Life Work: Boundaries

It is entirely human to respond to dysfunction by avoiding what could be unpleasant, even if it means you have to avoid all the good stuff, too.

K. from Seattle asks: You’ve mentioned having “epically screwy” parents.  Sometimes I think the reason I’ve never married is because I would never want to subject a spouse to the unpleasantness of interaction with my family. What is your relationship with your parents now and how does that affect your relationship with your husband?

My Dear K,

I am tempted to think of you as Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black, the first “old guy” I ever found sexy. I will refrain.

It is entirely human to respond to dysfunction by avoiding any connection with anyone or any thing that might bring about more dysfunction; marriage being one of them. Too bad it means you might die lonely.

My relationship with my parents is governed by clear boundaries. My relationship with my husband is affected when I let slip my boundaries. Good boundaries are the reason my marriage is not a repeat of my parents’. Good boundaries are the reason my children can be descended from the mentally ill and the pedophilic without me having to worry that they will be similarly afflicted. Good boundaries are the reason you can trust I am not fantasizing about Tommy Lee Jones when I said I wouldn’t.

I can’t say enough about developing good boundaries. Here is where go when I feel them slipping.

Writing Prompt: You are in Denial

A tsunami survivor who insists, “It was a great vacation with one bad day.”

Should la title not suffice, consider the following:

Denial is not relegated to the epically screwy. One of the ways that we allow denial to flourish is to assign it only to the extreme cases, a tsunami survivor who insists, “It was a great vacation with one bad day.”

A lot of what passes for acceptable parental behavior seems to me to be abusive. Some obvious examples are screaming at our children, or slapping them because we are not able to control our own anger. I am not saying it is not human. It is very human. It is also abusive.  I would not allow a care provider to behave like that with my child. Why did my parents? Why do I?

To dismiss your parents abuse because “there’s worse” out there is to miss a great writing opportunity. To dismiss examining your self is to miss an even better one.

Ranked high in the There’s Worse category is a common action: leaving a child in the car while the parent runs into the 7-11 for a soda.

I don’t care if the car is locked.

I don’t care if you “can see the kid the whole time.”

I don’t care about “It was just for a second” or “What are the odds?” 

If a child is truly safe, alone in a car, why is it illegal?

The Longest River in the World

The people whose denial really hacks me off are generally related to me.

Somewhere on the West Coast, JS writes: You mention that some of your family members don’t acknowledge the extent of the “epically screwy” parents. Their response seems not that uncommon, but it’s hard to fathom. What is your take on why people seem unwilling/unable to face reality, or they seem to think that victims should just “get over it?” 

It’s called denial, JS.

When I am  feeling charitable—which is not often; I am not that nice a person—I focus on “unable” over “unwilling.” People use denial as a way to continue living in the face of an intolerable reality. The people whose denial really hacks me off are generally related to me. That, or the specific instances of their denial trigger in me a reaction that has more to do with the child I was than the adult I have become. I do my best to ascribe to them as much pain around their issues as I feel around mine. I pretend that individuals who want victims (and I will add: survivors) to get over it are not hopeless assholes. I make up that they are in the most denial, and therefore the most pain. So much, that I cannot expect them to acknowledge my pain. They don’t acknowledge their own.

If I can’t stay in “charitable” around them, I give them at least ten feet. When the Anglo-Saxon expletives threaten, I leave.

It is important for me to remember that everyone has the right to believe what they want to believe. As long as someone is not physically or emotionally abusive, it is my job to be polite in public. (As I am responsible for small children, it is also my job to protect them from abuse until they can do so for themselves.)

If I cannot seem to let go of the fantasies where I drill this one in court or denounce that one on their deathbed, well, that’s a good time to open up a blank Word document. Job security!

How much do you worry about your genes?

“Ms. SassyPants” writes: How much do you worry about genes?  How do you allocate worries on the nature/nurture scale? I loved your essay in Literary Mama. I spent all of my twenties agonizing, determined never to have children because of my screwed up genes. (My mother has a severe case of bipolar disorder.) After finally getting over the “When is the mental illness train going to hit me,” and finally deciding to try to have biological children, I now live in “When is it going to hit my children?”

Boy, “Ms. SassyPants,” I have to thank you (in your sassy fashion): after the emotional triumph chronicled in Girl Feelings, I now have a whole new area to neurose over.

I don’t want to be too flip, MSP. I know what it means to fear for my children, and I have good news: your question made me aware that I am not worried about my children’s mental health. And despite the fact that I now could, I will opt not to.

Every parent’s parent died of something. Every child is vulnerable to that which they are and are not. If the are-and-are-not includes, say, diabetes, as a parent, I introduce behavioral offsets: healthy diet, regular exercise. Okay, so your mother had Bipolar Disorder and mine, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). The raw data is somewhat more terrifying, but why treat the possibility of a mental illness any differently than a physical? Now that you have brought it to my attention, Ms. SassyPants, I can let myself feel a certain amount of sadness for my children if I imagine them brought as low by depression as I have been.

OK, so that’s the first thought, the one I have no control over. The second thought has to be: how are they doing today?


Moving on! I go about managing my depression. No alcohol or street drugs. Period. With a genetic propensity to depression, alcohol and drugs have no place in my life. Drugs I can, in fact, must take are prescribed and monitored by a trusted and  licensed doctor. Sugar ain’t a bad thing to reduce, without tipping into obsession. Eight consecutive hours of sleep, hopefully starting at 10:30PM. Regular exercise. Play time. Steady and enjoyable work. Love and be loved.

And let them live their lives, knowing I am always there, whatever the circumstances.

Thanks for saying you loved my essay. That means a lot to me.