September 9, 2012 2:48 AM   Subscribe

Help me find boundaries, again (sorry)--this time with updated boyfriend and cast of characters! The long and short of it is that my ex is coming back to stay with my family in a couple days after I kicked him out, and my aunt who I live with says this is okay, and my cousin lives in my room now, and I need to move out. And I'm broke.

Hey everyone, I'm back again, and in a bind.

I just got home from my crappy job at Subway at 2 in the morning. We close at 10 but I stayed late to pick up after people who don’t at all do their jobs. I also wasn’t scheduled any help at all during my shift because we are very understaffed and management is totally delusional. I am one of the only people left who haven’t already quit because of school.

I got home to find my 18-year-old cousin, who is currently homeless and who sleeps in my room (which I pay for) in my bed with me, asleep in the arms of her homeless weed-dealing “friend” who is crashing with us on the couch. At least she won’t be sleeping in my room in my bed tonight.

My ex-boyfriend (who I broke up with and kicked out because he never helped me pay rent and would sit on his ass getting really high and watching movies all day) is coming back ‘home’ in a couple days. I don’t really know why my aunt, who rents me the room, is letting him come back here, but she is. She seems to like him more than me a lot of the time. She says she might put a mattress upstairs for him.

My aunt is barely speaking to me because I accidentally showed her a text I sent the ex telling him I was moving out because I couldn’t live with my aunt anymore because of her depression’s effect on me. Sometimes I feel like I am just an emotional sponge. The fact that he never did anything and claimed to care about me without ever supporting me in any real way was pretty hard on me too. Anyway, I accidentally showed her the text while venting to her about my ex, she got up, shouted at me, threw something, said the only people that hadn’t let her down were my cousin (her daughter) and the cat, and left. I’ve apologized tearfully a few times now and asked for her support back and all she has said is that she can’t trust me anymore and not to get upset.

The ex is coming back from spending six weeks in Colorado growing weed (legally, if it matters) with my aunt’s boyfriend. He invited my ex out there because he was concerned for my ex when we heard we broke up.

While he was gone, my ex sent me pages and pages of Facebook messages alternately pleading with me to stay with him because he’d ‘changed,’ blaming me for not giving him a second chance to find a job after I’d allowed him to stay here rent-free for months, and notifying me he was moving to Colorado forever or even to China to teach little kids English. I wonder how he’d react if he knew how my cousin was the one sleeping in that bed with me instead of him while he was gone.

I found out after we broke up that he was sexually abused as a child, repeatedly, by a friend of his parents’. I also found out that he had lost about a year of his life to heroin, which ended shortly before we started dating (it started as FWB and I caved in—I know, I’m an idiot). Both things he had never told me while we were dating. This makes me feel extra-bad because we sorta got back together for like a day, and had sex. Then we both stepped back and got mad at each other again and re-broke-up, except now he thinks I used him for sex during that day, and now I understand why it's an issue for him.

I feel so helpless. I can’t even begin to assert boundaries here. I feel like I can’t do anything at all.

My ray of hope in the distance is that school starts on the twenty-fourth. I am desperately searching for an apartment with my friend now so that I can move out ASAP. I still have to go through all the ex’s and my stuff and separate all of it before I can move, but I’ll get to that while I can. When school starts and I move out, I’ll have to start building myself up again. Ever since I’ve moved back to my hometown, all I’ve done is look after other people. I gave a ton of money to my aunt for this place (deposit for bf and I was expensive) and loaned lots to the ex (if you count owed rent, over a thousand—I’m only twenty, that’s a lot) and paid for my sister to get her bedbugs treated and this is all stuff I can’t afford. My bike was stolen and I can't afford to replace it and this is a significant barrier to my happiness. I look after people and nobody is looking after me. Nobody cares what I do. It isn’t even worth pitching a fight over, because it wouldn’t accomplish anything. I feel like I just need to cut everyone out of my life and that makes me really really sad.

What do you do when you’re in a place like this? I haven’t lost my will to live or anything and I still have pretty even moods but whenever I’m alone all I can think about is how stupid I am to have let myself get into this situation and how it’s my fault. I feel like all of a sudden no one loves me anymore and I deserve it. I’m terrified that when my ex comes back I’ll get back with him because I’m so lonely. I don’t have a single outside friend who thinks this might be a good idea. Maybe I'll never date again because I'll be suspecting the next guy of being a secret ex-drug addict with issues too or something. I don't know.

I just feel so helpless. Please give me the tough love that I need to get through this.
posted by athenadanae to Human Relations (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You have a job and a plan, that's great. Keep on keeping on, the rest will slowly fall into place. If you do still have a rough time dealing with the emotional aspects, try to find a therapist who will charge on a sliding scale. It could definitely help you work out the knot.

Did you sign a lease with your aunt? What are its terms (notice to give?) and how can you go about getting your deposit back once you've moved out? If there's no lease... well, chalk it up to experience and don't ever give deposit or rent money to someone without signing a contract. (Don't beat yourself up about it if that is the case; a lot of this is on your aunt's behavior. Just see it as a learning experience, and a way to know that setting that boundary is indeed healthy for you.)

As for your ex, yes, you absolutely need to remove yourself from him too. It sounds like both of you would be better off if you went no-contact for a few months. (Don't read any blame into that, it's not at all what I mean – it sounds like he's really hurting, and still being in touch with you will continue to trigger his pain from that childhood trauma. No-contact will be good for you both.)

Maybe I'll never date again because I'll be suspecting the next guy of being a secret ex-drug addict with issues too or something.

Everyone has issues. Every, single, person, on the planet. The difference is in how they handle them. Do what you can to remove yourself from people who are only taking, never sharing, and put yourself in as stable a situation as you can, so that you can heal. You don't need to fear the worst about people; that would be counter-productive. Focus on your true friends, and if you don't feel you have any yet, simply trust that putting yourself in a healthier situation will also allow you to find some eventually.
posted by fraula at 3:53 AM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I feel like I just need to cut everyone out of my life and that makes me really really sad.

The fact that the idea of doing something makes you sad is a poor indicator of whether you should do it. Sadness over change and loss is not a permanent condition. There's a big difference between depression and mourning. Depression is an ongoing state that people get stuck in, but mourning is a process of acceptance and healing that people go through, and from which they emerge whole, and often healthier. Yes, it seems very important that you extract yourself safely from all these entanglements of dysfunctional relationships. Until you manage that, there will be no room in your life for healthy, functional relationships. This doesn't mean that you'll never speak to these people again, or that you have to condemn them as horrible, but your current, deeply entrenched patterns of interaction do need to be broken, and if you don't impose a long (I'm talking years) period of no- or virtually no-contact then it will be extremely difficult to avoid rebuilding the same old patterns all over again.

But cutting all these chaotic relationships which make happiness impossible out of your life will not be easy, and it won't automatically lead to healthier relationships with other people. After scanning your previous questions, two things that jump out at me are that your senses of your own value and responsibilities are deeply rooted in dysfunctional relationships, and that you've been in deeply screwed-up situations for so much of your life that you may never have had the opportunity to witness what healthy relationships look like. I wish I had neat, reassuring insights to offer about how to address those problems to painlessly produce rapid improvements, but I don't.

You might benefit from some counseling, which should be available at school. You could try addiction-related support groups like Al-Anon. Friends with healthy boundaries, from whom you can learn by direct observation of their functional behavior, would be godsends. You said in a previous question that your sister had already cut a lot of these ties -- how's she doing? Do you talk with her about these things? Can she help you navigate some of this?

There's no single lever you can pull or button you can push to fix all of this badness. Try a lot of things that might help, and give each idea some time to work; don't let initial discomfort control you. You're in a really rough situation, and it will continue to be difficult for some time even when you're headed in the right direction. You will need to be able to tolerate some sadness along the way, so that you don't allow fear of sadness to continually divert you from where you need to go.
posted by jon1270 at 4:42 AM on September 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

You have so much drama in your life, it will be easier for you to just cut it off. It's like a bandaid -- it hurts to come off, but you'll heal better getting fresh air.

Your "family" are those people who love and support you. If your biological family doesn't do that, it sounds like you have friends who can. Especially while you're in school, that's what you need.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:06 AM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

School is back in a couple of weeks, you have the opportunity to move in with a fun friend - things are on the up and up.
It might be a good idea to cut back on contact with your family and ex with school starting. Just tell the truth, you need to focus on your studies and you'll be in touch more regularly when you have them under control at the end of the year. Relationships of all sorts can get overwhelming, but you can step out of this for a bit and have some fun and do yourself some good.
posted by bystander at 6:15 AM on September 9, 2012

whenever I’m alone all I can think about is how stupid I am to have let myself get into this situation and how it’s my fault

This IS NOT your fault. Family are the people we're supposed to be able to turn to when we need support, emotional or otherwise, and it sucks when we discover that we can't. Your family's asking you for financial and emotional support, but they're not offering you any in return. That's selfish on their part, and if they're not going to respect you, then you need to protect yourself from them.

Your aunt wants you to support her depression, but she didn't respect you enough to tell your ex he can't move back in. And speaking of your ex, his childhood trauma is not your fault or your responsibility. He needs to get help if he's ever going to have a normal relationship. You would do well to cut off contact with him or the co-dependent pattern is just going to continue.

You're young and you're getting ready to move out and stand on your own. Now is the perfect time to spend some time with yourself and figure out who you are without the toxic influence of your family. Cutting off all contact doesn't make you a bad person. It makes you a smart person who knows what's good for her. Good luck.
posted by carolinecrane at 6:23 AM on September 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

We close at 10 but I stayed late to pick up after people who don’t at all do their jobs.

Is that your responsibility? Ask yourself that every time you instinctively start to take care of someone else's problems. Even if you have to ask yourself 100 times a day.

Every time your ex sends you a sob story about his prior trauma. Are his problems my responsibility?

Every time your aunt says you've let her down. Is her depression my responsibility?

Every time you go to clean up after a coworker. Is this Subway franchise my responsibility?

Don't apologize for your legitimate feelings just because they upset another person. I mean, you can apologize (once) that you showed your aunt the text about her depression bringing you down, but don't open yourself up to emotional blackmail. Other adults are not your responsibility.

When somebody else needs money. Is that my responsibility?

You are not Daddy Warbucks. It would be one thing if you had a lot of money (but even then, other people's financial troubles are not your responsibility), but you don't. You are a student who works at Subway. You should be paying half the rent you were paying before because you have half the space you agreed to. (Not a fight I'd take on now, as you're leaving, but in the future, when someone infringes on your personal space: is that my responsibility?)

Note that I am not saying you should ask the other person "is that my responsibility" or tell the other person "hey, that's not my responsibility." Figuring out your boundaries is not a negotiation with the other person, doing it that way just invites drama. Figure out your boundaries and then tell the other person "that won't be possible" or "I'll agree to it only on these terms" or "we are exes now; please stop contacting me" or "good luck with that."

I’m terrified that when my ex comes back I’ll get back with him because I’m so lonely.

Don't do that. You know that's a terrible idea. You need to get away from the influence of these people, not further enmeshed with them. Just go to work, buy a cheap bike with your next paycheck, don't give another penny to anyone, get back into school, and start over. Make being alone a goal rather than something to avoid. Being alone is really ok. It's being stuck with people who make you miserable that breaks your spirit. Solitude is delicious, nobody is putting any demands on you whatsoever when you are alone. Even if it's just for a month before you start connecting with school people (and looking for another job), savor aloneness.

Maybe I'll never date again because I'll be suspecting the next guy of being a secret ex-drug addict with issues too or something.

This kind of thinking will lead you to settle for the devil you know. One thing at a time. Get out of that house and away from those relationships. Take care of yourself. Learn to set boundaries, apply them, and stick to them. Feel strong and independent. Then think about dating. Because then you'll see someone's red flags pop up and before you get involved with him you'll ask yourself "is that my responsibility?" and you'll move on.
posted by headnsouth at 6:38 AM on September 9, 2012 [32 favorites]

I feel for you, and I don't want to downplay the feeling of utter loneliness in the world that you're feeling. What's happening is not fair. The only way I see other people dealing with kind of stuff -- is by managing their expectations.

You're feeling like you've done X for A and you'd like to think A could at least do Y for you. Unfortunately, A isn't going to. When you do X for A, it has to be with the assumption that when you need Y, A is going to leave you hanging. You're spending your energy trying to figure out how to get A to change, and become a reliable person, and give back. You're dealing with how you wish the world would work (and how people pretend the world works.) you're under a delusion that these people, based on loving you and based on what they've done for you, are going to come through for you. It's not going to happen with these people.

Now, does that mean they don't love you? No. People are just really disappointing. they may have every intention, in the moment, of following through for you. They just can't. They're like a child who promises to clean her room, and then gets waylaid playing video games. Honestly, she wouldn't have promised to clean her room if she'd known how awesome it feels to play video games--or if you hadn't made her promise.

Does this mean you have to "cut them out of your life?" maybe, but not necessarily. You might want to be there for them in a crunch, because they are so pathetic and can't do it on their own, but you get decide that on a case by case basis. Theres a way of
Ovingly turning family down in the moment that lets you still have something of a relationship -- sure, they'll throw fits and escalate their whining for awhile and tell you you're mean. Just like a child.

It does mean that you can't have expectations of them -- and they'll fall away from your life overtime, and they'll be replaced with people in your life who are already trustworthy-- not because you do things for them, but because that's the kind of people they were before you met them.

Nobody's going to change who they are, just because you deserve to be loved and appreciated (you do!) and you extend yourselves to them. What you want in your life are people who are good people already.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:41 AM on September 9, 2012

you're under a delusion that these people, based on loving you and based on what they've done for you, are going to come through for you. It's not going to happen with these people.

Sorry - based on what you've done for them.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:45 AM on September 9, 2012

Are there any women's centers nearby you can reach out to? This is basically abuse, and you need to get out.
posted by empath at 6:45 AM on September 9, 2012

One more thing. You sound very competent . Incompetent people tend to think, by the very existence of your competence, that you're criticizing and judging them, just by being an example. So, rather than being inspired by your work ethic, or inspired to start bringing home the bacon, they're angry about it. It challenges them and undermines whatever excuses they have for being incompetent.

That's another reason they can't get behind you -- they think you're judging them even when you're not. Just by being competent.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:51 AM on September 9, 2012 [19 favorites]

I feel like I just need to cut everyone out of my life and that makes me really really sad.

Look at it this way: if you were at work at Subway, and someone called you on your cell phone or showed up to your workplace asking for personal help and your undivided attention, you would tell them, "I am sorry, I can't help you with that right now, because I am busy with work."

Consider that your life with school for the next 2-3 years. Someone wants to borrow money from you? "I am sorry, I am in school right now and can't help you with that." Same with any other life-disrupting favors people ask of you, outside small favors. Your choice of boyfriends should be based on whether this person serves as your "rock" or "teammate" while you're in school, not someone who serves as a side project for you whom you try to fix or serve his needs.

You're not "cutting people out of your life" so much as accepting that you have certain priorities and obligations in your life with respect to school, in the same way that you have certain priorities and obligations when you are "on the clock" in the workplace.
posted by deanc at 7:19 AM on September 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

First off, headnsouth's insight/advice is spot-on.

Second, I finally was able to forgive myself for making some retrospectively monumental poor relationship choices during a certain period in my life by realizing that I didn't make those choices because I'm an idiot, or hopelessly damaged, but because I was in a very, very vulnerable position. This was after years and years of listening to a tape in my head that said "I am an idiot and I deserved it."

No; I wasn't an idiot, and I didn't deserve it. I was just vulnerable.

Being able to forgive yourself is so very important if you want to make healthier choices in the future, because feeling guilt and shame about past choices is never, ever a good motivational tool. It just keeps you feeling bad about yourself, and that keeps you vulnerable.

I think it would be a good plan to work on yourself and becoming a stronger person. Take sex and dating off the table for 6 months and find ways to address the loneliness that don't involve becoming dependent on another person. You yourself have had the insight that this is the dynamic: "I look after people and nobody is looking after me."

You don't need to be all "I am a rock, I am an island", but you do need to get into the habit of placing your own needs one step higher on the scale of priorities than everyone else's needs. If there is time, money, and energy left over after meeting your own needs, then and only then should you start thinking about spreading around the surplus to help with other's needs. Because it's true: there are times in your life when there will be NOBODY LOOKING AFTER YOU. Except you. But you'll be ok. You seem like you're really good at seeing others' needs and taking care of them. If you redirect a big chunk of that back toward your own needs, you will be OK.
posted by drlith at 7:50 AM on September 9, 2012

The best way to look after other people is to look after your own needs first. Get your life in order. I can't even remember how many people I've met who did it in the wrong order. You're doing them no favors by enabling them. Your life is important. You're not responsible for other adults. You can do better than the marginal people your life is stuffed with.

If you don't force people to recognize that, they will take advantage of you continually. That's abuse, too.

Bluntly: stop looking after other people. You're not talking about your children, so there's no reason you should be doing it. Why should other adults not have to fend for themselves when you're working a crappy job at Subway to scratch out a living for yourself?

That's not selfishness. It's more damaging to help these people then to cut them off. Actual friends and people worth bothering with won't make demands of you they would not do themselves if roles were reversed. Real friends repay loans.

Seriously, my coworkers with whom I have no more affiliation than we work at the same company would not treat me so poorly. Why is it okay for these people to treat you so?
posted by Strudel at 8:53 AM on September 9, 2012

I just feel so helpless. Please give me the tough love that I need to get through this.

Oh man, you do not need tough love at all. Just the regular kind of love would be way more appropriate here. I really wish I had more time right now to give you a better reply but here are some scattered thoughts.

I look after people and nobody is looking after me. Nobody cares what I do.

Soooooo many competent, smart, and caring girls find themselves in this position at some point or another in life. The caring part of you is noticing all the things that are going wrong for other people and wondering about how you can help. The smart part of you can come up with quite a few ways that you can help. The competent part of you executes those things.

This can really become a huge problem when you have low self-esteem or were raised in a dysfunctional way. Because then you don't have any counterbalance to prevent caring for others from taking over your life. You may feel like if you COULD do something and choose not to, then you are a bad or selfish person. Or that your well-being is not important compared to the well-being of others. Or that your well-being and whether or not something hurts you just should not be a consideration at all and if you do consider it then you are a bad/selfish person. Or that you have no other really redeeming qualities and the only reason anyone would want to be around you or be in your life is how you can help them.

If you are freely just giving out crazy amounts of help all the time, you will find yourself quickly surrounded by people who are interested in receiving help. And just because someone is interested in receiving help does not mean that they have any interest whatsoever in giving help when it is their turn. Or that they will ever have any sense of loyalty or reciprocity. You know, sometimes even if we SAY we don't want anything in return for our help, and maybe even believe it, deep down, we feel like we are building up a relationship of loyalty. That we are kind of banking these acts of kindness. And it can come as a real shock to find out sometimes, NOTHING was being built up from the other person's end at all and they will act just like you never did anything for them.

If you want to find people who will help you and care about you, look for the people who are already helping and caring about others and DEMONSTRATING that with their actions. These people are out there and you can find them if you consciously look.

Also, you might find it interesting to do some reading about co-dependency. You can do this online, or check out books about it from the library, or find information about it from Al-Anon. Lots of writing about co-dependency is in the context of being co-depended with someone who is addicted to alcohol or drugs, but that does not have to be the case at all.
posted by cairdeas at 9:33 AM on September 9, 2012 [10 favorites]

Seconding cairdeas that you are being put in the role of universal caregiver, and could probably benefit by reading Facing Codependence by Mellody, Miller, and Miller.

I would also make a plan to treat your ex as you would any other of the messed-up people your aunt invites to share her house (like your cousin's weed-dealing bf) until you get out of there.

Think about swapping your informal caregiver to everyone situation for a clearly defined formal caregiving to strangers situation if you can't afford your own place. Au pairs get their own rooms and wages, as do people who "live in" with elderly and disabled clients.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:34 PM on September 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Are you offering to help people? Did your aunt ask for you to pay a large deposit and move in? Did your sister beg for financing on her bedbug issue? Did your cousin beg to be allowed to sleep in your bed? Do you need help saying no, or help not offering? Because those are different problems!

This sounds like the relationship my mother has to her family. Please trust me when I say you really need to work through this now and not 40 years from now. It doesn't get better on its own. If your school offers counselling services, take them up on it.
posted by Dynex at 7:30 PM on September 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, man. Boundaries are hard when you're a helper, they really are. The first time you try to set a boundary, it sucks. It sucks because it's weird and it sucks because you're doing something that isn't easy for the other person (if they wanted to deal with their own crap, they would - for them, it's easier for you to do all the hard lifting!). It sucks because then you have to hold to it. But you know what? It gets easier every time. It really does.

The advice I was given is that a boundary is a fence. It is the fence that says, this is me, and my stuff and what is mine to take care of. Everything outside the fence is something for someone else to take care of. I picture it as a little tiny cottage in a meadow with a split rail fence. The cottage is me. The yard is my stuff.

So when the alcoholics in my family try to pull some shit - whether it be calling me in the middle of the night for bail money, or calling up freaking out because their spouse kicked them out and they have nowhere to go, or some other thing - I pull up the image in my mind. Do you know what this codependent bullshit looks like? It looks like the person coming in through the gate in my fence, pulling up the pretty flowers in my yard, breaking my porch swing, all while bellowing about how I OWE them because we're FAMILY. And you know what?

I don't owe them shit.

I love them, they're family. But they don't get to come in my yard and pull up my flowers. They don't get to come in and break my porch swing. Maybe when they get sober, they can be invited in to sit on the porch swing for awhile. But they have to earn that right.

So when I get the bail money call, or I get the "I have nowhere to sleep because my spouse kicked me out" call, I think about my cottage. And then I say, "I'm sorry to hear you've fallen on hard times. I can't provide you with bail money now." And then I hang up. That's me putting them on the other side of the fence, where they can't damage my yard and my cottage.


Because, dammit, I have to give a shit about the flowers. I have to give a shit about the porch swing. No one else will. The alcoholics certainly won't. They aren't going to help me rebuild things. They're just going to tear it up over and over again. That's what they did, until I said enough.

That first phone call sucked. I cried the whole night because I thought I was abandoning my brother. I wasn't. Someone else bailed him out, 10 minutes after he talked to me. The second phone call sucked less. The third even less. Now, they don't even call me, and I'm ok with that.

One other thing my therapist once said? "Sometimes, people have to hit rock bottom to see what they need to do. They need to have consequences. Sometimes, you're the consequence."

So take an hour, in a park, alone, and sit and think about what your space looks like to you. What you look like to you. Think about where that fence is. It's a lot closer in than you think. Be selfish. Just take care of your own shit for awhile. Once you aren't taking care of everyone else's bullshit, you'll have time and space in your life. That may seem weird. But you know what the great thing is? Then you can fill that time and space with good people. People who don't take advantage of you. People who will help you plant more flowers, and sit on the porch swing with you and talk with you about beautiful things.
posted by RogueTech at 10:00 AM on September 10, 2012 [9 favorites]

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