Where I end and you begin
Determining these boundaries can be a life's work.
I needed to break up with that therapist, really, after the first time I said that growing up a closeted queer had impacted everything, and she asked me in her syrupy French drawl to explain what I meant. But I’ve always had a habit of staying in relationships too long.
So there I was, late again, taking the stairs to the tube two at a time while texting her, hoping she would reschedule. In my haste, I completely missed the last step, and my right ankle folded under me at an impossible angle. As I descended in slow motion toward the dirty ground, I knew exactly why it was happening.
I limped to the hospital, but the receptionist didn’t take kindly to uninsured Americans, scaring me off, so I took a taxi home. Besides, the injury didn’t seem too bad, and I was proud of myself for not succumbing to anger or despair, instead jumping into action. I fired the therapist, upped my microdoses, and scheduled extra sessions with a queer integration therapist. A friend ordered me crutches on overnight delivery; I even bused to the farmers market and did some one-legged grocery shopping.
Then I heeded the advice of well-intentioned others who told me to quit moving around so much. I needed to ice, elevate, and compress, they said, so I reluctantly complied. Three days later, waves of blinding pain woke me in the night, the foot having swelled to twice its normal size. I figured everyone else must have been right, and I had made it worse; so stupid, always doing everything wrong.
I could barely get out the door, and a new friend from my queer group took me back to the hospital, showing up in that beautiful way that only family can. The x-ray revealed that nothing was broken. On the contrary, all that elevating and compressing had cut off the circulation; what I needed was to gently move. I almost cried with joy, realizing I had been right all along. The problem came when I told myself I couldn’t be trusted, and stopped the life-giving flow.
But slowly waking up, it fucking hurts. Pain has a way of presencing you, like a forced meditation: you can’t be anywhere but here now when waves of pins and needles are rolling up and down your leg, your foot seizing and cramping all day while pain and pressure wakes you in the night. Combined with being in one of the world’s least accessible cities, this made it nearly impossible to leave the house: another lockdown.
It coincided with a tight deadline for one of the biggest stories of my life, one about psychedelics; an opportunity I saw as career-changing. I decided I would do nothing but write until it was done, ignoring the injury’s warning to take things slow. Disconnected from community and desperate to leverage this crisis, sleepless as my body spasmed and ached, writing about other people’s psychedelic journeys became its own psychedelic journey.
As the due date loomed, I started to unravel. One eye blew up blood-red and oozed; some kind of flesh-eating virus erupted on my finger. I became confused and disoriented, forgetting where I was and what I was trying to say. Old patterns surfaced: I can’t stop until I represent the story perfectly, as if I’m its only arbiter and this is my only chance to speak, doing my sources such justice that they will tell me I am good because I have seen them so clearly.
Unwittingly, I was enacting the capitalist narrative that you’re only worth what you produce. It’s a story most of us have internalized, especially those from racialized backgrounds or working-class families, exacerbated by personal trauma. It keeps us chained to the hedonic treadmill, believing we aren’t happy because we haven’t done, made, or achieved enough; withdrawing to self-soothe within our own four walls when people were never meant to be separate.
Yet this struggle is part of being human. The individuation process is about embodying the tension between connection and boundaries: learning where you end and others begin; how to be part of the world while protecting your energy. But when your parents never learned to regulate their emotions, or relied on you to imbue their life with meaning, you spend all your little-kid energy trying to manage their feelings instead of your own. You never learn how you really feel, what you need and want, or what an equal energy exchange actually looks like.
Trying to figure all this out as an adult is hard. The cues that should alert you how to act—the way your body feels, what your intuition says—are often unreliable, if you can detect them at all. When you’ve learned that relationships come at the cost of your personhood, you can get caught in an endless push-pull, coming close only to withdraw; longing for connection but fearing you will disappear.
Safe space is the antidote: trusted people and places where you can be yourself and practice regulating. I was always good at finding these communities, but everything I did growing up seemed to get me in trouble, and my punishment was getting grounded. I missed graduation and had to come home right after prom; I never saw the first play I wrote performed. So I learned to gild my cage, building a nest soft-lit with lanterns, scented with incense, and soundtracked by grunge. I channeled all my stifled life-force into writing and spent my free time researching any wisdom tradition that might explain this whole cycle of suffering.
In the beginning, the COVID lockdown felt intolerable, but for me, it morphed into a sort of agoraphobia; a place-based Stockholm Syndrome. By the time things opened back up, I both longed to break free and was too scared to leave; it seemed awfully unpredictable outside my tiny world. In the end, I only got out by removing all the options, packing everything in storage and running away.
Yet I replicate these conditions everywhere I go. I’m grounding myself like my parents used to; building communities and then keeping myself from them; locking myself in boxes until I can be good, whatever that means. I hobble myself because I feel I can’t say no unless I literally cannot walk; I’m afraid that no one will help unless they feel sorry for me first. I work to live up to my father’s impossible standards, and just like him, I’m never satisified.
I don't want to go back to my room, I want to be free. I want to be born from the womb that entombs me. There’s a great big world I was so excited to experience, and I’m stuck in here missing it, trying to make something great so people will see me as I hide myself away.
On the day of the deadline, pulse racing, I shut myself up in a coworking pod, only to write and rewrite the introduction for eight solid hours. Sobbing on a virtual therapy session that night, I finally accepted the worst-case scenario: I wasn’t going to finish. I give up, I said; I quit journalism. My body is broken, I’ve lost my mind, and nothing is worth this. I cried as if my heart would break. I died along with all of my dreams. My queer guide brought me back slowly, gently, and I crawled back onto the couch.
And then, as my tears dried and breathing settled… it started to flow. I finished the draft at 12:30 a.m. Due to the time difference, I both missed the deadline and didn’t at the same time.
What was done unto us we do unto ourselves, until we can see clearly. Something shifted that night by finally putting my body first; being willing to leave it all behind to save myself. I would call it “surrender,” but a friend recently told me they prefer the term “allowing,” and think I like that better. It isn’t so much about giving up as letting help come in, opening to the separation that can make us whole.
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