Setting Boundaries

Today I’d like to introduce the first of what I hope will be a regular post on Mondays: a series of “safe coping strategies.” These coping strategies were introduced to me in my rehab program as part of a curriculum that my counselors worked from, entitled Seeking Safety, which was written by Lisa M. Najavits, PhD.

Seeking Safety actually offers a very long list of coping strategies, 200 to be exact. I had a difficult time finding them all listed together online, but click here to see a PDF I found. Some of them are things we can do mentally, others are things we do physically, some overlap with one another. But, the main idea behind all of them is to choose a way to survive a difficult life moment or event in a safe and positive way, rather than using an unhealthy coping strategy. Which in my case was drinking. But it can be any number of things such as overeating, cutting, using drugs, committing vandalism, etc.

So, each Monday, I’d like to introduce a Safe Coping Strategy that I have chosen from the list, and explain what it means to me. Not all of these coping skills will apply to you and your situation, and not all of them will necessarily help or be the coping strategy that you go with during hard times. But, I hope that as we go, I will discuss at least one that you can relate to.

Today I’d like to start with:

Set a boundary. Say “no” to protect yourself.

Recently I had to use this coping strategy, but previously I had not seen it as one I would ever really need. It’s a good one for someone like me though, and I’m glad I recognized that I needed it.

I can’t get into too much detail or I might compromise my anonymity. But, what I can tell you is that I had committed to a group of people to help them with a special fundraising event. I made the commitment to help them prior to my stay in rehab, prior to recognizing and admitting that I had a problem. The event was scheduled for three weeks after I arrived home from rehab.

Historically, this event is quite the party. Those who attend are there for a night of letting their hair down. There’s always alcohol, typically in excess. People get drunk. Really drunk.

In all likelihood, I would have been fine at the event. I’d only been home for a few weeks, I was still holding very strong to my promise not to drink. I had no desire to drink, I didn’t feel “left out” by not being able to attend the event as a drinker, as I had in the past. I just did not care. I did, however, wonder what it might be like to watch everyone else drink heavily. How it might feel not to be a part of that.

My own drinking had in the past been a way for me to fit in and belong with a group. I feel like this is a common theme amongst alcoholics. I hear that story so often in meetings and groups. So, while I did not desire to drink, and I did not think I would feel pressured to drink, and I knew I could turn down drink offers, I was wondering if I would feel sad or left out or nostalgic. And it was too soon for me to have those feelings. I needed more time.

So, I had to back out of my duties at the event. I had committed to the event, and I was required to be there and contribute. I had to find a way out of it. In one plan, my husband would take over my duties at the event, and I’d spend the evening at home with our children. But then he had sustained a semi-serious injury which caused him to be unable to attend the event as well.

I told the organizers I could help before and after, just not during the event. And I offered to do anything and everything to fulfill all duties and obligations, and avoid attending the event. I knew I was putting the organizers in a difficult spot, which I typically have a very hard time dealing with. But, I knew for my own safety, I could not be there that night.

In the end, I used my husband’s injury as my main excuse, even though it really had no bearing on the situation. The event organizers said they understood, but still kept asking me to attend part of the event, half of the event, to still attend in some capacity. I needed to firmly set my boundary, but I didn’t know how. So, I contacted the main director of the event, one of the few souls on the planet who knew I had spent my February in rehab, and not just on a personal vacation. I told her the situation, she agreed it was too soon for me, and she got me out of it.

I hate letting people down. I loathe being a burden. And I have the hardest time in the world reaching out to people and asking for their help (which is actually the first safe coping strategy on the list). But, I had to do all three. The one thing that made it tolerable for me was knowing that I did it all in the name of my own health and safety.

There are times when one can be too focused on their own well-being, to the detriment of everyone else’s. Which is what I think I’m really afraid of when I never reach out for help and never say no to people. But, this was not one of those times at all. I was reminded by several loved ones that this group could handle the event without me. What if I had still been away? What if I had never returned? What if my husband’s injury had been as severe as I had let on? What if I’d had my own injury or illness to contend with? The truth of the matter is that the event would still have happened. It did not hinge on my being there, as I was letting myself believe. Sure, they were disappointed in me, maybe even angry. But, they aren’t privy to the entire situation. And they don’t have to live my life, only I have to do that.

In the end, it all completely worked out. Everyone softened when the director had stepped in on my behalf. And although I still felt a little guilty “milking” my connection to the director and my husband’s situation, in the end it was what was right. It was what I needed to do to protect myself.

When you’re in recovery, you need to worry about your future and your health and your sanity, above all else. It sounds selfish, but often those who have a problem tend to put themselves last, which is how they end up in their situation. I certainly had not put my health and happiness first in my life. Not ever, that I could remember. The old me would have done that event. The old me would have said yes to anything, to avoid feeling like a disappointment or a burden to anyone. The old me would have tolerated the emotional anguish and dealt with in later in an unhealthy way.

It was one of my first real tests in the “real world” after rehab. To be able to say no when something made me feel uncomfortable. To be able to judge what was best for me and only me. To be able to pull out a safe coping strategy and really use it, rather than fall back to my old, unhealthy strategies.

Now the event has come and gone, without complication. And I’m so much happier for having set a boundary.