Boundaries: How I learned to say ‘No’ the hard way
By D. T. Flat
While in rehab I heard the word “boundaries” many times. Most of my peers in treatment had no concept of what boundaries were. I however rather smugly knew what boundaries were and had used them in my life many times. Or so I believed.
My boundaries, as they were, would involve me propping up the bar while looking down my nose at someone in a worse condition than me. At the same time, I was telling myself that I’d stop if I ever got that bad.
How my misconception of boundaries sped up the downward spiral of addiction
When I did get that bad, I stopped – drinking there. I sought out and found a new place where I could continue to indulge, judge someone else and start the process again. Moving from venue to venue developed into moving to different cities and eventually to different countries.
Another favourite boundary was telling myself that if I ever drink at work, I’ll quit alcohol altogether. This morphed into “if I’m ever drunk at work I’ll quit”. And that ultimately led to me quitting the job so I could start this process over again somewhere else.
These are just two examples and certainly not an exhaustive list of the mind games I would employ to justify my continued using.
My boundaries, if I had any at all, were certainly a moveable feast.
The dangers of not sticking to boundaries
Even for people who aren’t struggling with addiction, not sticking to healthy boundaries is going to have negative consequences down the road. However, not having them in early recovery is like playing with fire. Why is it so dangerous though? Having unhealthy boundaries in recovery can mean that we allow ourselves to people please, to be taken advantage of and manipulated by our so-called friends. We don’t value ourselves or our wants/needs, and we continue to re-enforce feelings of being worth less than others.
This can and usually does lead us into many difficult or dangerous situations. How many times have we sat around after an incident and said to ourselves: “What was I doing? I knew it was a bad idea.” Unfortunately, the criminal justice system doesn’t accept regret or claims that I didn’t mean to do it as acceptable consequences for our action and neither, eventually, does anyone else.
Boundaries as a way to protect yourself
As an addict, I was always left with a soul mangling sense of self-disgust and shame. Punishing myself disproportionately to the rest of the world and being completely convinced it was deserved.
The counsellors in rehab explained that setting and enforcing boundaries was a way of protecting ourselves from certain high-risk places and situations. As well as a way to increase our self-esteem and self-worth. By putting our own needs first, we would be giving ourselves the message that we have worth and deserve to be well.
My newfound understanding of boundaries & how I learned to find the right balance
The idea of not going into a bar or nightclub seemed reasonable enough, as did not visiting our dealer “for coffee”. These were boundaries which made sense and I believed would be easy to implement and stick to and in large part, they have been.
I seldom set foot in a bar these days – except for the odd gathering of family or friends. If I do, I make sure that there is a justifiable reason to be there and check that my motivation, to attend such a meet up, is good.
That sickly sweet smell of stale alcohol which I used to love now produces a gag reflex. As for my dealer, last I heard he was doing 6 years for possession with intent to supply.
The biggest challenge: Implementing boundaries with family members
The boundaries which I have found to be the most challenging, difficult to implement and then stick to have been around people – mainly family members.
During my time in rehab, I explored my family dynamics, my role and those of my parents and siblings.
It didn’t take me long to realise that I was going to have to put some strong boundaries in place with my mother. Our relationship had always been very co-dependent, both using each other’s alcoholism as a justification for our own using.
Sticking to your boundaries without creating drama or making it a big deal
When I left treatment, I had resolved not to see her for at least 12 months. This I thought would give me time to establish my own recovery.
We did speak on the phone, which allowed us to be in contact. Whenever things took a sideways turn though, e.g. with a particular tone of voice or a comment designed to elicit a response, I would make my excuses and put the phone down.
Over time we re-established face to face contact. There were family birthdays and other occasions. Although at times this could be difficult, I always knew that if I felt under threat emotionally, then I would leave, which I did on several occasions. Never making these into big things, just quietly slipping out. My other siblings were aware of these strategies and in fact started to adopt them for themselves over time.
Boundaries kept me safe
I love my mother very much and know that she is in a great deal of emotional pain. I also know that I cannot help her if she herself neither wants nor believes she needs that help.
Due to putting these boundaries in place we have developed a far better relationship than we’ve ever had in the past. Sure there are still occasions, Christmas day is a favourite when one too many drinks have been sunk and the tone of voice changes almost imperceptibly. That – for me – is the cue to make my excuses and leave.
Implementing a boundary with your mother may seem like a difficult thing to do, and in many ways it was. I had feelings of guilt and questioned whether I should have been doing this.
Ultimately, if anything her own addiction made the process easier on me. It was easier to see the behaviours which were unhealthy, manipulative or destructive and allowed me to keep myself safe.
Walking the line: When to be flexible with boundaries
When talking about boundaries, we also have to recognise that there will be times when we will find it extremely difficult to stick to these. Emotional blackmail, a sense of injustice and long-held resentments towards our previous behaviours can take time and effort to change, and we have to realise that not everyone will want to let that change happen.
We will need to be flexible with our approach to implementing some boundaries. Setting a boundary where you state you’re never going to go into a shop that sells alcohol may leave you without the ability to buy food.
A leaving party for a workmate may give you the opportunity to devise some boundaries around how you want to engage with your colleagues in this environment. After all, we still have to function in a world that has not changed, just because we’ve decided to live a sober life.
The importance of having boundaries – even with non-addicts
The process of first realising the need to implement a boundary with my sister – who is not an addict – and then implementing it, was a very difficult and painful process.
With less than 2 years between us in age, we had grown up together. As with most siblings we had fought and blamed, we hurt & helped each other. We developed our roles, and we knew which buttons to press. I was guilty of this as much as she. Like a lot of people, as we grew older, our lives moved in different directions. She went off to Uni, and I went off on my path.
Throughout our lives whenever we met, usually around Christmas, my sister and I would always fall back into the roles we had developed as children. Which led to any sense of familial joy being destroyed thanks to arguments and recriminations.
Be prepared that it will take others time to get used to your boundaries
While in active addiction this was something which I positively encouraged. If we got into an argument, I could use this to justify my using. Success.
However, once I got into recovery, I found these old roles very difficult to deal with. Unsurprisingly my sister held some quite powerful resentments towards me and the way I’d behaved in the past.
So, despite my asking in a polite and measured manner if we couldn’t move past these roles and develop a better relationship this behaviour continued and if anything got worse.
Our battling came to a head during a family holiday, and the catalyst was again our mother’s behaviour. She had drunk too much and started abusing one of our younger siblings. I had tried to intervene to defuse the situation; my sister, however, took this as me trying to organise/control the situation. After many hard words, tears & snot we parted company.
Avoid the drama by not joining the game
Following this encounter, accusations were levelled and recruiting was done. I realised that if I kept engaging in this drama, then nothing would change. It was at this point that I decided that I would not contact or accept contact from my sister or her partner. It was two years before we re-established contact – again due to our mothers drinking.
This had gotten even more out of control, and we were worried for her safety. All the children got together to talk about what to do, and I called my sister. Initially, there were hard words, but I remained calm and didn’t join the game. Once she had realised that I was no longer playing, we were then able to start to develop a relationship which today is one of my strongest, most loving and most satisfying.
How boundaries lead to healthier relationships & why they’re worth the effort
I have been able to help and support her through some hard times without any feeling of obligation or resentment but as a brother should for a sister he loves. This didn’t happen overnight, and again I had feelings of guilt about the way I had treated her in the past, but I couldn’t keep living there.
Like all families, we have our ups & downs, our differences of opinion and our own challenges.
For me, the greatest lesson from my experience is this: Healthy boundaries are well worth the troubles we might have to go through to implement them. We do live in a world though where we have to be prepared to be flexible and willing to adapt some of them. At other times we need to be rigid and steadfast with our boundaries. The trick is to understand the difference between these two and being able to implement what you need to do to keep yourself safe.
It’s never easy dealing with a loved one who has known you behave in a certain way for most of your life. Especially if you start implementing healthy boundaries seemingly out of the blue. Suddenly they have to come to terms with the fact that many of the old roles we used to adopt are no longer good for us – or them.
What to do when you’re struggling with boundaries?
If I were to give any advice for people who are struggling with boundaries, it would be this: Ask your sponsor or counsellor; if you don’t have one, talk to your recovery peers; get as many different points of view as you can, question your motives and then trust your gut. At the end of the day, you are responsible for you, not the rest of the world, no matter how much we love them.
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