The word “boundaries” isn’t quite well-loved in 12-step addiction-recovery programs, in my experience. I heard somebody in a meeting once say that when we talk about “boundaries,” we’re just shirking our responsibility to help other people—we don’t need to build fences, we need to take fences down and find ways to help others.
“Boundaries” is a strong Al-Anon word. It’s one of the first words my Al-Anon sponsor taught me 12 years ago. I grew up with almost no boundaries. My mother had her nose in my business constantly. So I grew up with the idea that it was normal for people to walk all over me.
And along came a bully.
Bullies have this amazing sixth sense: they can finger the sensitive kid in a crowd. It’s like we have the Kick-Me-Hard sign tattooed on our foreheads in fuchsia. They’re so good at this because, of course, bullies themselves are quite sensitive. They just cover it up with aggression.
Danica seemed made for me. She loved books; she introduced me to my first adult novels—I mean, novels written for grown-ups, not porn: she loaned me The Shining by Stephen King in eighth grade, and after that, I was done with the “teen” section in the library. She also gave me trash pulp like Harold Robbins and Helter Skelter; later she quoted Sylvia Plath (“Every woman loves a fascist”) and changed her name to Danika, which to me made it look more like “swastika”—more aggressive, more threatening. … She had a magnetic personality and collected friends like a garbage can collects flies: they stuck to her even when you waved your hands over them. At the lunch table, Danica was surrounded by a gaggle of girls, and I was one of them. I’d found a home.
Until one day I came to the lunch room and nobody would eat with me. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They all sat at the far end of our table, Danica at the center, whispering behind their hands and casting glances in my direction.
This is the way girls bully. The way boys bully, I’m finding out with my own 12-year-old boy, is much more direct and physical. They pour drinks into each other’s hair. They rub wood chips into each other’s faces. They wrestle and knock each other down; they offer the victim a “free hit,” then dodge at the last second.
My alcoholic family, absent and oblivious to the damage these conflicts could wreak, gave me no skills to cope. The best my mother could do was to tell me to give my pain to Jesus. So I became the punching bag, the perennial victim.
When I moved to college, Danica also chose the school I’d been accepted to and followed me there; she was even put into a dorm room five down from me, and she tried to pull the same shit. One night she got drunk, collared my new boyfriend, pulled him inside her room and locked the door. … By that time I was out of my braces and drawing the good-looking guys, but my mentality stuck: I still thought I was The Loser. These were some of the feelings that caused migraines and other pain that I tried to drink away, and later drug away.
The other day, after helping my kid deal with a situation at school, and teaching him about options for coping, I had a dream about Danica. In the dream she was an adult, and I approached her as though I were going to give her a great big kiss after so many years.
I slid my hand up the back of her head, wound her hair around my fingers, and yanked. Hard.
“How did it feel?” my husband asked.
“Awesome,” I said.
In fact, I see Danica all the time. She’s friends with a few of my Facebook friends; she’s super-thin with circles under her eyes. For all I know, she may have an eating disorder. Her smile begs for affection from the viewer. She’s clearly fragile.
And I’ve learned: the best thing I can do to help her is to stay away from her.