Author: Melinda Goedeke
Recently, I went on an incredible rafting trip down the Colorado River in Moab, Utah. If I fell out of the raft, I was told to put my hand on my head signaling I was okay. The guide said that okay meant I was alive. I might be bleeding, vomiting, scared, but I was alive; I was okay. Another time, I remember my son Paul calling me calmly saying, “Mom, I am in an ambulance heading to the hospital, but don’t worry, I’m okay.” Ambulance and hospital in the same sentence didn’t seem okay to me. When my daughter Laura was admitted to her first psyche ward and I had to tell her friends how she was doing, I often said, “Okay. She is okay” covering up my extreme fear and worry. And when I ask my friends, “How are you? Everything going okay?” They will almost always say, “Yep, doing okay.” Seems okay can be an answer to anything.
Context and speaker both matter, but still the word is used flippantly, ubiquitously and often dishonestly and dismissively. Okay can mask the truth or quickly give an answer without purposely leaving any space for explanation or detail. I can recall many occasions where I was anything but okay, yet still I whispered, yelled, or even cried as I said, “I’m okay.” Okay is a conversation stopper. It signals to leave me alone, don’t worry about me and yet sometimes it means nothing more than the status quo. It’s a tricky word to unravel, especially if you’re with someone fighting bipolar disorder.
My daughter Laura’s bipolar disorder brought along with it yet even more meanings to okay which changed frequently depending on her literal state of mind on any given day. I would often ask her, “How are you doing today, honey? Feeling okay?” If she said she was okay, that didn’t really give me a complete answer. Did okay mean that she took her meds, wanted to live today, slept well, went to work, ate a healthy lunch, or did it mean she wasn’t in an episode or at least not one that was unmanageable? Or did it mean she didn’t want the mom worry inquisition? The better question might be why did I keep asking her if she was okay? I guess I needed our perceptions of okay to be in sync. When most people tell me they are okay, I reply eloquently, “Good. I’m glad you are okay,” which adds even more ambiguity to our understanding of each other. When Laura said, “I’m okay,” follow-up questions ensued which didn’t often lead to a warm and fuzzy mother- daughter chat. I was worried, and she was tired of feeling not okay. It was a catch 22 for us and not some of our finest moments. We were talking to each other, but we weren’t saying anything.
To help me better understand her level of okay, Laura made a chart which she hid inside one of our cupboards. It had rows of colors, and each color had a specific description of okayness. Laura would move the color strip to the top that best matched her that day. Red meant to not leave her alone; she was feeling suicidal. Yet, if I verbally said to her, “How are you today?” she would say, “Okay.” It wasn’t a lie to her; it was the only truth she could say because being alive meant being okay. The chart helped me access her truth without her words and despite what I saw. She could wear the okay mask and still let me in. It worked for us until it didn’t. Unfortunately with bipolar, these strategies failed when an episode was consuming her because then she didn’t know if she was okay or not, and she couldn’t see the same reality I saw. She couldn’t find her own sense of okay.
Laura desperately wanted the world to see her as okay which to her meant a woman without bipolar disorder, normal. That makes me sad, as I would never want to see her as normal. She was extraordinary, and maybe in part because of her bipolar. What’s funny to me is that most people had no idea she was hurting in any way. She was hilarious, energetic, athletic, smart, fast and truly one of a kind. She earned an academy award for playing the role of Okay perfectly. But with her family and closest friends, the role wasn’t easy to maintain. Eventually she quit playing it; she quit life. And for her, she is now truly okay. Me? I’m working on it.