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Setting Your Boundaries

Implementing healthy boundaries when dealing with an addict.

Boundaries are one of the most difficult things to hold on to and implement when dealing with the alcoholic/addict in one's life. Whether it is upholding a curfew or expecting sobriety, it can often be fraught with a myriad of herky-jerky stops and starts through the process.

The alcoholic/addict has an uncanny way of manipulating us into trashing those boundaries as they hold an invisible weapon over our head of punishment or bullying behavior. We can be paralyzed with fear of, "I'll show you, you'll be sorry for doing this" which we have been used to interpreting as I'm going to relapse or worse yet kill myself and it will be your fault.

Boundaries are scary; they are an emotional line. If there is no follow-through on ramifications, your intentions are quickly dismissed as frivolous, your credibility is shot, and your word is like quicksand.

For a number of months, I worked with Gretchen — a caring, loving mother struggling with her daughter who had one foot in recovery, one foot out of recovery daughter. Their connection was often brittle, but there were moments of bright sunshine and what seemed like a healthy balance of communication and respect between them.

However, at one point her daughter had become rude and indignant toward her. Gretchen feared that she was once again in her addiction, as she was showing up late or not at all to family functions. When she did attend, she was disheveled, with dirty hair and clothes, and made frequent trips to the bathroom; she was always ready for combat if anything was said that she didn't like.

Through the roller coaster ride of her daughter's being in and out of recovery, Gretchen learned that any comment she made would fall on deaf ears and that a steady stream of insults toward her was bound to flow like a fountain.

After it had been weeks since their last encounter, Gretchen's daughter contacted her as if nothing was wrong and became incensed that her mother didn't forget about it and move on.

Gretchen and I discussed her daughter's actions and what she felt her recourse should be. We determined that the best route to go was a response that was neutral and loving yet reiterated what her personal boundaries needed to be in order to have a relationship was the best route to go.

After hours of thought, Gretchen composed the following e-mail. This might be difficult for some parents to read as they may think that no matter what their child does, they should always be accepting regardless of the behavior or lack of respect shown.

Hi Brooke,

It has been a few days since you texted me and I apologize for not responding sooner, but I wanted to get my thoughts in order. First and foremost, I love you.

You are my daughter and a day doesn't go by that I don't think of you and hope that you are well. It saddens me that our relationship isn't better and I add that to my list of prayers that one day it will be.

However, with that said, no matter whom I have a relationship with, respect, dignity, and honesty comes with the territory.

For the past several months, I do not believe that you have shown me the respect, dignity, and calm that I need/want and these are important boundaries for me.

I don't want to list examples of where or why I have come to these conclusions as we both know what they are.

I think you believe that just because I'm your mother I should accept you for who you are and your actions, and if I don't like them, just sweep it under the rug and move on.

I accept you for who you are, but I am currently struggling with our relationship that is void of everyday courtesy, kindness, and dignity.

It appears that whenever we discuss your actions (or try to) you defend, justify and punish me; rarely taking responsibility for them. The word humble or being genuinely sorry and making right by your mistakes doesn't seem to part of your thinking.

My fear now is that if you have gotten this far in reading this, you may be saying, "I'm trying to reach out and all you are doing is slamming me... who needs this?" It is not my intention to thwart your intentions, but is the healthy part of me that needs to start taking care of myself with stronger boundaries and clearer communication.

I am hopeful that one day you will say to me, "Hey Mom, my side of street needs some massive cleaning and I want to do anything I can to try and build a friendship with respect, dignity, and love, not only because you're my mom, but probably a really good friend as well", will be the day I will bring to the table the same thing and work hard to do my part and make our relationship the best it can be.


Though Gretchen was relieved to send this e-mail, she was saddened as well. To this day, her daughter has not responded, and Gretchen understands that until she is practicing a clean and sober lifestyle she may not be capable. However, this correspondence emboldened Gretchen: She stated her boundaries and realized that she was ultimately taking care of herself in a healthy, nourishing way.

As a counselor and parent myself, I am distressed when I hear the way some children talk to their parents and are rarely reprimanded for fear of reprisal or the withholding of love. Maybe they hear it from other family members and since no action is taken, then it must be okay.

Sometimes boundaries are all we have to keep our dignity and self-respect alive. Though they are often painful to implement, it is worth the discomfort as the process invokes a feeling of self-empowerment and knowing that you are able to peel the tattoo of doormat off your forehead.

If I can be of service, please visit my website, and I invite you to explore my new book, Reclaim Your Life — You and the Alcoholic/Addict.

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