Personal Boundaries

The Trials, Errors, and Triumphs of AA (No. 1)

Not surprisingly, when most of us in the proverbial Anonymous programs enter the rooms, we have a deeply flawed sense of what personal boundaries are. It’s not uncommon for us to come from dysfunctional families, to have underlying mental health issues, and/or to be victims of trauma… all of which skew the lines of “healthy” boundaries.

This past week, I received a phone call that reminded me of my early days in the program… and the unacceptable lengths I was willing to go to in the name of “sobriety”.

Like many folks these days, I don’t pick up numbers I do not recognize; but my voicemail message states, “If you are a friend of Bill’s, please leave your name and number and I will get back to you as soon as possible.” That way, members of AA know that I am also a member. If someone leaves a voicemail, I do check that (almost always) immediately.

From an unrecognized number, I was left the following message (by far, one of the more bizarre calls I’ve received in the program):

“Cassie, this is [Anonymous]. We met in a meeting about a year and five months ago. [The caller also left a description of themselves.] I’m in a tight spot, and I need your help. I need three cartons of Newport Menthols, a half-dozen bags of Doritos, and a couple of two-liters of Diet Coke. This is my address…”

I returned the call and explained that I was available for emotional and sobriety-related support, but was not an Uber Eats delivery driver. (Said member also “has no money”, and expected a favor “for having been a friend of Bill’s for more than twenty years.”) In response, I was met at first with pleading (for “just the cigarettes then”) and then with a “F*ck you, Bitch!” (at which point, I said “That is unacceptable and abusive language, and I am now ending this call). Moments later, this member called again, leaving a message with a longer sundry list.

What. The. F*ck. This is not what we do in AA. (So I set a boundary, and blocked the damn number.)

To be clear, if I have an established relationship with someone in the program — and they actually are in dire straits — I won’t hesitate to help. I’ve bought groceries, gas, and other necessities when friends are in need; but I no longer acquiesce to requests such as the one above — friend or not. However, it took me a damn long time — and learning some really hard lessons — to get to this point: the point where I can give a justified “No!” to someone without feeling any guilt.

Busy is Not Necessarily Sober

My first year in the program, I ran around for folks like a chicken with my head cut off. If I was asked to do something; I did it without question. I drove people around (and not just to and from meetings), I lent people money, I bought food and cigarettes for other members, and I babysat everyone’s children.

These things were a blessing in that they kept me busy; but they were not conducive to working towards emotional sobriety. I was always exhausted; and the more I did, the more I gained a reputation for “being helpful” (or “being a sucker”, depending on how you look at it 🤦🏻‍♀️), and the more I was asked to do.

It took a total breach of my trust — and the strong words of healthier members — to break this cycle.

Taking Advantage

Mere months into my sobriety, I was helping a young woman in the program to get to and from meetings. Occasionally, we also had coffee or a meal together (for which, I always paid). I also assisted her with filling out the paperwork to receive state-sanctioned health insurance, because she desperately needed mental healthcare assistance.

Over the course of several months, I would be called to her home (by her guardians) on more than one occasion to help deal with violent outbursts and suicide threats (during these events, I routinely called the local crisis response team). Eventually, we were able to get her placed in an intensive outpatient program; and I continued to take her to and from meetings.

Then one evening, while attending a meeting together, this young woman stated that she had left something in my car and asked for my keys. I gave them to her; but she never returned to the meeting. Figuring she had opted to stay outside and smoke cigarettes, I stayed for the duration. After the meeting, I went outside; and she was no where to be found.

I walked to my car and found the keys inside on the driver’s seat; but the young woman had taken everything that was in the car — cigarettes, various items in the trunk, a small amount of emergency cash from the console, and all of my CDs. (In hindsight, I’m grateful that she didn’t take the car as well.)

When I later shared this story in a meeting, women who had decades of sobriety pulled me aside and explained that I needed to get my shit together… that trying to help everyone with everything when I didn’t have my own house in order yet would always lead to negative consequences.

And that’s when I really started working the program.

We Are Not Slaves, Laborers, or ATMs

I have seen “sponsorship” go completely awry during my years in AA.

I have witnessed members utilize newcomers for yardwork, housework, and errand running. Not in a casual “let’s keep you busy” kind of way; but in an abuse of power.

There are sponsors who take over the finances of those they profess to be helping — taking advantage of the naivete of newcomers. (Side Note: Sponsorship should never be a relationship of profit.)

Being asked to help set-up a meeting — making coffee, putting out chairs, distributing literature, etc. — is perfectly acceptable. Being asked to wash someone’s car? Not so much.

Thirteenth Stepping

While there is no “thirteenth” step in twelve-step programs, “thirteenth stepping” refers to members taking sexual advantage of newcomers. This is why it is strongly suggested that you work with someone of the same sex — to avoid (dysfunctional) transference.

Admittedly, I fell victim to this myself (and feel abysmally stupid for having done so). Like many women in the program, I entered the hallowed halls of the Anonymous with a strong distrust of other women. I have always been a bit of a tomboy, and had closer friendships with men than I did women. As such, I was drawn to males in the program rather than females. (Old patterns die hard.)

Needless to say, it didn’t end well. The boy (because I have come to realize that he was not yet a man, emotionally speaking) that I had a short-term sexually intimate relationship with went on to talk about said relationship in meetings all over town… and it nearly stopped me from continuing in the program.

Fortunately, shortly thereafter, I met a very strong group of women with healthy sobriety… and have not worked with men in the program since.

That’s not to say that I don’t have friendships with men in the program now. I do; but they are healthy friendships with very clear personal boundaries.

Healthy Sobriety

Nothing about sobriety is easy… and it’s a lifelong commitment (albeit, only twenty-four seconds, minutes, or hours at a time).

Step-work — when done “correctly” — helps us to rediscover who we were before addiction consumed our lives. It should lead to a healthier self-image, substantial self-confidence, and emotional serenity and safety. (Which is not to say that we will be serene for the rest of our days… but we learn to cope with difficult times — and difficult people — in healthier ways.) Ideally, it also helps us to find a new direction, and a deeper purpose, for our lives. And most importantly, it helps us to establish and maintain personal boundaries. It teaches us to appropriately use the word “no”.

So if you are a newcomer to our Anonymous programs, trust your gut instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, or is causing you undue stress, don’t be afraid to pull the drawbridge up and bar the gate.

Watch, and really listen, to people in the meetings. Gravitate to members with strong sobriety that you admire. Make sure that they “walk the walk” rather than just “talk the talk.”

Members with strong sobriety live full lives. They are contributing members of society — both inside and outside of the rooms. They are self-sufficient and will not ever insist that you do something untoward. A sponsor should empower, not belittle you.

Remember too that every single person in the rooms is an addict. The only thing we truly have to offer you is “our experience, strength, and hope”.

May you find “an easier, softer way” to sobriety than I did.

Soundtrack: “NO” by Meghan Trainor