Read an Excerpt
THE WALL BETWEEN
I was born a month premature. In those days, preemies were put in an incubator and left alone. In my imagination, armed with what I've gleaned from years of therapy, I can return to those first days. What I see first looks like a tunnel with a clear roof. I am looking up through the incubator. A bright light shines all the time. The walls beyond are plain and white. I feel cut off from everyone and don't know who I belong to. The only time I am touched is to be cleaned.
Recently, I asked my mother how much she held me those weeks we were still in the hospital after my birth.
"Why, I held you all the time!" she said.
"How much?" I insisted. All the time was not my memory.
"Why, whenever they'd let me."
"How often was that?" I persisted.
"I held you every time they brought you to me to be fed" she said. "Twenty minutes, three times a day."
An hour a day my first three weeks of life. My baby self knew that wasn't nearly enough.
That touch deprivation continued. When I was six months old my father left my mother, so she left me with my grandparents and took off. My grandparents were not the most demonstrative people in the world. Maybe I saw them kiss each other once in all the years I lived with them. Me, they never touched.
When I was ten my mother remarried and decided she wanted me back. The second night I was in their house -- my mother worked nights -- my stepfather came into my room and got into bed with me.
After never being touched or held, I felt hands on my body. His touch made me feel sick inside. Something told me this wasn't right but nothing had ever told me that myfeelings mattered or that I had a choice about anything. So I put up with it.
I remember the first time a boy touched me. I was thirteen, he was sixteen. We were at a teen dance and all I could think about was that I finally had a boyfriend. He danced with me and kept his arm around me all night. Was I jubilant? Was I thrilled? No, I was terrified. The only kind of touch I'd ever known disgusted me.
This was a nice boy who was completely proper and respectful, but when he put his arm across my shoulders I felt sick. My heart was beating so loudly from fear I could hear its pounding cadence in my ears. Far from enjoying my first healthy experience with a boy, my heart beat like that far into the night, hours after I was home alone. I avoided his calls. I wouldn't see him again.
My mother was over 40 when I was born. My father, older still, was a military man. He commanded the household and everything in it, especially me. From preschool on he had long, serious discussions with every one of my teachers. He watched what I ate, directed my play, and as I got older interviewed my friends. It was he who taught me the neat way to dress, the proper way to sit and stand, and the meaning of duty, obedience, and loyalty.
When I had my first period, however, we were both shocked. Until then I had been perfect -- straight As, conducting myself with proper military bearing. I was the son he'd never had. But becoming a woman interrupted my perfection. He didn't have to tell me but I knew I'd failed him in a big way. So I stopped eating. Eventually I stopped looking like a woman and my period stopped. My mother was concerned but my father wasn't. And since she didn't have a lot of say in our house nothing happened. Eventually, however, I was so thin and had so much trouble concentrating that my mother insisted I see a doctor. The doctor put me in the hospital immediately.
My father didn't want me away from him, but my therapists said I was anorexic and needed treatment. They forced me to eat. When my therapy group upset me, I called my father and he told me not to listen to them. He called my counselor and argued with her that nothing was wrong with me. The more he talked to me, the more I realized that it was ridiculous for me to be in the hospital. Those people didn't know what they were talking about. I was just fine. Besides, I missed him. He needed me. Finally my father came to get me. He didn't even care that insurance would no longer cover the costs because I'd left against medical advice. He wanted me with him that much.
Boundaries -- What Are They?
Therapists and recovering people toss the word around easily. But what do they mean? Why have these stories been included? Do they say something about boundaries? Maybe not yet, but they will.
In this chapter we'll look at the big picture, boundaries from an eagle's point of view. Later we'll close in on the details. We'll swoop down on specific aspects of boundaries so that you'll recognize both the forest and the trees.
Exercises pepper the chapters. Enjoy them. Most are brief. Some involve other people. All let your body and heart in on the knowledge you're collecting with your mind -- in learning what boundaries are all about.
An Amoeba Is Not a Tulip
So what is a boundary? A boundary is a limit or edge that defines you as separate from others. A boundary is a limit that promotes integrity.
Your skin is a boundary. Everything within your skin is the physical you.
Each living organism is separated from every other living organism by a physical barrier. Amoebae, orange trees, frogs, leopards, bacteria, tulips, turtles, salmon -- all have physical limits that delineate them as unique from other organisms. This limit can be breached by injury or other organisms, if the breach is severe enough or if the invading organism is toxic or hostile, the host organism can die. An intact physical boundary preserves life.
Even an organism's physical components have boundaries. Your nerves are covered with a sheath or membrane. Your bones are distinct from your muscles. The physical world abounds with boundaries. Were it not so, when we sat down, we'd pass right through the chair (and the chair through us) and be sprawled on the floor. Except then we'd pass through the floor, too. And then the earth? Where would we stop?
We Are Surrounded by an Invisible Circle
Our skin marks the limit of our physical selves, but we have another boundary that extends beyond our skin. We become aware of this when someone stands too close. It's as if we are surrounded by an invisible circle, a comfort zone. This zone is fluid. A lover, say, can stand closer than most friends, and a friend can stand closer than a stranger. With someone who is hostile we might need a great deal of distance.
We have other boundaries as well -- emotional, spiritual, sexual, and relational. You have a limit to what is safe and appropriate. You have a border that separates you from others. Within this border is your youness, that which makes you an individual different and separate from others.
What is an emotional boundary? We have a set of feelings and reactions that are distinctly ours. We respond to the world uniquely based on our individual perceptions, our special histories, our values, goals, and concerns. We can find people who react similarly, but no one reacts precisely as we do.
My Size Is None of Your Business
When it comes to how others treat us emotionally, we have limits on what is safe and appropriate. I came out of a store in downtown Seattle and a stranger started screaming at me about a religious matter. I turned and walked away. I do not have to accept screaming from anyone. I will accept appropriate anger from my friends and loved ones, but even then, I determine how close I'm willing to be to an angry person.
When I was younger, my landlady routinely commented about my weight. "You're getting bigger, ain't cha."
I let her say those things to me because I didn't know any better. Now I know that no one has a right to comment on my body. If that happened today, I'd tell her, "My size is none of you