I can remember a time when the hardest question to answer wasn’t on a test or exam, it wasn’t in a job interview and it wasn’t by a Solicitor or Barrister whilst I was under cross examination in the witness box!

No! It was a common question that would be asked by a friend, acquaintance or old work colleague when I would bump into them at the plaza, grocery shopping or just picking my kids up from day-care.

The question? “So what are you doing these days?” Yes! I can remember a time when this was the hardest question in my life to answer! A question that I dreaded, the question that I feared the most and one that would immediately come into my head the second I saw someone out in public that I knew.

Why? Because at that time in my life I was dealing with a mental health condition (PTSD) that prevented me from working. It also forced me to take 10 months out of the working world whilst I sorted myself out and got on top of things.

Ten months off work! WOW! You’re probably think right about now! Sounds like a holiday that comes with sleep-ins, a lot of relaxing, hanging out the shops or the beach? I can assure you it was anything but! To put you in the picture, in brief it was almost the exact opposite to to what I just stated at the start of the above sentence.

The Problem

The main problem was where I lived. I lived and still do live in one of the most beautiful locations on earth, the Sunshine Coast which is located in Queensland, Australia.  The beautiful part was not the problem. The problem was the fact that due to the size of the Sunshine Coast and that I had lived here for a considerable period of my life, it was almost impossible for me to venture out and not bump into someone that I knew.

The Options

  1. Don’t go out
  2. Avoid bumping into people I knew when I was out (Yes you guessed it – I hid from people when I seen them)
  3. Avoid answering the question
  4. Lie
  5. Tell them the truth

The Solution…………Or should I say ‘Solutions’!

Looking back at it now funnily enough I actually did all of them at different times throughout what I call my 10 month work timeout mental health challenge. Before you focus in on No. 4 and start thinking that I am promoting lying, let me say that I will clarify this one in more detail before the end of this article.

Below is how I used each one of the above solutions during my 10 month hiatus.
1. Don’t go out

HMHF Dont go out

The easiest solution to choose and one I think, after speaking to other people that have been through or who are currently going through a similar journey to mine is always chosen and normally first up. Retreating away from the world was for me, all I wanted to do and all I actually did for a number of month’s straight up after I stopped working.

I basically locked myself in our house and hid away from the world hoping no-one would notice and I could magically re-appear when all was well again. The problem for me was that when you have three very young children and a wife that works, at some point in time you physically have to get out of the house to help out.

Summary – Not going out at all is a very common solution and the one that is normally chosen first up, but it can’t last.

2. Avoid bumping into people you know when you are out

Yes this does mean ‘hiding’. Hiding in shop windows, hiding behind clothes racks, hiding behind a book or paper at a coffee shop or hiding behind that fake telephone call that you just happen to receive!

Avoidance albeit better than not getting out at all is still challenging and it can’t last, at some point as I did you will walk smack bang into someone you know. Luck will have it, you will be at a location where you can’t use any of your 10 year old self’s ninja skills to suddenly disappear.

Summary – Playing the avoidance game is certainly one step better than not getting out at all. But know at some point it isn’t going to work and you will come face-to-face with someone who is going to ask you ‘The hardest question to answer’!

3. Avoid answering the question

To use this solution means you have migrated out of the house, back into the world and are prepared to bump into that old work colleague or acquaintance you haven’t seen for a year. I like to refer to this art of avoidance as ‘Deflection’.

To put it simply, this means deflecting the question when it is asked away from yourself and putting it back to the person in the manner of a question to them! For a while when I was asked ‘The Hardest Question to answer’ my standard response was “Oh not much at all really, what about yourself, what have you been up to?”

Of course this technique gets harder when the person asking the question asks a pointed or specific question about what you are doing work-wise. That is when it all starts to unravel and gets a bit hard to successfully use this technique.

Summary – Avoidance or Deflection techniques can be very useful when you are asked general questions about what you have been up to. But the technique can be harder and harder to use successfully when asked specific questions, particularly specific questions about around work.

4. Lie

Ahhhh good old No. 4 Lying! Now hear me out before you pass judgement on me on this one. Because the small manipulation of the truth can be vastly different to an out-and-out lie!

Let me explain! I can say that I never once when asked came out with an out-and-out lie as an answer about what I was doing. When I was not working I never answered the question with a straight out lie, like ‘I am studying to be an airline pilot or I am working away in the mines and I am just at home at the moment on my off weeks’. 

What I did do was use a technique taught to me by a psychologist I was seeing at the time. A technique that was centred on the fact that it was my life, my journey and I had the right to determine what I told other people about it, and when.

What I did do was have what I call my story sorted and rehearsed in my head so I could comfortably trot it out as my answer to ‘The Hardest Question to answer’ whenever it was asked.

So what was my story? Nothing outrageous, outlandish or unbelievable it was simply a rehearsed response that was centred on something I was comfortable with. For me it was – ‘I am just having break for a while before I decide what I want to get into next’. I would then give a reason why I moved on from the last job or career I was doing and then quickly change the topic and move onto discussing something else.

So as you can see while I may have called No. 4 lying, my use of this solution was not to tell an outright lie. But to give an answer that allowed me to get away from giving the person asking the question a full and detailed account of what was going on. When I explained that I was having a break for a while before deciding what I wanted to get into next, I just did not elaborate why I was taking a that break!

Summary – I don’t suggest out-and-out lying at all. I have no doubt that if you do make up some big lie about what you are doing that it will, at some point come back to bite you. Consider having a generalised story or version that you are comfortable with, memorised so that you can trot out on demand. Remember it is your life and your journey, if you don’t want to tell every person you bump into what is going on……… then simply don’t!

No. 5 Tell them the truth

HMHF How to answer The Hardest Question 2

Easier said than done I can tell you! But like all of the other solutions there was a time in my 10 month mental health challenge that I did use this solution and as you may have already guessed it was right towards the end of that 10 month period.

Telling people who you bump into at the shops, a birthday party or social gathering that you are not working because you are suffering from a mental health condition is hard, very hard, there are no other words to describe it.

Some people may never get to a position in life where they feel they are comfortable using this solution. If that is you can I say: ‘Don’t give up your time will come’!

There may also be some people who may never choose to use this solution and that is entirely their choice. What I can say from experience is that when you open your heart up the world the people in it are a lot more understanding than you think. You may be pleasantly surprised with the response you get!

Summary – This is the hardest solution to use, but the most rewarding!

What I learnt from my 10 month work timeout and associated mental health challenge! 

  • Sometimes in life the simplest of questions can be the hardest to answer.
  • There is always more than one answer/solution to a problem.
  • Things will get better, it may not seem like it when you are ‘running through the trenches’ so to speak, but it will. Just keep running!
  • Your life and journey is exactly that ‘Yours’! The rest of the world only has to know what you want to tell them, when you are ready!

E-mail me directly at stuart@healthymindhealthyfuture.com  if you have any other solutions to answering ‘The Hardest Question’, I would love to hear from you!


Stuart Rawlins | Healthy Mind Healthy Future
Guiding you through life’s challenges! 

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