Okay has to be one of the most used and useless words in the English language. When someone asks me if I’m “okay,” what are they asking, exactly? They definitely don’t actually want to know how I’m doing, which, for many years, I really thought was the whole point. Whenever I respond honestly and say that “I’m doing okay, getting by”, I am almost always met with a look of disturbed panic as they realize that they’re going to have to come up with another thing to say lest they be labeled “RUDE” by Polite Society (not a club I’m a member of). Turns out, what “How are you today?” is really asking is “Will you please smile and nod to acknowledge my presence?” and there is only one polite response, apparently.
Another example: “You’re going to be okay.” What, is that supposed to be comforting? Sure, this works for a scraped knee or a black eye, but what about RAW, EMOTIONAL pain, like when your boyfriend unexpectedly breaks up with you, leaving you in the dust, wondering what went wrong? (Asking for a friend). Sure, I’ll be physically okay, probably, but the emotional scars take much longer to heal over and that’s just not okay. Surviving physically does not make a fulfilling life — emotional experience and interpersonal connection live in the mind, where thriving is far more complicated that survival alone.
During the summer between 7th and 8th grade, I made the ill-fated decision to dye my hair a slightly darker shade of brown than my natural hue. I remember showing off the new and improved shade to my friends at the movie theater that summer, so proud of my daring experiment, probably on our way to see the newest Twilight movie. Weeks later, when classes started back up at my small Episcopalian middle school, the dye had faded but my “bad girl” image remained (totally unbeknownst to me), with every mom at the school side-eyeing me as I climbed into my dad’s car each day. The day before winter break let out for Christmas holidays, my two best friends revealed to me that they had, in fact, been faking being my friend all semester because their mothers felt I had become a bad influence. For a brief moment, I sat in stunned silence as I looked up to watch my best friends morph into catty terror tweens before I broke into sobs and sprinted into the nearby girl’s bathroom to hide. I remember so clearly how my math teacher burst into the bathroom after me, and how relieved I felt that someone cared enough to come check on me. That is, until she asked me “Are you okay? Physically, I mean?”. I let out a feeble affirming whimper, and she left immediately, breathing out a sigh of relief that she wouldn’t have to inquire further.
Yes, I physically survived. But why aren’t you asking the two brats why they decided to dedicate their after school time to carefully planning a long con on the school Weird Girl? Why didn’t their parents get called? There was never so much of a public acknowledgement of what had happened by my teachers, only finger pointing and whispers behind my 14-year old back. Sure, I was never physically harmed, but, 10 years later, I still feel a weary uneasiness around my closest friends, wondering when (not if) they’re going to leave me in the dust, too.
Fast forward 10+ years to last summer, when I went through a terrible, awful no-good break up when my kind, loving boyfriend morphed into my stubborn, non-communicative ex. No matter how you slice it, we both behaved badly and weren’t nearly as supportive to one another as we should have been. After things ended between us, I never heard from my ex ever again, nor had the chance to have a real, honest discussion about where things went wrong. Although my therapist, mother, brother, friends, and several strangers on the subway have assured me that I’ll get through it okay alone even without that closure, I can’t help but feel that the “everything will be okay” mantra lacks a fuller encapsulation of the emotional burden of open-ended grief.
Sure, I am physically okay. I can still function well enough to hold onto my job and maintain strong friendships — by all accounts, I’m doing A-Okay. Yet, still, I also had a full-on anxiety attack during the last date I went on, which I ended abruptly and stormed out in hysterical tears following my date’s attempt to explain his decision to vote 3rd party in the 2016 Presidential Elections. Every night since our relationship ended last July I have been greeted by visions of running into him and his friends, and finally being able to talk and find closure. Dreams which quickly twist into terrors as he and his friends put me on mute so that they can say nasty things about me without disruption.
I would hope that if we did ever run into each other in person that it would be a much calmer interaction, but I guess I’ll never know for sure. So, in the meantime, I’m left with nightly reenactments of conversations and arguments I’ll never be able to have. Yes, I’m physically okay, but it’s been 8 months so far, with no end in sight.
A couple days ago, after waking up from a particularly angry dream in which I tackled my ex’s best friend to the ground in an attempt to wrestle out an apology, I realized that being physically okay after having your trust smashed to bits is simply insufficient. What is more, it allows ex partners and friends to avoid confronting the uncomfortable reality that they made a mistake and should find a way to make amends — why bother to apologize? They’ll get over it and be okay.
Why bother? Bother because it shows your loved ones past and present that you have respect for them even if you know that your relationship is not going to last. Bother because everyday that you wait to take responsibility and open a conversation with the person you hurt, you give them 24 more hours of anxious spiraling wondering what they did wrong. Bother because the knowledge of hurting another person should be a prompt to self reflect and communicate even harder, rather than an Irish Goodbye.
It took me a long time to really understand the importance of reconciliation and humility in my everyday life. I mean, why isn’t saying your sorry enough? Maybe if I avoid it, they’ll just forget. I know I’ve been guilty of this logic many a time: If I say out loud that what I did was wrong then it’ll just become a bigger deal, so, instead, I’ll ignore it and hope that nobody else noticed. My pride is my biggest obstacle when it comes to apologies; I spend so much of my time concerned about how I’m viewed by others, that when I do mess up, my good intentions can cloud over the reality of their unforeseen consequences. One of the hardest facts of life to really internalize is that good intentions do not ensure positive outcomes, which, if you think about it: duh! Of course we can’t control the ripple effects of our actions, but we can control how we approach the aftershock.
According to Oxford, the word “apology” refers to an acknowledgement of an offense or failure. By definition, a true apology requires not only an admission, but an acknowledgement of offense – a public declaration of why what you did broke trust that. Although much easier said than done, I am have found that every time that I am able to muster the will to admit my mistakes and acknowledge why my behavior was disrespectful, I develop a fuller understanding of how taking responsibility for one’s human nature can make me happier and a kinder, more understanding friend, colleague, and romantic partner.
I can’t go back in time to change how I’ve participated in relationship turmoil in the past, but I can move forward, and continue to remind myself to set aside my pride more often in order to better understand how two people can meet each other where they are to find common ground and community. My ex and I will never go back to being okay, but why would we want that anyways? I’d rather be better.