Backpacks and Boundaries

When I was a child, my dad made me a huge backpack,  put himself in it,  and placed it on my shoulders.   I carried this backpack for many, many years, not having clue that it was really there,  much less how to remove it.   I felt the weight of it almost always, and tried every way I could to forget it was there, but it remained.  I had a woman come along once with a fancy office off of Saint Mary’s street.   I would see her on Thursdays at 2:00.   The first thing I did was find my spot on her purple chenille couch, grab a soft batik pillow, place it in my lap, then kick off my shoes.  She taught me about something called boundaries in that wind chime and plant-filled office, and how that was the key to removing the giant backpack.  Boundaries are tricky little bastards, and could easily be used against you by the wrong person.  This usually comes in the form of the receiver of the boundary trying to make you think you are crazy.  It is a very effective technique until one learns how to really become comfortable in ones own skin.  This can take years and a fortune in offices just like hers.

For example, My dad loved to walk around in his black underwear and socks.  I asked him over and over to please not do this, but his response was always the same; “Gina, you are crazy.  Stop editing me.”  I would take my shrink all of the crazy letters my dad would send me and email me, and she would dissect them, piece by piece, emotion by emotion, and exclaim, “see this sentence? See what he did there? He is manipulating you and playing the victim.” It was easy for her to explain what was happening, since she was like a bird flying over a city, that has perspective over all of it, versus  me that is stuck right in the middle of the traffic jam.  Emotional traffic jams can be very difficult to come out of, and they can require a lot of help.  The first thoughts of someone not versed in getting out of one is to absolutely freak out, to catastrophize.  This creates a lot of unnecessary drama, since one is convinced that the world is coming to an end, and panic ensues. I would flail around like a lunatic, going from bottle to food, to money, using anything I could get my hands on to somehow block what was happening.  My husband refers to this as acting out of your dinosaur brain.   Anyway, this therapist taught me so much about how to view the world from a rational perspective, and adjusting my emotions accordingly.   Not many people in my life could really understand this, since on the outside, my dad was a charismatic doctor of education and had a grand following.  No one really saw how I was, from a very young age, treated like his girlfriend, or his confidant.  It was my shoulder he cried on when he was going to leave my mom, and my bed he climbed in when he needed comfort.  Don’t get me wrong, he never sexually abused me, but it was, according to my shrink, a trickier version, called covert abuse.  See, I thought that if it wasn’t something physical, then it didn’t exist.   Dad was the master of the tricky little mind game.  I remember the very first time I removed the burden of the backpack.  I was living an adorable 2 bedroom cottage in downtown Raleigh near the Meredith College campus, where I was an art student.   It was a safe place that I had created for myself in early sobriety.  He was paying the rent and footing the bill for college.  But there was always a price, and usually a very high one.  He announced one day that he would be arriving from Dallas, and would be staying in my extra room. I went into sheer dinosaur brain mode.  The feelings of being trapped rushed back to me, as well as the nightmares of him and his black underwear.  I worked up the nerve, with a lot of help, to tell him that he could not stay with me, but that I loved him. Next thing I knew, he was standing out on the front porch with his suitcase, announcing that he had called a cab, and that I would NEVER see him AGAIN.  Finally realizing that in the tennis match of life, I don’t have to both hit the ball and receive it, I said goodbye to him, instead of engaging in his little codependent jig. This was so very liberating . I could see fireworks going off in my mind. The fear was also confounding, and threatened to drown me. Oh no! Would he Really vanish forever? The next thing I did was sell the bed in the extra room. And vowed to never let anyone put anything in my backpack again.


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