LOUISE O'NEILL: 'You've to move forward, knowing someone hurt you and will never say they’re sorry'

Much to the surprise of some readers of this column (thank you, strange man on the internet for telling me I was ‘permanently outraged’ and ‘exhausting’ — I truly believe we could have a future together. Call me), I’m not very confrontational.

Raised voices, insults thrown, doors slammed; these are a few of my not-favourite things.

However, while arguments make me anxious, I am a huge fan of Very Long Conversations, where everyone talks about their feelings in a frank, direct manner.

It’s the years of therapy, I’m afraid, and it is, as my grandmother would say ‘a bit American’. It does work though. I feel more assertive, calmer, and like I’m finally nailing this being-an-adult thing.

I also feel closer to the person that I’ve shared my feelings with because — wait for it — true intimacy is only possible through honest communication. (I know, I am only a billion dollars and a book on self actualisation away from turning into Oprah.)

Afterwards, I can forgive people who have hurt me or disappointed me, or I can seek their forgiveness in return. I can move on.

But what happens if the other person refuses to engage? If they won’t listen or they won’t acknowledge the damage they’ve caused you?

Or maybe you’ve tried, time and again, to explain to them why their behaviour is so hurtful, and they pretend to listen but nothing changes? What if they deny it ever happened? If they are too old or too sick to comprehend what they did, all those years ago?

What if the person who hurt you is dead and the inability to ever reconcile with them, or seek retribution, haunts you? Where do we go from there?

In such cases, therapists often recommend writing a letter to the person in question in which you list all of your grievances with them. You don’t have to post it. Indeed, in most cases, it is preferable that you don’t, for fear that the reaction will not be the one you hope for. These letters can be long, rambling; allowing all those emotions that you tried to swallow, that you tried to ignore to spill on to the page.

The words that you never said, that you never had the opportunity to say, jammed inside your mouth like extra teeth. And you pull them out, one by one. Why did you hurt me? and I hate you and I tried so hard.

And really, what you want to write is this - What did I do wrong? Why wasn’t I good enough? Did I do something to deserve this?

You throw the letter on the fire, you tear it up, you symbolically let go of the pain. You wait to feel better. Nothing changes and you tell yourself the letter didn’t work. Why would it? You’re just talking to yourself.

You chastise yourself for being an idiot, for believing there could be such an easy answer to an ancient wrong.

You continue to live your life, walk through the world carrying your fear and your anger and your sorrow.

You hide your wounds because no one wants to hear about them, not again — about the abuse or the divorce or the affair or the broken engagement. The blows to the face by the oh-so-charming husband, why on earth did you leave him? Good men are hard to find, you know.

The adults who believed the priests over you, he’s an upstanding member of the community, stop telling lies.

The teacher who told you that you were stupid and would never amount to anything, or the kids in school who bullied you mercilessly.

The man who promised you so much and who gave you so little, and you smiled and said it was fine so that he wouldn’t think you needy.

You have so much to say but no one to say it to. ‘That was a long time ago’, they tell you, and ‘shouldn’t you be over that at this stage? There’s no point in hanging onto the past.’ The injustice of it all burns through you. You are on fire with it.

When we are children, everything seems so simple. If you are good, then you will be rewarded. If you are bold, you will be punished.

When playing a game of cops and robbers, the cops always win. As children, we believe that the good guys must triumph for the world to make any kind of sense.

It’s difficult, as you get older, to come to terms with the fact that, life isn’t fair. That your attempts to be a good person won’t necessarily ward off misfortune.

That people will see your generous nature as something to be exploited. Unfortunately, the villains don’t always get punished in this particular fairy tale.

The author Robert Brault says that ‘Life becomes easier when you learn to accept the apology you never got’ and really, what option do you have?

You have to move forward, knowing that someone hurt you desperately and they will never say they’re sorry. Sometimes, they won’t even know they have something to be sorry about. Sometimes, they know and they simply do not care enough to make amends.

And that can break your heart.

LOUISE SAYS

PRE-ORDER: I was sent a proof copy of Lullaby by Leila Slimani and I tore through it. This tale of a killer nanny is gripping, disturbing, and sure to make parents shudder in fear. It’s especially interesting on the guilt that working mothers are expected to bear. It’s out in January 2018.

GO: The Cork Film festival is on until the November 19 and I’m very keen to see The Square, a satire that won the Palm d’Or. See corkfilmfest.org


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