What Does “I’m Fine” Mean if you’re Depressed?

Asking someone with severe depression how they’re doing is very much like asking someone who is repeatedly being bashed over the head by a 2” X 4” how they’re doing.

How are you doing?

Oh, I’m fine, except for the 2” X 4” smashing into my skull.

Asking a depressed person how they’re doing is the same. They’re fine, except for the crippling, soul-sucking depression.

It’s not that people shouldn’t ask how you are, of course, just that the answer is a bit moot. If you’re depressed, it’s always the same. It pretty much doesn’t matter what’s happening around you, depression is the overwhelming feeling no matter what. If you could excise the depression, the answer would differ depending on life’s circumstances and psychology, but with depression: nothing else really matters.

Impact of Life’s Events on Depression

What does "Fine" Mean for a Depressed PersonThis is not to suggest that life events can’t impact a severe depression. They can. They can make it worse.

In my experience the best things in the world can happen to you and the depression just laughs, reminding the psyche that nothing can touch the madness of the brain. But bad things? I don’t know. The brain feeds off of them. I suppose bad things confirm everything depression is telling you and that confirmation leads to greater depths. It’s a downward spiral. The further you go the steeper it gets.

So, if you’re Depressed, How are You?

For me, I’ve rewritten the definition of the word “fine.”

Fine: death or dismemberment is not imminent.

Yes, I’m “fine.” My death or dismemberment is not imminent. It’s about as good as it gets in a severe depression.

Now most people don’t know I’ve rewritten the definition, few people have a Natasha-to-English dictionary, but somehow it makes me feel better. Like I’m not lying so much to so many people. Because the lying sucks so avoiding it in my head seems to matter.

Of course, it’s not like a significant part of the rest of the population isn’t lying when they say they’re “fine” too, so there’s really no need to feel so bad about it. But it just feels like such a big lie given how absolutely un-fine a severe depression makes you.

However, you could look at it this way: Saying we’re “fine” when we’re not. Just another way people with bipolar are just like everyone else.

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  1. They don’t really want to know because when you do tell them the truth, they say you’re being negative, stop complaining, you have so much to be thankful for, etc. When you post happy thoughts on FB, everyone loves you. But if you say how you’re really feeling for the day well, no one gives a damn bc they feel like you’re seeking attention. You’re not. It’s just called DEPRESSION. IT’S called having BIPOLAR DISORDER. IT’S called having MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES.

  2. I would say I’m fine even if I was holding my own severed limb. It is the easier answer especially when someone else doesn’t want to hear the answer. Or the explanation is tiring before you utter a single word. I think there is some unwritten rule about always saying you’re fine unless you are in a coma or dead.

  3. Great blog post, Natasha! I completely agree; it certainly resonates with my own struggles with answering the “how are you” question with both honesty and discretion. My re-definition of “fine” is, “not feeling like jumping off a bridge just at this moment, thanks.” Good to know others deal with it similarly. Thanks!

  4. I like your definition, as well. The reply I’ve come to tend toward, as a depressed person, not bipolar, is “I’ve been better and I’ve been worse”. I find that people who ask how others are as a way of acknowledging their existence (I’m guessing that’s why they ask & then keep walking) really annoy me, because I’m almost forced to give the socially expected response. And, yeah, “fine” is usually not the case. But I’ll keep the new and improved definition in mind. :)

  5. I think tht you’re right, i have depression and the answer is always ‘fine’ but people look at me and say “you’re lying, whats wrong?” and i don’t know how to respond. how would you respond?

  6. I’m 19 years old and recently have been diagnosed with BP (I), because of this I am know taking time off university and living at home with my incredibly supportive and understanding parents, who try SO hard to avoid asking me how I feel 24/7.

    I agree with most, in that saying “I’m fine” isn’t really indicative of how awful and hopeless I’m feeling at the time. Reasons I say I’m fine when I’m not?
    – its easier than explaining something as inexplicable as depression
    – acquaintances and strangers probably don’t care in hearing a sob story, or would feel uncomfortable and not know how to respond
    – because as long as I’m breathing, I truly am ‘fine’ even if it doesn’t feel so

    The other day my mom asked how I’ve been feeling lately, because from her view point I seemed a little better than previous weeks. I almost responded with “I’m fine” but instead tried to explain why the question “how are you” feels so irrelevant to me lately.

    I explained that even if I responded openly and honestly with her about how I was feeling there were 3 main problems
    1. a lot of the time I don’t even know how I feel! So trying to explain it makes me frustrated and can even lead to more depressive thoughts about how depressed I am.
    2. how I feel the moment she asks me can be completely different for how I’ll feel an hour or even minutes later
    3*. even if I can find the words to articulate how incredibly brutal I feel at that moment, theres most like not a thing anyone can to to help, and if there is I’m probably to frustrated with trying to figure out how I feel to focus on what may help

    For anyone trying to help someone you love work through their disorder I’ve put a * beside #3 because you don’t necessarily have to know how your loved one feels in order to help. This is just a suggestion, from my personal experience, but try skipping over the “how do you feel” question and get right to the “is there anything I can do to make things easier/better for you?”

    Chances are, there won’t be much, and you may even get completely shut down,but just posing the question helps those of us struggling to know that we are loved and cared for.

    Hope others can relate!

    Follow my ups and downs at http://littlemadblog.blogspot.ca/

  7. I just wanted to say to add to these a bit. I grew up with a bipolar mother. I didnt know at the time thats what it was. She was in bed for years at a time, i of course thought this was just laziness. Once she was properly diagnosed with bipolar, i believe she probably had depression but blaimed it on her lack of internal strength and optomism.
    Years past and still i was a non believer. I felt it was another psychoantalitical word made up by the medical profession to label large groups of people they could not figure out.
    A few years ago i began to notice my behaviors not matching my moral being. I was irratic, selfish, lying, two faced and right out mean and i didnt even care. I was a druggy, a drunk, and a baligerant know it all. All of these qualities underneath toiled and ate away at my soul, i hated knowing i was me.
    To the pressure and nagging of my family, i reluctantly saw a psychiatrist whom i lied to and was someone else. ( doesnt help im an actor) At one point he had me on 17 medications and i was using drugs on top of them. After 10 car accidents, my marriage breaking up, being disowned by family and friends, being fired from two jobs and 7 hospital stays in one year, i conceded. I WAS DEFFINATELY SOMETHING!
    I refused to go back to the quack i was seeing so for two months went unmedicated. My son has ADHD and behavioral issues and in helping him, i found my doctor.
    He put me on lithium….. Thats it! Within a few months i quit all drugs on my own and am now who i always should have been.
    Sorry for the long story. My main point is people seem to feel that if one is bipolar they are a serial killer or they have some irreversable birth defect or that because the text book version of ” side effects” are so utterly detramental that that is how we all are. They dont realize that just like the side effects of medication an individual may have one, all or none of the most commonly known. People feel there is no solution, no hope when i am living proof.
    All the wrong choices, bad decisions and harmful actions i did, were mine and mine alone but they were not me. Every person is an individual and medicine changes by the minute. No one person should ever be labeled bipolar, i shouldnt have to wear it in bold lettering across my chest. Im a person living with bipolar but bipolar will never be me! If people assume i am a certain way because i am bipolar then they are just as ignorant to assume black people are lazy, blondes are stupid, all jewish people are cheap and no one from other countries can speak english. Ignorance is running rampant and its new victim seems to be mental disease.

    • “i shouldnt have to wear it in bold lettering across my chest. Im a person living with bipolar but bipolar will never be me!”

      Well said.

  8. Well bless your heart for making me smile today. “Death or dismemberment not imminent.” I can only hope. Some days, I do honestly hope for the former, but usually it’s only a ‘jeez it might be nice if I just blinked and it was over and I was outta here…hmmm….’ thought, not a deep and abiding desire. Usually.

    “I’m fine, thank you for asking” usually means “Oh god, I don’t have the energy or the interest to get into it, for gawd’s sake leave me aloooonnnnneeee….and I don’t really believe you care for one freakin’ minute,” or “what’s the difference? you gonna fix it?” But I finally came up with a better answer than “fine” anyway. I say “I’m well enough, thank you for asking.” And it’s the truth. I *am* “well enough”. I’m well enough considering what comatose and/or suicidal states I have been in in my life. If I’m actually in contact with people so they can even ask me “How are you?” then I’m better than my worst state, for one thing. And if I’m able to care enough to form a reply, then same as above, I’m better than my worst state. I’m well enough to keep on keeping on.

    That said, yes, there’s more to living than simply being “not the worst I’ve ever been”. There’s a HUGE area in between merely existing and actually living.

    But I was driving myself crazy…okay…crazy-er…dividing my life into moments of “good” or “bad depending on the states of merely depressed or not depressed and the sub-categories of the levels of depression, so I came up with “well enough”, and it felt good. It felt a hell of a lot better. I didn’t mean for it to, but subconsciously it made one HELL of a difference. I felt lighter, more well, less “permanently sick”. Make sense? It didn’t change anything but my attitude. Made it a little wee bit easier to cope.

  9. Thanks for this, Natasha. I’ve been dealing with this issue lately as my meds have stopped working and I am becoming increasingly depressed with of course no idea if/when I’ll find a replacement that works. “My death or dismemberment is not imminent” is about as good as it’s going to get for awhile.

  10. I like ‘death not imminent.’ Mine is ‘at least I don’t have cancer.’ Pretty close.

    Mostly I just tell people what they want to hear since they can’t help or have no capacity to help anyway.

  11. Just letting you know that you accomplished something remarkable. You got me to laugh out loud while reading about such a dark subject.

  12. Sometimes I say, “Better than some, not as good as most,” or “Every day above ground is a good one.”

    I’m not fine. I don’t know that I’ll ever be fine again, other than “death or dismemberment is not imminent.”

  13. I totally acknowledge this as the best description of depression I have ever seen anywhere! The 2 x 4 over the head, the fact that yes fine means death in not imminent, masterful! I say this as I managed to be depression and flat affect free 10 days. I need to frame this in case depression comes a visiting again. Thank you Natasha!

  14. I say “upright and conscious.” Completely true, implies that perhaps not doing terrific, but with humor. Almost everyone laughs and says something like “oh yeah, me too.”

  15. Days that I just can’t seem to say I’m fine I say I’m hunky dory . After I say it the look on some peoples faces are humorous . If I can get a laugh out of my depression I go for it , because as we all know with depression having anything to laugh about is rare .

  16. “In my experience the best things in the world can happen to you and the depression just laughs, reminding the psyche that nothing can touch the madness of the brain.”

    FINALLY someone has worded an explanation that makes sense to me! IT is so hard to explain depression to people… but you are so spot on here. No matter what happens, the best news or the worst, nothing can break through the depressive shell. At least no single event can.

  17. My old NCO used to say fine was actually an acronym: F.I.N.E.= Frakked up. Insecure. Neurotic. Emotionally unstable.

    When you think of it that way… not a lie, hmm?

    • That’s an interesting one! I’ve heard other acronyms, but that one is new to me! The one my former therapist used to use was: F’d up, insecure, neurotic, empty. I’m right there with you though, in responding with “fine” the word, when the acronym is what is running through my head.

  18. I think it’s a social nicety we’re forced to accept. I’d usually rather answer “fine” that go into any detail about how not fine I am. On the other side of the coin, “fine” would be an understatement in some of my manic phases — “really super duper what can I do for you and what do you need to know . . . fine.”