awareness and the ‘i’m fine’ phenomenon, visit mentalhealth.org.uk. Remember, it’s okay not to be okay.