When I Say Sorry, I Mean Thank You

Last night I apologized to my ex-boyfriend.

I’m not exactly sure how long I’ve wanted to say those three words—I am sorry—but I know that in 2016 I wrote about needing to.

I remember sitting here, just where I am now, at my white desk, and the words streaming out of me in a series of tears. Actually, I wasn’t even sitting in my desk chair. I was sitting on top of my desk and I was crying with every single keystroke. At that time, it felt like the closest I had ever gotten to the truth. There was nothing I was hiding anymore. And by that, I especially mean, there was nothing I was hiding from myself.

Maybe it was actually through my writing that day that it occurred to me that one thing I wanted more than anything in the world was to tell my ex I was sorry, and that not apologizing would be one of the more unloving things I could ever possibly do. And yet, it’s taken me two years to finally say sorry for something that happened 12 years ago.

I wish I could remember the exact words I said to him but I can’t—which is exactly how life would want it, right? You spend years envisioning how something will go—what you will say and how you will say it—and then it happens and you forget yourself completely. What remains is not your words and their phrasing but simply the fact that they happened, that one day you had the courage to look someone in the eye and say we shared something and that something was scary and broken and shameful to expose and horrifying to witness but you lived it with me and I’m sorry for what you saw but thank you for holding me as it happened.

We were sitting on my couch as I said this and again, while I can’t tell you with absolute certainty what I said, I’ll never forget what he said and the way he looked at me.

I mean it. I will never forget the way he watched me cry.

And because so many men have watched me cry, I think I can say, with confidence, that not everyone looks at you the same. Sometimes someone will watch you cry and they will look at you with guilt. Discomfort. Sometimes their eyes will beg you to stop. And they will look away, which is to say, they will silently tell you I can’t take this in, I can’t see you like this.

My ex did not look at me that way, and he also did not look away. He was leaning back on my couch, facing me, soft and attentive, and I don’t know how to say it. I don’t know how to explain it. But he was just there with me. He just let me be. And the reality is, he’s always been the best at that. He did not try to stop me. He did not try to comfort me. Or contain me. Or change my emotions either. He was not looking to interfere. He was just looking and listening and letting me be the one to acknowledge a darkness that maybe neither of us have been brave enough to hold a light to before. And then he asked me why.

But why? Why are you sorry?

I’ll never forget that either.

Do you know how easy it would have been to just say it’s okay, to just say, you don’t need to be sorry? It’s easy to say that. But to ask me why I was sorry was to ask me to say more, was a way of showing me that he was comfortable with talking about this.

I love people who ask why. And so, of course, I told him.

I told him all the reasons I was sorry and I cried as I confessed them aloud. What I know for sure is, I was crying from a place of acceptance, not from a place of hurt, a place of love, not of sadness. And like I mentioned before, it was such a human moment and I’ll never apologize for that. For crying like I did, or like I do, and I won’t apologize for saying sorry either. I know a lot of people don’t understand it.

For instance, on my recent trip with my family, I told my father I felt compelled—maybe not NOW but at some point—to make amends with all my exes. Kind of like they do in AA. Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

When I was talking to my father about apologies, I was specifically referring to another ex, the one in Canada, who I like to say inspired me to become a breakup coach.

My father’s first reaction? Why in the world would YOU be the one to say sorry. HE needs to apologize to YOU! My dad looked dumbfounded—if not disturbed—by my interest in apologizing. My father is very protective of me in relation to that relationship, probably because he doesn’t feel like he protected me at all while I was in it. And the truth is, I know my father thinks—or, rather, likes to believe—that the reason I was depressed for 3 1/2 years was because of my ex-boyfriend. But, my ex was not the reason. And anyway, it takes two to tango. I tried to explain this to my father.

But, then, when I told a girlfriend of mine about last night and my finally saying I was sorry, she didn’t get it either. Why are you apologizing for yourself? She asked me. You shouldn’t be sorry that you were anorexic. But, you see, that’s not what I’m sorry about. I’m not apologizing for myself because I do accept that part of me. I accept that that experience was a necessary evil in my life. And, you know what? I even appreciate that it happened to me. Because it redefined me. It brought me down to earth. It shook me awake and made me sensitive not only to myself but to others. Because of this, I don’t feel sorry for myself, that once upon a time, I was 83 pounds and almost lost myself completely. I’m not sorry that no one stopped me either.

I just feel sorry for those who saw me deteriorate, that they cannot unsee what they saw me become. That because of me, they will always know what it looks like when a person is dying inside, when a woman turns into a child again. They will always have the images, the image of myself having lost my mind, my innocence, my strength.

Which suddenly reminds me of something my ex mentioned as we were discussing this last night. A visual. He mentioned me turning orange. (Type carotenemia + anorexia nervosa into Google if you have no idea what I’m talking about.) You see, I am sorry for that.

I’m sorry because our memories are our histories. They are the moving picture of our life. They are the script we replay in our head, that we relive in our soul. I’m sorry because our love informs our lives. We carry our relationships, more than anything else in the world, into our days, into our dreams. We let past relationships shape us and not only us but our understanding of what future love should feel like and sound like and look like. For so many of us, we let our romances dictate what we believe we deserve. And for this reason, our relationships become a barometer, a North Star, a wound and a trigger point. Our relationships become us.

The truth is, we really are a compilation of all the people we have ever loved, of all the people we have ever been seen and held by.

My anorexia impacted my ex-boyfriend’s life. It did. It had to. And I’m responsible for that, even if he was responsible for continuing to choose to love me along the way.

This is my point. Just because both of us were dancing in and around my own destruction doesn’t mean I can’t say I’m sorry even if I’m the one who turned on the music and he’s the one who didn’t want to break the dance.

As I cried and apologized, he understood our shared responsibility—that we both selfishly and at times selflessly loved each other through an astounding degree of denial—and he apologized too.

He apologized for loving me too much to see my disease.

For 12 years, I’ve known that this was the case all along. Which I guess is why people say our apologies are not always for the person we are speaking to, but that really they are for ourselves. I don’t think it has to be one or the other. I just think there’s a real power in saying something aloud. I think confessions can free everyone in the room. I think they can lighten us all.

Initiating a courageous, albeit uncomfortable, conversation is important because otherwise, we don’t give our growth an opportunity to be recognized and valued and tested. We don’t give ourselves the opportunity to release our shame and break out of our self-imposed bubble. We don’t give ourselves the opportunity to be tender and transparent and thankful toward another human being.

Struggling in front of another person binds us, even if only invisibly, to each other for the rest of our lives. But our “sorries” bond us from this day forward. TC mark

About the author
A Breakup Coach, Advice Columnist, and the Podcast Host of Thank You Heartbreak. Follow Chelsea on Instagram or read more articles from Chelsea on Thought Catalog.

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