Saturday, June 2, 2012

I choose boundaries!

"Can't live with them, can't live without them." 
And such has been my relationship with boundaries...

From a very young age, I have been taught to ignore my personal boundaries. I grew up in a household with no locks on the doors, including my bedroom and bathroom. When I was younger this household stipulation did not pose too many problems, but as I reached adolescence, I sure missed the luxury of being able to slam my door and lock myself in my room!

Even within my bedroom, I would learn that no place was considered off-limits to others. My practice of keeping a diary came to an abrupt halt after my mother responded in writing to an entry I had written about a fight with her. My "perfect" hiding place for my diary had proven otherwise. I tearfully confronted my mother, informing her that I felt my privacy had been violated. She responded that she didn't understand why I was so upset; she was my mother, right...?

Boundaries involving privacy violations were not the only area of confusion growing up. Blurry divisions permeated all areas of boundaries, including emotional and intellectual boundaries. "Your parents know best" was a lesson hammered into my mind from a very young age. And if you've ever tried to reason with someone who refuses to even acknowledge your point of view. then you know how taxing it can be - arguments become more like mind games than disagreements!

I guess you could say that the seeds for distorted boundaries were planted early on in my life; however, the greater implications of such issues in my life would not become fully visible until years later.  Once a seed is placed underground, many different conditions, including an element of chance, determine whether the seedling will disintegrate into the earth or mature to a full-grown plant. In retrospect, I see how particular events in my life have provided favorable conditions for the growth of boundary issues that were planted in my childhood.

In ninth grade, I entered into what would become a very verbally abusive relationship. Of course, these types of relationships do not evolve into a nightmare over night, but I did perceive something was off almost immediately. Within a month, my boyfriend's jealousy and overbearing personality had begun to seep through his persona to such a degree that I was ready to end the relationship.

I mentioned my plans of ending the relationship to my parents and received a much different response than I anticipated. My mother responded that I "shouldn't be mean" and end the relationship, and my father's lack of response was interpreted as passive agreement with my mother. Confused and against my better judgment, I remained in the relationship.

As I continued to be worn down by this guy's increasingly abusive words and restrictions, I became further distanced from my gut feeling, intensifying my reliance on opinions other than my own. I continued to look to my parents for approval of my desire to end my relationship, falsely assuming each time that the relationship had reached a threshold of craziness that my parents would acknowledge as ample justification for my desire to end things. My parents explained that matters were complicated because we lived in a small town and they were friends of his family. As he trampled my personal boundaries on so many levels, I learned to ignore the existence of my boundaries altogether.

All except my sexual boundaries. Thankfully, it was the one area of boundaries on which I did not budge. He was almost three years older and tried every trick in the book, but I held firm to the strictest of sexual boundaries. Although I didn't know it at the time, I realize now that enforcing such rigid sexual boundaries saved my sense of self from being completely overrun by the weeds of his abuse.

By the time I got up the nerve to end my relationship with him, almost two years had passed, and I had begun attending boarding school miles and miles away. Per the recommendation of my housemaster following numerous phone calls to her house by my ex-boyfriend, who was trying to get through to me, I began seeing a school counselor. The school counselor, who was extremely perceptive, introduced me to notions of healthy separateness from family and helped me regain trust in my intuition. Though it wasn't a clean break and things would greatly worsen with my ex-boyfriend before they improved, with the support of those around me, I eventually bounced back stronger from this experience.

Although my deep-rooted issues with boundaries never completely dissolved, I continued to develop a deeper sense of self as I got older and wiser. Though I remained close to my parents, as expected with age, my sense of separateness from my parents also increased. I began to exercise my voice, boisterously disagreeing with my parents and even others in my life whenever I perceived threats to my emotional and intellectual boundaries. Though the seeds from childhood had managed to sprout over the years, it appeared that eventually they were going to be overthrown and squelched for good.

Photo adapted from Wikipedia.
For me, my behavior was a welcomed disruption of the status quo, a way to give myself a little breathing room while I sorted out exactly who I was. For my parents, my behavior was indicative of my abandonment of the person they perceived and wanted me to be - or perhaps more accurately, a threatening and outright abandonment of them.

Needless to say, friction between us intensified, admittedly leading to a very irresponsible, rebellious decision on my part. My frustration with my parents peaked one night after they demanded that I not leave the dinner table until I finished my plate of spaghetti. A defiant soon-to-be sophomore in college, I decided to go out really hard that night and return extremely intoxicated. Regretting crossing such a line with my parents and hurting them, I welcomed their severe punishment. apologizing profusely for putting them through such a painful experience. However, my sense of separateness from others prevented me from being completely engulfed by guilt and self-blame.

Approximately four months later, the only area of boundaries I had consistently recognized and maintained was violated without my consent, and my ability to perceive myself as separate from others was yanked away in one fell swoop. . One thing is for sure, no matter the type - stranger, acquaintance, violent, nonviolent - rape completely messes with - no, utterly destroys - your sense of boundaries. As far as its impact on any preexisting boundary issues, let's just say it is Miracle-Gro!

As I write this out, I see numerous red flags vigorously waving, warning me that going home to heal from my rape was a bad idea. As is common with PTSD, I completely lost any trace of my sense of self from before the assault. I remember sitting in a psychiatrist's office during my semester off and nervously trying to respond to his request to describe what I was experiencing. After a period of silence, my eyes locked on my chair and I responded, "This chair appears blue to me...but I can't say for certain. If you told me that it was actually a different color, it wouldn't surprise me at all. Actually, the more I think about it...I'd really just prefer to hear the color from you."

Though the acute phase of my trauma response lessened within a year, my sense of boundaries never returned. Because I no longer had any perception of what constituted a reasonable boundary, I desperately clung to whatever external sources were available for feedback regarding my Self in relation to the world around me. The feedback I gathered from my environment supported the notion that I had very little control over my life and that I should maintain flexible boundaries to serve the needs of others. In the years following my rape, I felt as though I existed for the disposal of other people. I developed an array of coping strategies to deal with any negative emotions that disagreed with my actions. Occasionally, when my pain reached unbearable levels, I attempted to reestablish my personal boundaries; however, any act to stand up for myself resulted in equally debilitating guilt.

By September 2011, the culminating effects of nine years of almost complete neglect for my Self became so disruptive that I could no longer ignore that I had issues to face. I painfully acknowledged that I had no awareness of where I ended and others began. I wasn't in immediate danger, but I knew if I didn't make changes in my life, I was heading toward irreversible darkness. I had to start addressing my past - denial aside - and dig myself out of the hole I had burrowed myself into. And so began the past nine months of therapy!

Since rape destroys your sense of boundaries, it makes sense that rape recovery involves restoring them. It's a little weird (and a lot complicated!) when you realize that you never really had clearly delineated boundaries in the first place. Now, I have to consciously think about my emotions as they arise and then focus on allowing myself to experience them, all in an effort to circumvent the coping system I have in place that whisks my emotions away before I begin to process them.

In some ways, I feel as though I am meeting myself for the first time. As I get to know this person and learn to support her without external validation, I will become better at guarding my newly established personal boundaries. In doing so, my hope is that over time, my self-esteem will improve to such a degree that I will not only rise above my rape, but I will also completely dismantle the deep-rooted boundary issues that stem from childhood. Yes, I choose boundaries!

I may have been taught that I can't live with boundaries, but I have learned that I sure as hell can't live without them!


  1. I don't know what to think about your parents because their actions seem so unusual to me on so many levels. I just can't imagine that a parent would put their own social status and popularity among their own friends above their own child's happiness and emotional security. I am sorry they gave you such bad advice in regards to the A55hole you knew in the 9th grade.

    Why in the world would your parents not allow you to leave the table until you finish your plate. That's the kind of things a parent does with a defiant child who is younger than 13, but to demand that from a 19 or 20 year old college student makes me wonder about them. What is your grandparents like, which on of your parents is the alpha parent (I'm thinking your mom)? I get this impression that your mom bossed your dad around a lot, and your mom was bossed around a lot by her parents or a previous abusive relationship. I also wonder if your parents has trouble accepting that you were an adult that didn't need permission to getup from the table. Did they refuse to accept that you were growing up? I get a weird vibe from your parents. I hope that isn't rude of me for saying.

    I wonder how often your parents become the target of discussion while you are i therapy. (You don't need to answer.) It is my personal opinion that much of the damage their refusal to let natural boundaries evolve within you and between others opinions have caused at least as much long term harm as any other thing that happened. Somethings bite more, but others are like toothaches that won't go away. The boundary deal is like a small tooth ache that is always there, but after a long time even a small tooth ache can wear us down. I think a lot of the past 9 1/2 years could have been much better or at least not as emotionally trying if your parents treated you like an equal.

    You have changed a lot in the past 9 months since I have been in contact with you online. You seem more confident and sure of yourself, and that my dear is a good thing.

    Hugs for you.

    1. Part 1 of 2:

      Hi Jaime,

      First off, thanks so much for making it through this incredibly long blog post, and secondly, thank you for providing such a thoughtful response! I'll do my best to answer your questions - if I leave out something, just let me know, as it wasn't intentional.

      I have been seeing my current therapist for almost 3 years. The first two years were spent talking mainly about my relationship with them. Then, I finally admitted I needed to talk about sophomore year, and then my world came crumbling down as soon as I tried to open my mouth :) It's like I can deal with my family issues if you take the rape out of the equation, but as soon as it is introduced, everything becomes too much, and I get swallowed up in emotional chaos.

      My father is an alcoholic, and though he no longer drinks, our family, in many ways, displays typical family patterns for families with alcoholics. I think it was particularly difficult for my mother to let me go because she became so used to taking up the slack when my father was a mess. Keeping me dependent was likely a way to keep her from dealing with her own pain. Of course, this is a major oversimplification of my family dynamics, but I think you probably get the drift. I cannot speak for previous abuses in my mother's life outside of our immediate family, but I imagine there were other unhealthy relationships in my mother's life that led her to develop such a controlling demeanor.

    2. Part 2 of 2:

      It was tough growing up with so little acknowledgment for my personal boundaries, but no matter how bad things got, I always felt loved and important regardless. It wasn't until my parents encouraged me to stay in the verbally abusive relationship that I started getting really confused. I couldn't understand why my parents, particularly my mother, to whom I spoke candidly about my unhappiness, wanted me to stay in a relationship that was so dreadful. Still, perhaps because I went to boarding school and had such an incredible support network there (and a lot of independence), I was very resilient to the confusion that surrounded my home life.

      Of course, because I was getting older, and my parents continued to attempt to interact with me as though I was not getting any older, a lot of friction started to develop between us. For me, the friction felt healthy - I just figured it was because they hadn't had an opportunity to watch me grow up in the traditional sense since I had been away at boarding school.

      This all changed sophomore year of college. I was so insanely vulnerable when I went home. I was a sponge. So so confused and just disoriented. It was the initial trauma response that I think would have subsided within 6 months to a year had I received support during that time. Instead, even the mental health professionals stripped me further of control by tricking me into the psychiatric ward. Literally, it was like one day I was a strong student ending the semester on a positive note, and the very next day I was walking around a psych floor not knowing when they would release me. It's like that whole experience broke me.

      The spark inside me that made me resilient to family issues was yanked away because I had zero self-confidence left following my rape. I needed someone to fight for me in those initial stages, but instead my voice was stifled even more by the ones I thought would protect me. I think in some ways I minimized my experience with rape in my mind because if I didn't, I couldn't justify my parents reaction, and if I didn't justify my parent's reaction, I came face to face with feeling emotionally abandoned in my time of most need. I think it's been so hard to heal because I never truly acknowledged the situation as rape because doing so would make me admit how hurt I was by my parents' response.

      So now I'm going back and working through what I should have done sophomore year - labeling my experience and moving on - but doing so is bringing up additional unresolved issues for me.

      Not sure if my response makes sense. Let me know if I need to clarify anything.

      Thanks again for your support. xxx

    3. Thanks for responding to my overbearing questions. You don't need to clarify anything, you explained pretty well. Just want to tell you that you will always have my support and I look up to you. I learn a lot from you.

    4. Aw, Jaime - thank you so much. That really means a lot, and believe me, the same goes for you. ((((Jaime))))

  2. I cannot help but read how strong although very painful you are. You are a prime survivor who wants so much to share her voice. And you are! Kudos my dear. Thank you for taking the time to write this all out. Healing takes time......Safe hugs.

    1. Thanks so much, JBR. As I was reading your comment, the Destiny's Child song, "I'm a survivor" started playing in my mind ;) I really appreciate your support. I hope you have a nice week. xx

  3. You have a lot of stuff to wade through and sharing your dad is an alcoholic put a huge piece into the puzzle for me and I hope for you in terms of self love and loving kindness for yourself. You are making your way BUAWW - and you certainly are. I pray for your healing, for your freedom and for experiencing peace in your life. Much love to you and thank you for sharing your incredible odyssey. It will all come together for you and your broken self will emerge into a strong, resilient, beautiful woman with a life that is magnificent.

  4. Thanks for your post. I haven't been to a therapist yet, regarding a similar situation of my own. But I'm glad to hear that it helps. I am also glad to hear that this time period, where every pushy person that crosses my path, puts me near into PSTD style flashbacks, won't last forever. It's a year and a half later, but I still feel pretty helpless about much less significant boundaries. It's a lot better than it was, even a year ago. But I'd really like for this to not be a part of my life any more, and not even enter my thinking. Thanks again.