*During the pandemic, I wrote two books I don’t feel called to publish the traditional way. The first is The Boundaries Handbook, a book about IFS-informed boundary negotiations and how to protect ourselves while also protecting the relationships we hold dear, thereby avoiding the “doormat to diva” way of setting boundaries that tends to alienate people we love. I’ll be drip feeding that book on Substack for those who need support around healthy boundaries. But here’s a preview of the prologue, with a link to Substack at the end so you can read the rest of the prologue today if you wish.
If you didn’t realize before 2020 that a lot of people struggle with their boundaries, you probably see it now. I was stunned at how obviously boundary wounded so many people were. Days before San Francisco locked down in March of 2020, I was dancing with my Sunday morning dance church and the leader told us we wouldn’t be touching in today’s dance. Six feet. That’s how much space she wanted between us.
After the dance, we sat six feet apart in a circle to process how that felt for people. Some people were livid and felt entitled to touch people, even as a pandemic was spreading. They were angry at the group leader. “How dare you tell us what we can and can’t do. You’re not the boss of me!” Others said it was the best dance they’d ever had. For the first time, they hadn’t needed to fend off unwanted touch from groping boundaryless people who weren’t asking for consent.
I had just finished spending ten years researching healers from around the world for my book Sacred Medicine: A Doctor’s Quest To Unravel The Mysteries of Healing, and I was struck by the six feet boundary. When I asked healers who could “read” energy how big a healthy human energy field was, they mostly described a human “aura” as about three feet all around. Three feet to the left. Three feet to the right. Three feet up and down. Three feet in front and in back. In other words, six feet between us. But not everyone has a healthy energy field, they’d tell me. Some people have their energy field squished right up against their skin. Others hoard space and squeeze out everyone else, taking up the whole room.
I thought a lot about that six foot boundary as the pandemic unfolded and boundary wounded people rebelled against public health guidelines, our boundary wounded President lied time after time, boundary wounded celebrity doctors were spreading misinformation all over the internet for self-interested reasons, and all of us were struggling to know what’s okay and what’s not okay in a time of great peril.
During this time, I had started a three-way text thread with two other doctors who become my most trusted allies during two of the most challenging years of my life. One of them was a front line Covid ER doctor getting pummeled, with no PPE to boundary him from a raging virus. The other was an Ivy League psychiatrist, swamped with psychiatric inpatients whose coping strategies were failing to work in the face of back to back personal and global traumas. Not only did we compare notes and try to make sense of the world as the pandemic unfolded, social injustices flew to the forefront of our consciousness, and our country’s democracy began to fall apart; we also talked a lot about relationships and how we struggled with boundaries in our romances, friendships, family life, and professional relationships because of our boundary wounding in childhood.
As the public struggled to keep a six foot boundary around us, as people rebelled against public health boundaries, lockdowns, masking, and vaccine mandates, as Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) protested having their boundaries repetitively violated by law enforcement, as conspiracy theories and political polarizations put further strains on our relationships, and as both of my friend’s romances fell apart like so many others during this troubling time, our conversations became more intimate.
Like the volleyball cum best friend the Tom Hanks character in the movie Castaway named “Wilson” when he was stranded on a deserted island, these two long distance doctors became my Wilson, a lifeline of survival, love, support, friendship, companionship, resourcing, education, news, humor, and entertainment- all via my iPhone. We were all stranded on our own deserted islands, and the phone gave us a kind of boundary to separate us enough to stay safe but also connect us enough to ease some of the loneliness and social isolation all three of us were experiencing.
Although I’m still very close with the front line Covid ER doctor, it was mostly me and the Ivy League psychiatrist, who was also a writer, doing most of the texting. After taking a day off his phone while dealing with Covid on the front lines from his position as an Emergency Room physician, the third party in our three-way joked that he had missed 383 texts between me and the psychiatrist! We were trying to make sense of the world, but we were also holding onto each other as if our lives depended upon it. As the psychiatrist watched one suicide attempt and overdose after another fill up the psych hospital, as suicidal children were waiting in ER’s for weeks at a time, waiting for an inpatient psych bed, I realized that perhaps our lives did actually depend on each other.
Over the course of our two years of pandemic texting, I had shared some vulnerable disclosures of my own personal story with the psychiatrist, but he had revealed very little about himself. He always seemed compassionate and kind, but also cool, reserved, stoic, and detached. So I mostly kept my most private feelings to myself- because he didn’t seem particularly available to hear them or reciprocate with vulnerability of his own.
Then in the summer of 2021, something shifted. After months of what was mostly heady, flowery, intellectual banter between two professional writers, the psychiatrist began to disclose some shockingly traumatic events that led to the dissolution of the romance he had just ended. He also started opening up about some very disturbing childhood traumas from his family of origin. When he began to tell me his stories, all of which were a surprise to me given that I had known him for years by this point but didn’t know any of these stories, I dropped everything and made him the center of my full attention. He drip fed me these stories, text after text, paragraph after paragraph, all in written form, while I strung plumeria flowers into leis in Hawaii where I was teaching a Zoom workshop for doctors right after we all got vaccinated and Hawaii opened its doors. The scent of the flowers was a balm as I felt shock after shock as my friend disclosed the horrors of what had happened to him.
This series of reveals went on for days, then weeks, then months, drip by drip, story by story, shock by shock. I cried a lot of empathic tears during those months as I heard about all the tragedy my beautiful friend had endured, and I began opening up more of my own stories to him too. Our third physician friend, who witnessed much of this text exchange from the sidelines, said “I feel like I’m watching the Williams sisters at a Wimbledon match, volleying back and forth. Lissa, you’ve met your match.” That felt true to me. The psychiatrist could keep up with me in a way few men ever had. Both of us demonstrated great emotional endurance during that months long volley.
Then one day, over the telephone, he said, “That’s all. Now you know everything.” We were exhausted, but the outpouring of love and intimacy between us had sustained us, like an energy transfusion. We were weary, but our hearts were full.
I was stunned and felt enormously privileged to be trusted this much with stories so raw, precious, harrowing, and heart-breaking from someone who appeared so put together on the outside. I held onto those stories with kid gloves, and he held onto mine. Our stories needed a nest, someplace soft to land, in the heart of someone who could love the storyteller delicately. I was uncomfortably aware that he had just given me every bit of information I would need if I ever wanted to weaponize his vulnerability and use it against him- and vice versa. I set the intention to put a boundary around that possibility. It would be cruel to ever use his vulnerability against him the way others had done to me. His stories deserved a pillow of kindness and the protection of someone trauma-informed like me, but I had my dark side too. I didn’t want my dark side to slip out sideways- like a fart- and stink bomb him. I hoped he would be equally tender and gentle with me. I risked trusting that he would.
As part of that disclosure process, my friend said, “Obviously, I have a lot to learn about boundaries.”
I think I spit out my tea when he said that. It was the understatement of the year. He had allowed those close to him to try to kill him, to steal from him, to abuse him, to intrude upon his privacy in every possible way, to control everything from what he wore to what hotel he could stay in to how he spent his money to how he told his story. He let his girlfriend read his emails and texts and didn’t protest when he found out she had blocked the mother of his children and important business colleagues from his phone and email so they couldn’t contact him. He even let his abusive girlfriend coerce him into breaking contact with his kids, who he loved. Like cult leaders do, any relationship that she perceived as a threat to her domination was serially destroyed. If anyone needed to learn a thing or two about boundaries, it was the Ivy League psychiatrist. I could sense maybe a glimmer of embarrassment around that hole in his extensive and impressive education, but his drive to learn, grow, and heal- and his profound humility- shone through any emotions that might have silenced his curiosity.
I confessed that he wasn’t the only boundary wounded trauma survivor. I’d had crappy boundaries for most of my life, and I had been in therapy on and off since my twenties. But it wasn’t until I got into the best trauma therapy of my life after my mother died in 2017 that I started to learn a thing or two about healthy boundaries. I think my therapist must have seen me as someone hemorrhaging through the holes in my boundaries, so the first thing she did was put a few quick stitches in the gaping wounds. But the process of actually helping me restore my own ability to protect myself from abusive, ruthless, exploitative, and unkind people- and to contain myself within my own boundary and protect others from me hurting them in return- took much longer. I only recently terminated my treatment because my beloved therapist got sick, so it took six years.
My friend said, “Can you give me the Cliff Notes and tell me what you’ve learned?”
It felt like such a tender and vulnerable question, and I held the question for a while, like a prayer. Here was this psychiatrist practicing at the most highly respected academic medical institution in the world, and he was asking me the most basic question about the very foundation of our mental health- our right to a safe, protected, individuated personhood deserving of being treated with kindness, dignity, and respect. If an Ivy League psychiatrist didn’t know anything about boundaries, how could the rest of us ever be expected to get this right?
I realized, with a sense of awe, that I had learned a lot about boundaries in the trauma treatment I’d received since my mother had died. As a gift to my friend, I decided to sit down and write what I had learned. Most of what I wrote poured out of me as a labor of love in one tireless month, and then I spent the next few months adding bits and bobs here and there as I reflected on the nuances of such a complex topic. I never intended for anyone else to read it. This was a labor of love for my friend. He was my muse for what came out, and it was very personal.