“Hi Kim. How’s your back?”
I hear this a lot. I think it’s kinda strange. I realize we have a cultural habit of asking how each other are in greeting, and that making that question specific can be a sign that ‘yes we really are acquainted.’ “How’s your new job?” “How’s your mom doing?” Etc. But it still strikes me as a little weird to greet someone by bringing up their chronic illness. I can’t imagine walking up to someone in a wheelchair and asking “how’s the inability to walk?”
But it’s not really the fact that it’s an unpleasant reminder that is annoying. It’s that it’s not an easy question to answer. There’s the truthful answer, which is never simple, or the comforting answer, which is never wholly truthful. ‘What question are they REALLY asking?’ I have to wonder. ‘Do they want to know how I am at this very moment, or how I’ve been doing recently, or do they even really want to know at all? Do they just want to hear something positive to make them feel good for asking?’
Because the truthful answer may be “Well, two days ago I was in tears because the pain was so bad and it just wouldn’t stop no matter what I did, but right now I’m only in a mild amount of pain.” By the way, that answer would translate in spoken words to “Eh, alright.” Mostly the answer is “well, you can see me, which means I’m not in bed, which means IT COULD BE WORSE.” Aka “not bad.”
I know people mean well when they make inquiries, but it puts a weird pressure on me, honestly. Maybe I’m feeling really good at the moment and not in pain and they ask and suddenly I start feeling guilty because I SHOULD be in more pain. I’m supposed to be disabled, what am I doing out and about and functioning? That’s obviously just the stupid thoughts in my head, but they hit you at the strangest moments.
I’d just rather talk about something else, unless it’s somehow relevant. I’d rather talk about how my business is doing, or what I’m working on, or the last book I read or really ANYTHING ELSE. Because my back really isn’t that interesting. It’s the same as its been for the last seven years: fucked up. It’s still fucked up. Sometimes it’s more fucked up than others, and no I don’t know why or when or how long or anything. It just is a thing. Honestly I have just accepted it and moved on. I feel like other people are more bothered by the fact that I live with chronic pain than I am sometimes. Yes, sometimes medical science can’t fix people. I know that’s a scary realization, but I’ve been living with that knowledge since I was 17 and the surgeon told me to “come back when you can’t walk.” I’m kinda over it.
So what if you are genuinely concerned and genuinely want to know how my back is doing? Well, for one thing, if it was me asking a friend, it wouldn’t be the first or second thing out of my mouth when I see them. I’d wait until a relaxed moment, or until the subject came up naturally. If you’re only going to exchange a few sentences of small talk with me, well then maybe you don’t actually know me well enough to ask for details about my health.
So if you ask me how my back is doing, be prepared for something non-committal and vague in response. Or possibly the ever-so-helpful-but-true “it hurts.” Either way, there will be a shrug involved.