A Simple Question that Changed My Life
And helped me connect with people, make friends, and develop new opportunities.
I never really cared about anyone else. I found it easier to live in my head a lot. But the trouble is, my head doesn’t like me very much. Never really has, honestly. So after I broke up with alcohol, I had to find new ways to get out of my head. Without getting off my head. And that meant, focusing on other people. Which meant learning to care about other people.
I was a smart kid, but I got bored really easily. When I got bored, I tuned out. I’d get distracted, lost in my own thoughts and drift away. It didn’t make me a lot of friends, so I learnt to be self-reliant and sought comfort in books.
In my 20s, self-reliance turned into self-absorption. Because I was quick, I could also be very funny and very entertaining. Plus, I’d practically memorized Monty Python’s entire repertoire. I judged the worthiness of future friendships on whether they got my references or laughed at my jokes.
But beyond that, I didn’t have much to offer you, because I wasn’t interested in you at all. Your life and experiences were only of interest if they could be weaved into a good anecdote for the next party.
Whatever was going on with my — my thoughts and feelings were, frankly, much more interesting than what was going on with yours. I often didn’t remember meeting people for the first time at all, or even recall our conversations.
Mostly because it was often the same initial conversation/opener I used at every party (or I was wasted). No wonder my friendships dwindled quickly. Once you met me a couple of times, I’d either run out of jokes or you couldn’t handle my drinking.
As my drinking accelerated, self-absorption became self-obsession. My focus of every party was: What can you offer me and will I have enough to drink?
Do they earn more than me, so they can buy me drinks?
My relationships became perfunctory, at best. Their existence based on my basic needs: Will they judge me for the amount I drink? Do they drink like me and/or do they earn more than me, so they can buy me drinks? I never took the time to analyze this thinking.
I honestly thought I was just out to have fun. It was the weekend/a celebration/special occasion — I deserved to have fun. But under this “fun” was a dark motive I didn’t recognize at the time — I was driven by my need to drink. My brain sought numbness and oblivion.
I’d taken to having a “few” glasses of wine before I went out, to get me in the mood. The truth is I thought everybody would judge me if I drank like I wanted to, so if I went out slightly buzzed, I could drink a little slower.
It was also a lot cheaper. For some reason, my career hadn’t been progressing as much as I wanted it to of late — maybe the number of mornings I was late to work, sometimes arriving in the same clothes from the night before, or the days when I was really too hungover to care. Coupled with the amount of alcohol my nights out required, I was perpetually living from paycheck to paycheck.
Without realizing it, my world was becoming smaller and smaller. I’d been hiding my drinking by going out with different groups of people each weekend — my flatmate one Friday night, work colleagues the next week,
Melbourne filmmakers the week after. But increasingly I was embarrassing myself, going further than I intended, getting more obnoxious than I meant to. I proposed marriage to someone at a Writers Guild event for a drink card. I was married at the time. It was funny for a minute, but then I kept pushing it — like I do.
It was like my view narrowed. I stopped seeing people. Stopped being interested in them. Everything to me was about the alcohol. I once got invited to a debutante ball for a friend’s daughter. I was furious to discover the event was dry and kept begging to sneak off to the bar next door. I was blind to my friend’s obvious embarrassment and my non-drinking husband’s shame.
And in the end, it was easier to stay at home and drink because here, alone, I could drink how I really wanted to. My phone stopped ringing. I went to work — until I didn’t. I came home. I white knuckled it for a few days (I didn’t drink on school nights I’d tell myself), then I’d have a bad day and “need” a drink. And hello oblivion. Then my husband and I split up and finally I could drink exactly how I wanted. So I did.
Some people seem to think about getting sober like it’s a switch that you turn on. Like one day you’re an addict, the next day you’re not. But it doesn’t really work that way. You take away the vice (booze, pills, food, sex), you’re still left with the head and thinking of an addict.
When I finally got sober, I couldn’t comprehend a life without alcohol. How would I go to a wedding without champagne? How would I hang out with friends at pubs without beer? The fact was, nobody had asked me to hang — let alone go to their wedding — for a very long time.
Left on my own without vices to dampen down the noise and numb the feelings, my head goes to some pretty dark places. My head hates me. My head wants me dead. It likes to go on this rollercoaster and spin. Everything becomes internalized. My current mood, health, cravings. And feelings — my feelings. I was so sensitive. Every minor slight or conflict was death by a thousand paper cuts.
I was so convinced I’d be fired from my job as a telemarketer (a telemarketer!), I wanted to throw myself in front of a tram. Without anything chemical to alter my thinking, my own self-obsession was making me lose perspective and tittering me towards self-harm and self-destruction. I know that sounds dramatic and that’s the point — I had no perspective and it felt absolutely true.
It was suggested to me that I get out of my head. Stop thinking about myself and help others, they told me. How do I do that? I asked. Call them up. Ask them how they are, they said.
It made no sense to me. I was in trouble here. I was trying to stay sober. I needed help, not them. Just do it, they said. I was desperate, so I just did it. Everyday, I called 3 people and the first thing I asked them was, “How are you?”
“How are you?” saved my life.
Asking other people, “How are you?” saved my life. At first, I seriously didn’t give a fuck how they were. There was so much noise in my head, I couldn’t register their answers. It was just something I knew I should do because it seemed like a caring thing to do. Even if I didn’t.
But gradually, this started to change. I actually started to care. I started to listen. I wanted to know how they were. What was going on in their life. How I could help them. I found common interests — movies, beach, picnics, camping. People started calling me back. Then they started asking me to come along to things. I hadn’t been on a camping trip in YEARS. Now I was going every few months. I made new friends and re-connected with old ones. Friends who hid booze from me, now let me babysit their newborns (and hid the British chocolate instead). I started organizing trips too — and people actually came.
Through asking “How are you?” I got to know and care about people other than myself. The self-obsession lessened and the noise in my head got quieter because I wasn’t listening to it anymore. I had always felt like I had nothing to offer other than an ability to entertain at parties. Now my ability was being used to help cheer people up. My own experiences with addiction and depression were helping me to empathize and help others.
And it started to build my work too. I build relationships with people and they started to get to know me and trust me, and then they wanted to work with me. Doors started to open. My world started to expand. And get bigger.
This week I had a birthday, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the love and wishes I’ve received. My neighbors bought me a special bakery cake. My other neighbor left a present on the doorstep. When I went to Puerto Rico, I bought back little gifts for my neighbors and friends. Over time, we’ve built a nice little community.
I never thought I’d say this, but I am so loved by so many — friends, colleagues, family — and vice versa.
I’m so lucky and blessed!
And it all started with me asking, “How are you?”.
Sooo… how are you? Tell me, really.