“I’m sorry” is a phrase that I have learned well as a woman, like all women.
There were years in my life where it peppered my everyday speech, almost as much as the word “like.” It took a near-death experience, PTSD, and ending a 5-year long serious relationship to stop saying it (as much).
Why did I fall into its trap? How did I become a young woman who said it constantly, from a young girl who used to get annoyed when my mom worried about “imposing” on people?
With puberty, my body grew at a rate that astonished many and left me bewildered. This was an age when all my female friends turned against me and only the most sexually advanced 5th grader boys noticed me, and they did so in a way that made me immediately defensive. I got the message. I was supposed to say sorry for the effect I had on the boys around me and the tension it caused with my fellow female classmates. I was sorry for my unruly curly hair that refused to be tamed even though I desperately tried Seventeen magazine remedies and Sweet Valley High tips without the knowledge that my kind of “different” veered toward something that didn’t seem recognized in the world around me. I had to be sorry for my budding sexuality that threatened to take me off the beaten path–pun intended–into some kind of wilderness yet to be known.
To be sorry is to shrink, feel shame, to not to be seen, to make oneself smaller in the vain hope for invisibility to counter how very visible I felt. Only secrets about myself and my desires could save me.
My parents didn’t necessarily raise me that way, even though I learned how to say sorry mostly from my mother, another woman who had to follow her own barbed path through life. My parents always praised my smarts, and sometimes couldn’t help laughing at my sass. In encouraging the acquisition of knowledge, I looked at the world critically; I saw the contradictions and the space for narratives yet to be told. I started to know the words to use to describe my environment.
Sorryland didn’t end in childhood, and it followed me through life as an adult. The years added to my baggage of lessons learned the hard way and cynicism and mistrust of others, sometimes losing faith in myself and my capabilities. After dating too many alcoholics and drug addicts for several years post-college, I craved stability. Before my 25th birthday, I decided to go to grad school for a library degree. And then, I met him. Marvin didn’t drink or smoke or do drugs. He read, nay, ate books. He was a purveyor of useless facts that made my sapiosexuality ignite. I didn’t realize that I had been suppressing my intellect for years after college as a way to appeal to men, to dumb myself down a little so that they felt comfortable. And that was the problem. I put their comfort above my own needs without realizing it. I was still hiding, still sorry that I was so much smarter than them and feared that I would lose that attractiveness that made it so easy to get a boyfriend.
Marvin was stable. He had ideas about life and he had an opinion on everything, which seemed admirable at the time. He was gainfully employed and even had a stock of money saved away due to some tragedies in his life. At that time, I was also deeply involved in the sport that completely changed my life; roller derby. Marvin liked that I was smart, social, and active. After a year of earnest dating and saying our I love you’s before I headed to library school boot camp (yes, it was a real thing), we decided to move in together. It seemed like a great idea, with positives for both of us. For the next two years, we were happy, but even then I twisted and turned myself to please Marvin.
Despite being a lifelong feminist, I had lost myself trying to become the “perfect girlfriend;” that somehow this was going to be my next accomplishment after graduate school and being an award-winning derby player. I learned the hard way that codependent relationships don’t need to involve an alcoholic and an enabler. They can develop any time one partner makes sacrifices for the other partner’s happiness without getting the same in return. Here I was, a thoroughly capable woman, working 14-16 hour days after having graduated into the recession of 2008, and then coming home and cleaning and doing laundry for a partner who could stay home all day and never lift a finger because he had inherited some money. The more and more I compromised of myself, the more and more he demanded.
How did I get to this moment in my life? Why did I think that being “perfect” was going to make Marvin want to marry me (which also became a surprising desire as I closed in on my 30s)? Why was it an accomplishment to have a “successful adult relationship” on the outside, where I received no emotional or mental support and it left me tired and constantly ill when we were home alone together?
Not until I left the country to travel to Japan did I finally waken. My entire world crumbled when I came back after being in the earthquake of 2011 and seeing the beauty of what I consider a magical country. My emotional state was shattered, I was diagnosed with PTSD, my will to live wavered, and I came back to a filthy apartment and an uncompromising “partner” who had become completely dependent on me to do everything for him
That is when I decided to stop saying “sorry.” I had done little wrong in the relationship, and still I suffered for it. I strove to be the “perfect” girlfriend and yet, Marvin never would have married me. All of my attempts to turn his negativity into positivity started to wear me down. He was steadfast in his beliefs and his unending opinions about the world he rarely ventured out into. I was his only bridge and I could no longer hold up the weight. It became matter of survival. Either Marvin and “sorry” went or I did.
Every time the word “sorry” is going to come out of my mouth, I think of a few things: Have I done anything wrong? Is this apology for something out of my control (like the weather, traffic, pretty much almost everything in life)? If I am feeling empathy or sympathy for someone, can I think of another way to say it?
There isn’t an easy way me to calculate how much this changed my life. I broke up with Marvin, moved into my own place, sought therapy, briefly took anti-anxiety medication, got a cat, finally settled into my career, returned to writing after a long-time, and started to live unapologetically. All of those things have changed my life for the better, and I can’t help thinking that a big part of it was no longer being “sorry” for things that had nothing to do with my actions.
I see my young nieces this way and I want a world that protects them and celebrates them for their smarts and savvy and sass. I want them to have the words to express themselves fully, to have goals for real accomplishments that improve their lives tenfold and to know that they can live their lives unapologetically.