Maintaining Boundaries in Tight Spaces

During this pandemic, many of us are following CDC guidelines and protecting our communities by staying inside as much as possible. This is challenging enough on its own, but add recovery into the mix, and the prospect is daunting. Consequently, I’ve been pondering some major tenets in my sobriety, and how they can operate in a world that has upended the sober structure I created for myself over the years. One of the biggest (and hardest) elements is creating and maintaining boundaries.

It seems like setting boundaries would be incredibly easy during this time of social distancing, right? Not so! Many of us are confined to a rather limited space with people who aren’t sober, and potentially, people who might be triggering for us. Everyone is on edge. Not being able to physically separate can strain even the strongest bonds. Those who aren’t sharing space with another human still have to contend with the balancing act of staying connected while keeping a safe distance. All of this takes energy and emotional bandwidth. Each one of us must slow down and recognize when boundaries are being tested and remember why they’re important.

When I first returned to the “real” world after treatment, I quickly discovered the need to communicate to others what kind of boundaries would help prevent triggers and cravings for me. Some were immediately obvious. Others I discovered as I came into contact with certain things and experienced emotions I didn’t see coming. It wasn’t easy to ask my friends and family to respect these boundaries – why I needed alcohol taken out of sight before I came to a family gathering, or why friends smoking weed while watching a movie meant I would need to walk out. Ultimately, I told myself (and some of them) that if my sobriety and health were important, these boundaries needed respect and adherence. I wasn’t asking people to stop drinking, just to not drink around me. If you really couldn’t handle a few hours without whatever substance it was to spend time with me, then you weren’t the kind of person I needed to be around.

Two major examples stick out for me during my early recovery – a long drive with my mother on an election day and an Oscars viewing party with friends. Before the drive, I calmly asked my mom if she could limit the amount of news coverage we consumed during the drive. She was not pleased and sighed, “Alex, just don’t come then.” I was shocked and hurt, as I didn’t think this was a big ask and we share political views. I then had to walk her through why I needed this and that there would be other things like this in our future. And I wasn’t banning all of it – just asking to unplug from something I found triggering. I needed a boundary with the news cycle, which is something we all likely need to some extent right now.

The Oscars party was harder. I hadn’t hung out with this many friends in a while, and I had already discussed not smoking around me with several attendees, host included. As the curtain came up, someone turned to me and asked, “Alex, would you mind if we smoked?” I replied with something like, “I guess I could go into another room…” and then quickly realized they wanted to smoke throughout the WHOLE broadcast. Instead of leaving or insisting that my already established boundary be respected, I tucked my nose under my shirt and glared at the TV. After I left, I called another friend and sobbed. I was livid with myself and with them. One of the attendees texted apologizing but also thanking me for letting it happen. I power-walked deep into the cold night, literally letting off steam.

These experiences occurred within confined spaces, for a decent stretch of time, and with people I care about. Both instances upset me deeply and forced me to confront how I wanted to balance the important relationships in my life and the things my sobriety demanded. Setting boundaries didn’t mean I was asking for a carte blanche to order everyone around me to behave exactly as I wanted. It meant having a constructive conversation with each person about what I needed from them after I reflected on what was at the core of this need. Communication, as always, was key.

What’s the takeaway here?

  • Make sure to check in with yourself and others – meditate, journal, talk to your therapist,sponsor, or recovery coach. Reflect on your emotional state. By paying attention to it and identifying our feelings, we can begin to address what’s happening within ourselves. I find that writing it all out, and sometimes re-writing it, can clarify how I feel and what I really want to say.
  • Be mindful about how you approach the topic with someone and be prepared for their response to not be exactly what you envisioned.
  • Outline guidelines on how to flag potential boundary violations on the fly. If something feels like it’s veering across a line, it helps to have a neutral way to freeze the situation.
  • You won’t always know the boundaries you need, and it’s okay for boundaries to wax and wane as your recovery evolves.
  • Don’t beat yourself up when you don’t immediately defend a boundary. But try to right the ship as soon as you can.
  • If you have a loved one in recovery, try to open up a dialogue about what boundaries they need to set with you. Many of us are still learning how to ask for help and aren’t always sure of what will help.

I hope some of my experiences and insight helps as you learn how to nurture your recovery during these trying times. Boundaries are tough, but necessary – now more than ever!

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