Emotional Boundaries

I grew up overly sensitive to criticism. Since criticism felt life-threatening to me, I established rigid boundaries to keep people at a distance. When criticism came, no matter how slight, I’d over react. I’d retaliate by pulling out a bazooka when a less sensitive person would pull out a squirt gun. I wanted to make damn sure it didn’t happen again. My first marriage ended right after the honeymoon period. She violated my boundaries so often that toward the end, she couldn’t say anything that didn’t offend me. When anger didn’t work, I retreated into my cave in silent resentment, blaming her for making me angry! 

I spent the last few years of my drinking in almost complete isolation. I had chased everyone out of my life except the lower companions I met everyday at my neighborhood bar for “happy” hour. A few months before I attended my first meeting I remember sitting in my “command chair” with my big bottle of wine, bag of pot and remote control surveying my surroundings. There were a couple of left over fast food bags and a Domino Pizza box on the carpet near my chair. Instead of getting up to empty my overflowing ashtray, I just dumped it into the box. As I looked around my dirty apartment, I remember thinking, “What a great way to live! There’s no one around to bother me about my drinking or to prod me into looking for a job.” Looking back, this is perhaps the saddest moment of my life.

Recently I broke off a forty-year friendship with a man who was best man at my first wedding. Instead of giving me love and support during a very difficult time, he offered up angry criticism. I heard my alcoholic father talking. I realized this man was toxic for me. I called it off without anger or drama. In AA I learned my job is to love everyone, but I don’t have to like everyone. I still love this man, but I no longer choose to participate in his life. The old me would have hung on, continuing to look for an emotional scrap of bread, but thanks to the beautiful love and support I receive from my AA friends, it was easy to let go.

My journey in Alcoholics Anonymous has been about reconnecting with life one relationship at a time. My boundaries have become more flexible through the years. I began to loosen up when I walked into my first meeting and reluctantly allowed you guys to begin loving me back to life. I still don’t do well with criticism, but I realize that God puts people in my life to help me grow. Those who violate my boundaries, who don’t behave the way I want them to, are my greatest teachers. Instead of blasting them to kingdom come, I should throw my arms around them in gratitude. I’m not there yet, but I’m heading in the right direction.

Happy to Be Sober

If my life is not substantially better sober than it was when I was drinking, it’s a good bet I will drink again. I may not pick up right away, but sooner or later the psychic pain I drank against, the pain that brought me to AA in the first place will begin to fade into the background. I'll forget what it was like and memories of the “good times” alcohol provided will begin to crowd into consciousness. Half measures — occasional meetings, hanging out with other dry drunks, health kicks -- may delay the first drink for many years as life dissolves slowly into a living hell.

Yesterday out of the blue I received a rambling email from a man I hadn’t heard from in four years. He was drinking vodka trying to take the edge off a coke high as he wrote. He said he had four and a half years of sobriety when he finally picked up “to drink with my business associates and to date women.” He said he hated AA in the US and in capital letters he wrote: “I REALLY DON’T WANNA GO TO AA. Reading his email made me think of this passage in the Big Book:

“He will presently try the old game again, for he isn’t happy about his sobriety. He cannot picture life without alcohol. Some day he will be unable to imagine life either with alcohol or without it. Then he will know loneliness such as few do. He will be at the jumping-off place. He will wish for the end.”

I’ve been happy about my sobriety since I stumbled through the door to my first meeting. Reading Peter’s email reminded me of this gift. My experience is that very few newcomers are truly happy about their sobriety. I am one of the lucky ones who realized right away that life was much better sober than it was drinking. This realization is nothing I did and everything God did. All I did was drink myself into a state of desperation.

Even when I was winning the so-called game of life, I always sensed an emptiness inside, a yearning. Today I feel filled up. I came to AA from a life of lonely isolation. Today I have millions of friends around the world, including a few close ones who know everything about me and love me anyways.  I’ve had the chance to carry the message to mainland China and see the fellowship grow up there. I am discovering the truth about myself and in the process I’m learning I’m OK just the way I am, warts and all. Thanks to the opportunities to be of service and work with others, my life feels useful and content. I have just enough of everything. Happy to be sober? You bet.


Patience for me is directly linked to my level of irritability. I rarely feel restless or discontented these days, but irritability always seems right around the corner. A few months ago while I was complaining about this thing or that, my wife said, “it seems like almost everything irritates you.” I thought deeply about this and she’s right, it doesn't take much to rile me up.  I identify with the character on the TV Show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Little things bother me. It’s impossible to practice patience when life is constantly nipping at me.

I believe I was born cranky just like I was born alcoholic. It’s the temperament I showed up with. My dictionary defines patience as “good-natured” tolerance of delay or incompetence." I do not have a good-natured personality.  Even on days that everything is going my way, the best I can hope for is “begrudging” tolerance. I’m not making excuses for myself. This is just the way I am.

My tolerance and patience is tested almost anytime I get into my car. In China everyone blows their horn impatiently. If you are one second late in moving when the light turns green, you might have three or four horns blaring behind you to get going. The horn blowing got so bad the government passed a law that made it illegal to blow your horn unless to avoid danger. Americans are much more patient, at least where I live. After the light turns green, the folks in my neighborhood wait patiently for the woman ahead of them to finish her text message. Sometimes the texting lady will give a wave in the rear view mirror as if to say, “sorry.” My neighbors wave back as if to say, “no problem.”  The best I can do is wait three seconds before hitting my horn. Then when I speed by the woman I glance over at her with my “stop being an idiot and pay attention” expression.

“Begrudging tolerance” is a huge step up from where I was when I started my spiritual journey in Alcoholics Anonymous. Back then I excelled at seeing the glass half empty - at finding what was wrong with practically everything. If walking in a beautiful garden, my eye would focus on the one weed. The program of Alcoholics Anonymous - meetings, steps and service - has reduced self-centered fear and altered my perception. Today I am see the glass half full more often than not.

The way I figure it, God is teaching me patience by filling my life with delays and incompetent people.  When I am finally able to tolerate reasonable delays and clueless people, I will no longer face these experiences. There would be no point. Changing me is God’s job, but I have to want to be changed and do my part. I can somewhat control my irritability and thus practice more patience by staying away from that fourth cup of coffee, by not allowing myself to get too tired or hungry and by keeping spiritually fit by doing all that was suggested in my first week.

Step One

I was a few days sober and floating on a pink cloud. I sat in counseling circle in the treatment center along with five or six other outpatients. When it was my turn to speak, I said, “I feel so good, I know I’ll never drink again.” The woman that ran the center, an ex-heroin junkie from New York with a pronounced lack of tolerance for newcomer bullshit, said, “That’s just ego Jeff, we don’t say crap like that in here. You have no idea what you will or won’t do in the future. Better you stay out of the future and concentrate on what you need to do to stay sober today.” Step One reminds me that the very first thing I need to do to stay sober today is to remember I have a disease that will kill me if I give it half a chance.

I’ve seen what happens to alcoholics who forget. At almost every meeting here in the US, I hear of people going out,some with significant time on the program. Most report they stopped going to meetings first, but not all of them. One guy shared that he just woke up with a drink in his hand. Step One helps me remember I am not bullet proof. I am not immune from picking up a drink even though I haven’t had one in a while. 

My brain will never forget the relief I felt from alcohol. My cares and concerns melted away after a few drinks. I am rubbed raw from my wife’s illness. Step One helps me remember I am in a vulnerable place and without spiritual help I do not have the strength to resist the relief that alcohol promises. Gratefully I have tools that will get me through anything that life throws at me without a drink, but I won't pick up the tools and use them if I forget Step One.