A couple of years ago, I was dating a man who worked at the bakery across the street from my apartment. As much as I liked him, I knew after a year that it wasn’t meant to be. I broke it off without much explanation and went back to my life. I could smell the baking loaves and croissants from my place, and although I kept to my side of the street, I couldn’t resist looking towards the bakery’s windows when I passed by. I had banished Ian, but he wasn’t gone for good.
One afternoon, I came home from work and there he was, with a streak of flour across the front of his black t-shirt. Waiting for me. My mouth went dry. He’d sent a few emails, alternately begging for another chance or calling me a horrible, selfish monster. (I never responded.) I put my shaking hands into my pockets.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
He shrugged. His eyes searched my face. “I wanted to talk.”
A braver person would have said, “About what?” and marched right past him. In fact, I imagined doing exactly that. I could feel myself starting to sweat. Instead of going inside, I put a smile on my face and sat down next to Ian on the marble steps.
“Okay,” I said, even though my heart was shivering inside me. I pushed away my instinct to run. I was sober: I didn’t have to be scared. I tried to regulate my breathing as he started to talk.
To this day, I have no memory of what we said to each other. I know that the conversation, if you can call it that, lasted about an hour. I do remember finally standing up and saying goodbye with a handshake, which felt weird and awkward, and then the sound of the heavy wood door locking behind me as I went into the hallway. There was an immediate, immense sense of relief when I went into my apartment. He couldn’t follow me here: I was safe. I took out my phone and texted him. Great to see you, but let’s not do that again.
Then, I called my sponsor.
“What the fuck is wrong with me?” I asked her.
“You need boundaries,” she said.
“Are you saying it’s my fault that he waited for me, like a creep?”
“No,” she said. (God, she was patient.) “Were you looking at your phone? Were you aware of your surroundings?”
“Well, that’s what boundaries and self-care are for. They help you handle situations like this better.”
The lightbulb went on. When Ian sent me yet another email telling me how terrible I was—and, at this point, I didn’t necessarily disagree with him—I took a look at my part in the situation. I had a history of going limp at the moment of decision. This tendency had gotten me into a lot of trouble. I could say it was all PTSD, the creeping anxiety that turned me into a wet noodle as soon as I had to defend myself. But in my gut, I knew there was more to it, and I knew that my sponsor was right. The kind of encounter I had with Ian was not a first for me, and the thought that it might not be the last made me feel sick. Luckily, my sponsor assured me, there was something I could do to change it.
The first time a man cornered me, I assumed it was because of me. Maybe it was the way I looked: I have the kind of face that makes strangers talk to me. Naturally friendly expression. I like to smile, and I make eye contact on the street. I would love to be super cool and tough and basically go around screaming Bikini Kill lyrics at people, but it’s not meant to be. I have a slightly salty caramel filling, and I’ve learned that without some basic boundaries, the world is going to take big bite out of me.
At first, it felt a little weird. Every interaction hit me wrong. Am I acting like someone with boundaries? I asked myself. Or am I being a bitch? I stopped smiling at strangers, starting conversations with people I met in the park or on the bus. Sometimes, I felt like my head was jammed with words that I didn’t say, sentences and greetings and observations that I wasn’t sharing with the person next to me. I started keeping things to myself, or saving them to share with my friends. One day, I walked past a panhandler who told me to smile.
“You’re pretty!” he yelled at me.
I heard him, loud and clear. Part of me absolutely wanted to do what he said. Just smile. It’ll make his day. Look at him. What’s it cost to smile at someone who’s down on his luck? said the voice in my head. Instead, I walked by without turning towards him or complying.
He called me a bitch.
I kept walking.
And you know? Maybe I am a bitch. But I will take self-respect over popularity any day of the week. It turns out that when I honor my needs and practice saying no to the things I don’t want, I’m a lot happier. I set myself up to be happy, instead of chronically unfulfilled.
Later, I went on a date with a normal drinker who was having a hard time with the idea that I was an alcoholic. (Trust me, I’m an alcoholic. I checked.)
“I think you could have a beer every once in a while,” he said. He’d already had a few himself.
“Nope,” I said.
“You couldn’t drink a beer right now?”
“I could,” I said. “But it’s not worth it.”
“You’re telling me you can never drink.”
We went around the mulberry bush on this for a few more minutes, and then I put my foot down.
“Look,” I said. “I’ve told you more than once: I don’t drink. Why do you keep bringing it up? It’s disrespectful to me.”
That didn’t go over well, but for once I wasn’t worried about what he thought of me. Boundaries. I had them. I replayed the scene in my mind later. You handled that like a boss, I told myself.
That wasn’t the last time someone challenged my sobriety, or told me that they think alcoholism is made up, or that addiction goes away if you’re sober long enough, or that I should just loosen up and have a drink, already. Instead of flying off the handle and dramatically accusing the person of trying to poison me, I can firmly say that I’m not into that. I don’t have to apologize or explain. I don’t need to make excuses. I can keep working on eliminating the word “but” from my vocabulary. No means no. If I fail to defend myself, my beliefs, my recovery, I put myself at risk. I could lose a lot; why cash in all my chips just because some jackass offers to buy me a vodka tonic?
Thanks: I’ll stick with club soda.