How Setting Boundaries Helped Me Heal

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My getting depressed after a cancer operation almost ended our marriage. It was the blow that forced my wife to remind me of the boundaries I couldn’t afford to ignore.

I had been in high spirits for the operation and right through the recovery period. My wife and I had been especially close during that time. I had healed, emotionally and physically, with her support and love. We had been really together then.

But it wasn’t long before depression quietly returned and stripped the feelings right out of me. All of a sudden, everything was wrong, quietly but definitely wrong.

Losing the Feelings of Connection

I couldn’t feel the connection with her. I couldn’t feel much of anything. I blamed the relationship. It wasn’t fulfilling. I needed something different – more, or so I thought. And I said so, coolly, with no thought of emotional impact. That was devastating for her to hear, but I was oblivious. I guess you can’t have empathy when you’re emotionally numb.

That’s when I learned that you don’t have to be angry and aggressive to abuse trust and violate boundaries. The numbness version of depression is just as bad as the despairing or angry versions.

When I look back on that time, I realize how important feelings are in evaluating experience. They give meaning to everything I do. Is this moment safe or threatening, am I loved or rejected, am I successful or failing, am I well or ill, am I lost or am I home?

Feelings are the guides and interpreters of what I live through. If they disappear, I know something’s wrong because I have the memories of what it was like to feel love and connection. But they’re gone now. Why?

Making Loved Ones Invisible

The answer in depression is often to blame someone. I alternated between blaming myself and blaming my wife – or someone else, depending on what seemed wrong in my life.

Talking in a matter-of-fact way about what was wrong with the relationship pushed my wife past her limit. We had been through a lot together, especially after this bout with cancer, and to realize that I had disappeared again into depression was too much.

She had to set a limit to save herself from any more broken hopes and rejection. She told me she had given up, that I either had to get treatment or it was all over.

Even in my state, I could hear what she was saying, and I could see what I had been doing. I had pulled her inside my depression and made her disappear. I didn’t need to be angry or desperate or suicidal to push her past her limit.

I only had to make her invisible as the person she was. While unfeeling and withdrawn. I had turned her into one of the phantoms of my inner landscape. I was trying to make her part of my own emptiness, the part of me that was never enough, that never felt worthy of anything good.

I had disguised her in my own shame and passed the judgment on her that I applied to myself.

Boundaries as Reminders

When she told me she had reached her limit, she wasn’t setting a boundary so much as reminding me of one that had always been there. It’s the boundary of respect for the wholeness of another person. It’s one of those lines that structures living and makes connection between two people possible.

I had crossed the boundary by denying who she was.

Calling attention to the boundary is a reminder that I’m over here and that you’re over there. Crossing the space between us can’t be like an invasion or a kidnapping. It has to be a free meeting when we’re open and ready to receive each other’s love and trust.

Her setting the boundary reminded me that I had lost the sense of connection. She was speaking to the whole of me that included depression, not just the part that has shut down and tried to make her invisible.

Depression Ignores Boundaries

When I’m depressed, I hate boundaries. I hate being accountable to anyone. I make my own rules. Sure, they drive my life down hill, but they protect me from anyone else’s judgment or evaluation.

I’m already telling myself that I can’t do anything right. I feel shame about being alive, and the last thing I can stand is to hear someone else tell me I’ve actually disappointed them, that I’ve failed to give them what they need from me.

Then it’s out there, proof that my depressive judgment has been right all along. No matter that I’ve undermined myself by delay, by shutting my mind down, by perfecting the forms of self-sabotage. The world and I have come to agreement that I’m all wrong.

The judgment feels so final and absolute because I can’t separate myself from what I do. If I let my wife down, I am a rotten person. If I fail to deliver on a commitment at work, I am inadequate. There are no mistakes and fixable errors, no atonement or forgiveness, only the finality of shame.

The Wake-Up Call

But somehow I heard my wife’s ultimatum in a different way. Part of me squirmed in condemnation, but part of me also perked up. There was a way out of where I was, a set of things I could do to get better. I knew I could do them because I had done them before.

I took the setting of a boundary not as an ending but as a tap on my heart, a touch that called out to something still alive that wasn’t caught in depression.

Sometimes, the boundaries that help shape the connection between two people have to be redrawn. They need to stand out in brighter colors, and the costs of erasing or ignoring them have to be made clear.

This isn’t a threat so much as a wake-up call. Look where you’re standing. Look at where you are. Look at where I am. Look at what you’re doing. And look at the way you can change.

If you’ve been depressed, have you been helped by the setting of personal boundaries or reminders by loved ones of ways in which your behavior was damaging to them? Or if you’ve lived with a depressed person, has it been helpful to talk with them about how their illness is affecting you?