“Are you feeling better” is a fascinating and complex question which, like “How are you” is often thrown out without much thought or much expectation of a detailed answer. When used among people without chronic conditions the general context is “Has the flu/stomach bug/broken ankle/hangover gone away yet? Are you back to being ‘well’?” As such it has three basic answers (“yes”, “no”, and “getting there”) and so is a good candidate for small talk and general niceties.
When it comes to sufferers of chronic conditions, however, there’s generally some level of acceptance that it’s never going to go away, and that they are never goint to be “well” again. In these situations the context is wildly different and the number of possible meanings and answers are huge. I will discuss some examples:
“Are you back to being well?”
This is the standard meaning for non sufferers, and so the one that many sufferers also assume from this question. It might be that the person asking doesn’t realise that their condition is chronic and is genuinely wondering if they’re better than they were. It could be that the person asking doesn’t *believe* that the condition is chronic and are asking in a “have you grown out of that yet”. It could be that the person has simply forgotten, or automatically used a stock pleasantry without thinking about the context.
This can be upsetting for people who have accepted that they will likely never be “well” again and that they will always have to deal with this pain/discomfort/mental difficulty/etc. It can also imply that people feel that they *should* be better, and that any failure to be well is a failing in themselves as a person.
It can also leave them with a massive internal debate on whether they should answer truthfully or whether they should just give the polite rote answer. Especially if the person asking is someone with whom they have not discussed their condition before. They may also worry that reminding someone who has been told before may come across as a slight or a barbed comment implying that they should have remembered.
It is important to note that this does not mean that the person asking the question has done a bad thing, or is a bad person. It’s just that an attempted good thing may result in a negative feeling in the person being asked. I am trying to explain *why* people react in unexpected ways, not say whether either party is good or bad!
“Are you feeling better than you usually are?”
This is the context that I’ve found most common among my supportive friends. They see that I suffer from bouts during which my condition worsens, and when they next see me out and about they want to know whether that particular storm cloud has passed. I try to answer these questions truthfully and accurately because if I only ever say “yes” or “no” it gives a far too simple view of a complex condition. It takes a long time and a lot of thought to answer though, as I need a lot of context as to why they’re asking. Am I better than I was when I made my last angsty facebook post? Am I better than when I couldn’t go to that party? Am I better than when they saw me yesterday? Am I better than that time they just found out about when I self harmed back in secondary school? Am I better than my average?
If you want to know if a sufferer is feeling better after a particular downswing it is very useful to put that context into the question or conversation. For example “Are you feeling better? You seemed to be having a hard time yesterday at the party.” It greatly speeds up the answer time, and reassures them that you don’t expect them to be somehow magically cured, you just want to know if they’ve improved from the deep lows.
“Are you recovered from that illness unrelated to your chronic condition?”
Often people will see me when I have a bad cold, and when next they meet me they’ll ask if I’m feeling better. That should be an easy enough one to answer, but again, I need to know what the context is! Often I’ll have had numerous twitching fits, bouts of suicidal ideation, temptations to self harm and other such downswings since I had the cold, and often the cold is a mere side concern for me amidst all my other issues. Again, putting the context in the question helps. For example “Is that cough any better?”
I do appreciate people caring about things other than my chronic condition, it just sometimes takes me by surprise when I’m so wrapped up in the problems that won’t go away.
“Have I helped you in any way by my company/support?”
In real life this one is usually pretty easy to spot. It generally comes at the end of talking to someone, and has a slight pleading edge to the tone. When it comes by text or on the internet, however, it is easy to mistake it for any of the other meanings, and this can result in an answer like “I’m still feeling pretty shit” which can make the helper feel like they’ve failed to help even if they have in fact massively reduced the badness from “I feel like the world is going to end”.
If this is what you mean when you’re asking if someone’s feeling better, then remember that it’s okay to ask outright. “Have I helped in any way?” will not only avoid the wrong message being gotten across, but will also give an opening for the sufferer to say what in particular was helpful that they might like you to do again. It’s also nice to know that you’re trying to help and not just considering the conversation to be random smalltalk about general health.
“Will you be up for doing <x> today?”
This is one that it’s important to be clear about. Sometimes I make plans with people who are very aware of my limitations and who don’t want to pressure me into sticking to those plans if I don’t feel up to it. This is great of them, and I count them among my truest friends. It’s common that these friends will, on the day of the plans, ask me how I’m feeling or if I’m feeling better. I totally get where they’re coming from. It’s just that sometimes I don’t click that that’s what they’re asking. This doesn’t cause any major problems for *me* but can result in them getting the distinct feeling that I’m going to cancel on them. It makes a lot more sense to me for them to ask “Are you still up for <x>” as I know exactly what I’m answering for.
An example conversation from this situation might go:
“Are you feeling better?”
“No. I slept awfully last night, and today I just want to tear my hair out for no reason I can tell.”
“That sounds terrible. Why couldn’t you sleep?”
“The brain gremlins kept getting at me. Telling me the world would be better off without me.”
“I guess you won’t be up to that trip to the zoo so.”
“What? Oh Gods yes, I’m still totally up for that. I need to get out of this house and talk to some friends!”
See! You’re getting an honest answer to the question you asked, and it’s sending you entirely up the wrong tree for the question you meant! No harm done, like, but I feel it makes sense to explain why a chronic sufferer’s answers might be outside of your expected responses in a situation like this.
“So, were you really sick when you said you couldn’t come to my party?”
This one is not a fun one, but it happens sometimes and the brain gremlins would have me believe it happends a lot more often. Sometimes people don’t understand why sufferers of chronic conditions can’t live their lives like everyone else. Sometimes they see them as flakes, or see their inability to cope with social life as a direct slight. There’s not much I can say to help people with these attitudes in dealing with sufferers, other than that I, personally, would prefer to be asked outright and blatantly so I know how you’re feeling and can deal with it. (I might try to explain. I might not. It depends on my spoons and on how reasonable I think the complaint is).
What I *can* help with is to explain that the brain gremlins often translate genuine concern into this before it reaches my brain. If I seem defensive when you ask if I’m feeling better there’s a chance this is why. Please don’t take offence at this! I don’t do it by choice and it doesn’t have anything to do with what kind of person you are. It is purely my internal demons telling me that I’m useless and that people are right to be angry at me for being a broken human who can’t function the way they should.
There’s not much you can really do to help with this interpretation, really, other than to understand any defensiveness and accept that it isn’t irritation at you. Maybe saying something like “I was sorry to hear you were having trouble the other night.” I guess that might help give it context?
The one remaining thing I’d like to cover is the fact that sometimes sufferers may get annoyed at the question regardless of the context. It could be that it reminds them that they’re going to have to deal with their condition for the rest of their lives, and in some cases that it’s only going to get worse. This isn’t your fault, nor is it any criticism on you for asking the question (although if someone responds like that to the question I would definitely advise avoiding that particular question around them in future if you can). Remember that it’s tough to deal with a chronic condition, and try to understand that someone can be annoyed or upset by feelings stirred by a question without necessarily being annoyed by the asker of said question. Give them space for their feelings, or offer a shoulder and an ear, or simply let them know you’re sympathetic.
I’m sure there are plenty more interpretations that I haven’t covered here, but I hope this is a good start in explaining why such a simple question as “Are you feeling better?” isn’t always so simple.
Are there other ways that you interpret this question? Is there anything you feel is obvious that I’ve missed? Do you disagree with an of my points? Let me know!