I was raised as a Christian by some very loving, wonderful human beings who taught me beautiful lessons like, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “If you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it unto me,” meaning that as far as God was concerned, every single person I met was sacred and should be treated as such. I’m so grateful for these lessons. They produced a core of love inside me that has sustained me through all of the darkness, tragedy, and cruelty that life likes to sling at times.
However, one of the most difficult lessons for me to learn in adulthood (let’s be honest—probably the most difficult) was how to protect myself from abuse, manipulation, and cruelty. I felt like if someone—no matter how unsavory—wanted to be my friend, it was my job to be her friend, to give her money if she asked for it, to be available for hours and hours to listen to her complaints, to try to prop her up in every drama and trauma she went through, to let her live in my home if she needed a place to stay, and on and on and on. In essence, it was my job to save everyone. You can imagine how that worked out. Well, in case you can’t, I’ll tell you. (I’ll just hit the highlights.)
It worked out as a series of horrifyingly abusive romantic relationships with very damaged men I thought I could save by loving them enough. It worked out as me taking a homeless woman I barely knew into my home, watching her two kids for free for a month while she partied, and having her threaten to kill my daughter when I finally asked her to leave. It worked out as my poor kids sitting on the floor playing with their dollies alone all evening because Momma was busy offering free nightly therapy sessions to every fucked up girl on the planet. It turned out as me remortgaging my house to help a jobless boyfriend fight for custody of kids he didn’t really want. (He promised he’d get a job and pay the extra payment every month. He never did, not even once.) And finally, finally, it ended up with me hiding in people’s basements while my psychotic ex-con boyfriend who had repeatedly threatened to cut my head off refused to leave my home. When he finally left, he took my car with him, along with all the money I had in the bank.
I often feel like I should write that last guy a thank you letter. Weirdly, I think he saved my life. It was while looking into his flat, dead eyes when he said, “I love you so much, I’m going to kill you,” that I realized I couldn’t save everyone and that I’d better set about saving myself, or I was going to be dead, which would make me rather useless to the people who actually loved me and would be heartbroken if I left the planet at the hands of a maniacal boy in need of saving.
After he left (and ended up in prison for killing someone with a hammer), I had a nervous breakdown that landed me in a hospital. I was diagnosed with severe depression and acute anxiety disorder. The inside of my head felt like a war zone. I knew I was going to lose my mind if I kept giving myself away to everyone who wanted a piece of me. I put saving the world on the back burner and set about saving myself. It was freaking hard work. A lot of it had to do with looking myself in the face and figuring out why the hell I thought I was worthy of such horrific treatment. I had to deal with addictions and neuroses, fight off demons, slay dragons, do all the ugly internal work that comes with becoming a better version of oneself.
The other thing I had to do was stop trying to be a saint and just be the flawed human being I really was. In short, I had to find my inner-Mother-Theresa and shoot that bitch down. I cut people who were using and abusing me out of my life one at a time, starting with Mr. I-Want-To-Behead-You and moving on from there. Every time I cut someone off, I felt like an asshole. He or she would beg and plead and cajole and wonder why all the strategies that had worked for years weren’t working anymore. The answer was because this time, for me, it was a matter of life and death. I was quite literally fighting for my life.
I can honestly say that now, every person who plays a major role in my life is there because I want him or her there, because I genuinely love him or her, because I intrinsically trust him or her. It’s an incredibly good feeling. It’s safety. I haven’t felt that in a long, long time.
If you are in the same boat as I was, here are some things I learned about setting boundaries and keeping myself safe from toxic relationships:
1. You don’t owe anyone anything. Not friendship. Not sex. Not phone calls. Not text messages. Not money. (Ok, if you borrowed money from them, you owe them money.) Never, ever stay in a relationship because you feel obligated or guilted into doing it.
2. You don’t have to give people reasons for cutting them off. Sometimes, I did, usually if the relationship was well-established, and I didn’t feel the other person was an actual threat to my physical or mental safety. My goal was never to hurt anyone (although I often did, and that made me feel like shit). My goal was to protect myself. So if I could soften the blow with an explanation, I would.
But if I chose to give someone a reason for cutting them off, and it turned into a back and forth, (“Well, you did this to me. This part is your fault. Can we still be friends?”), I stopped replying. My head was already a crazy enough space without the extra drama. I knew what I wanted. I wanted the unhealthy relationship to end. I didn’t want to fix it. I didn’t want to go back and forth about whose fault it was. I didn’t want to exonerate myself or prove I was the guiltless party. Chances were huge that part of the relationship’s failure was my fault. I was fucked up too, but I was trying really hard to get less fucked up. I said I was sorry and then moved on. Just because a relationship’s failure is partially your fault does not mean you have to stay in that toxic relationship.
3. Your life isn’t a democracy. You are the queen or king of your own life. Your life isn’t a court of law. You don’t have to prove to anyone why someone is unworthy of being in your world. You can be as arbitrary as you want. Your life, your rules. If you don’t like someone, if you don’t truly want him in your world, axe him. He doesn’t have to be a child killer for you to delete him from your proverbial friends list. Maybe you just have a sneaking suspicion you can’t trust him. Maybe it’s nothing you can put your finger on, but it’s there. Trust your inner voice. Maybe she is obsessed with show tunes, and you freaking hate show tunes, so every time you hang out with her, you leave feeling like you want to off yourself. That’s a perfectly good reason to end a relationship. If you don’t want to be there, don’t be there. Go be with someone you truly enjoy and love. Don’t be nasty about it, but why waste either one of your time on something that isn’t sincerely worthwhile to both of you?
4. Someday, you will die. You only have so much time. Make it count. Spend it with people you love, who honestly love you back. If you give two hours to someone, you don’t get that two hours back, ever. You don’t get to give it to someone else. On your deathbed, do you really want to look back over your life and see a series of awkward lunch dates with people you couldn’t stand? Spend that two hours with someone who feeds your soul. Or read a book. Or knit. Or pet your dog.
5. You deciding someone isn’t right for you isn’t you judging her worth as a human being. You can’t be friends with everyone. You only have room in your life to intimately love a handful of special people. Choose them carefully. Just because someone isn’t your cup of tea doesn’t mean you’re calling her worthless, any more than choosing to wear blue shoes instead of brown ones means all brown shoes are bad. No, you just like blue shoes better than brown ones. The Creator still loves the people you choose not to be friends with. They are still sacred. You can still be kind to them if/when you see them (as long as they are people who won’t take advantage of that and try to manipulate you). But you don’t have to give a piece of yourself to everyone who asks for one.
6. You have to be cruel to be kind. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have someone choose not to be in my life than pretend to love me while secretly despising me. Choosing not to let a person who isn’t right for you into your life is more genuinely honest and kind than engaging in a dishonest relationship. You are freeing that person up to go find people who authentically enjoy his company. He will no doubt be someone else’s blue shoes. For someone out there, that person is the perfect fit. Let him go find the people who truly love him. He deserves genuine love, not the fake-ass, passive aggressive stuff you are able to offer him when you don’t really like him.
7. You deserve genuine love. I think we all suffer on some level from horrific self-esteem, at least everyone I’ve ever intimately known does. We let ourselves be used and abused because we think we deserve it. But we don’t. We deserve to be loved. We deserve to be cherished. We deserve to be safe. We often accept pseudo love because we are afraid healthy love isn’t actually out there. It is. But you won’t have room for it in your life if you’re wasting all your time and energy carrying on unhealthy relationships.
8. Allowing yourself to be abused is an act of cruelty. Other people matter, but so do you. If you wouldn’t let what is happening to you happen to someone you love (a kid, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a lover), don’t let it happen to you. We honor the Creator by protecting the precious bodies, souls, and minds we have been given. We also honor the people who truly love us. Thinking about the agony I put my family and true friends through while I was letting myself be abused is hard to bear. I try every day to make it up to them, to heal the wounds l left when I participated in acts of cruelty against myself. By letting myself be abused, I tortured the people who mattered most to me. I have clear, solid boundaries now, largely because protecting me is protecting them.
9. You serve the world better when you protect yourself. There is a temporary high that comes with trying to save other people. They often tell you you’re the best person ever, they don’t know what they’d do without you, and on and on. That feels good. But if you are giving your time to people who don’t really want to heal (and if they really do want to, they won’t need you to do it—people who want to heal do it no matter what), you won’t have time to dedicate to whatever you do that really makes the world a better place.
In the three years that have passed since I kicked out my last boyfriend, I have started teaching creative writing classes, published two books, won many awards, and traveled extensively, speaking to groups of people about my own experiences with abuse. I get letters all the time about how my classes, books, and public appearances have impacted people’s lives in positive ways. If I was still putting all my energy into trying to rehabilitate ex-convicts, I wouldn’t be doing any of that. In fact, I’d be dead. By giving pieces of myself to people who didn’t deserve them, I was stealing from the world. I was stealing the gift I was given, a gift that was meant to help society at large, and flushing it down the toilet.
10. Never put yourself in a situation where you will not be safe emotionally, physically, and mentally. I have turned into quite a bitch, but if I’m not 100% sure people have my best interests at heart, I won’t spend intimate time with them, period. I don’t want to have romantic relationships with men who don’t value me. I don’t want to share my heart with women who are going to go use my pain as fodder for gossip. I don’t want friends who want to know me so they can get money or sex or career advancement or popularity. I don’t want people who want to be in my life for any reason except they think I am absolutely the bee’s knees. I want friends who I am sure would throw down for me if I was physically attacked. I want friends who I’m sure would defend me if people spoke badly about me, even if I wasn’t there to hear it. I want friends who genuinely care about my heart.
And I want friends who I can do all those things for. The truth is, I am a shitty friend to people I don’t like. I don’t want to be a shitty friend. I want to be a good, caring, giving friend.
All of the people who are in my life now truly love me. And I adore the hell out of them. I would throw down for them. And defend them even if they weren’t there. Because I think they are the bee’s knees. And that’s what friendship is supposed to be.
I’m not as popular as I used to be. Some people hate me and think I’m stuck up. Very few people think I’m a saint. I’m just a normal, incredibly flawed woman. But I’m happy. And I’m safe. And I’m not losing my mind.
And bonus: I’m in no danger of literally losing my head.
P.S. I have by no means included photos of all the people I love and trust in this blog. I just had to include Polyxeni, Martine, and Julie in this one because they are so darn cute.
P.S.S. I feel like the people who have loved me and stood by through all my darkness and difficulties are my angels. This song goes out to them. You know who you are. (Please actually listen to this one if you have time. It’s so, so beautiful. I love Lissie. She expresses heartbreak and humanity so beautifully.)