Fresh out of Rehab – Living at Home, Dealing with Guilt, and Confused about Boundaries

I just got out of rehab and have to live with my mom until I get on my feet. She doesn’t understand that I need to go to meetings and groups for a while, and she wants me to do all these things for her around the house. I feel like I have to constantly make up for the mistakes I made in the past and for needing her now. My counselors talk about setting boundaries. But how do I set boundaries with someone I owe so much to? I feel like I can’t say No right now. Plus she’s paying for my gas and my cell phone. 

                                                                                      — Iris.

Dear Iris,

Thank you for your letter.  As you well know, the initial post-rehab period can be pretty brutal.  Your brain been kicked around by drugs and alcohol and has more than a few ‘bruises,’ shall we we say.  You are doing well, but you are still in the beginning period of healing up, which makes little things (like, say, simply keeping a daily schedule) feel more like climbing Mount Everest in a swimming suit.  Nice job on the hard work so far, by the way.  I hope that you have a box of dog treats somewhere, because you definitely deserve a Scooby snack.

While you’re at it, please give one to your mom.  It sounds to me like your momma is doing you a real solid.  You aren’t yet capable of taking care of your housing, your food, or providing yourself with a nice warm shower (I prefer a cold dip in the river, personally, but my human sure likes that hot bathtub), but she can.  Your mom is handling a lot of your adulting for you right now, meaning she is carrying her load and yours.  I don’t think she would do this for just anybody.

As a long-time member of the canine community, if I know anything, it’s never to bite the hand that feeds you.   (Unless they are hitting you.  Is your mom hitting you?   If she is hurting you or constantly verbally abusing or guilt-tripping you, that’s a post for another day, because that is not okay.  Based on your letter, I’m going to assume she isn’t).

Your mother must believe that you have what it takes to be in recovery, and she’s betting on it by investing her time and money into you.  So, before you drown yourself in guilt about how you have screwed up, think instead about what your mom’s actions are actually telling you.

You matter.

You can do this.

I believe in you.

But, yet, you feel frustrated because she is asking you to pitch in a bit around the house.  Why?

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about humans, its that they loooooove to tell convoluted mind-stories about what’s really going on behind the scenes.  This is what I think about convoluted mind-stories.

Seriously, humans?

As a dog, I live in the world of What Is.  Humans can live there too, but only if they choose to.  Humans have the gift (and curse) of being able to make up alternative realities.  As in, they can create whole other worlds in their mind, usually based on the past but often projected into the future, and filled with perceptions and conjectures, yet also mixed with a little bit of actual reality—at least, enough to make the stories plausible, anyway.  Humans can even live as if those other worlds are true, if they want to,  and there’s the rub.  They often want to.  And they rarely even realize that they are doing it.

Telling a mind-story is neither good or bad…until the human believes it is absolute truth.

Your mind-story currently tells you what it means to pitch in at your current place of residence, and, from within that framework, it seems like your mom is the only one who is actually responsible to pitch in (because it’s her house, duh), and the only reason you feel obligated to help is because you owe her for your past mistakes.  In other words, you resent her asking you to pitch in.  Why does she ask?  It’s not fair.  You don’t want to.  And you only do it out of guilt.  Can’t she understand that you are busy?  Ugh.

Does this remind you of a certain developmental stage…?

It makes complete sense, Iris, so don’t be hard on yourself.  You are living as a dependent right now and it is naturally calling up the old teenager mind-story from deep within you.  The teenager story can be a brutal one!  It’s no wonder you are feeling frustrated.

As a teenager, the young human wants to lean on the parent and take from their resources in order to build his or her new life upon them, while often not recognizing that the parents, too, are fellow humans in their own right.  The parent would likely prefer to move into a relationship that is more give-and-take.  But, as a teenager, you often resent the parental request for you to give a little.  Parents seem like they ask for random things at random times.  And parents often don’t understand your desire to be out there doing fun things with other people, developing your own life and your own world.

Point being, it’s easy to get lopsided in a teen/parent relationship.

Now, as a dog, I love my teenagers.  They make great pillows, for one thing, they are awesome about dropping chunks of food my way, and their headphones make delicious chew toys when they are off at that mysterious place they call ska-ool.  But, as for being a teenager or parenting one?  Woah.  That’s a tricky time of life, particularly because the boundaries are often blurry (because everything is transitioning so fast!) and everyone involved can get a bit moody.

Who is responsible for what?  Is the teen a dependent or is the teen a fellow adult?  Augh.  It’s so terribly confusing, and just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it all changes.  Trust me, this is not the story you want to get stuck in with your momma.

It’s time to shift your mind-story.

Because you, my dear Iris, are not a teenager.  You are a fellow adult.  That is “What Is.”  And a fellow adult will pitch in.  Not out of guilt.  Not out of dependency.  Not out of anything other than that an adult recognizes that we each must do our part.  One person can’t mooch off an another without being, well, a mooch.  You aren’t a mooch, Iris.  And you aren’t a teenager.  So, that means that pitching in around the house that you live in is not something to be done from a sense of guilt, irritation, or disdainful resentment, but from a sense of personal responsibility and pride.

Your counselors are teaching you about boundaries, right?  Well, check this out:

Pitching in to help carry your share of the load is practicing good boundaries!

Boundaries are all about who is responsible for what.  When you are an adult, you share the load of living in the ways that you are able.  Your mom is cool with sharing more than her share of the load for right now, but only because you aren’t in a position to do it yet, and it sounds to me like she believes that you can (and will) get there.  Sweet.

So, who is responsible for your time?  You are.  That’s boundaries.  And what would an adult in your situation do?  That’s the question.

I suggest planning a daily time where you help out.  This way you remove both yourself and your mom from getting stuck in a teenager/parent mind-story.  Trust me, no teenager plans a daily time when he or she is going to help out around the house and then actually does it.  This is also helpful for your mother, because if she is having to ask you (or even nag at you) to help her, it might become easy for her to start thinking of you as a kid instead of as a fellow adult.  Do you both a favor and remove that dynamic from the equation.  How?  It’s honestly really easy.

Schedule an hour each day where you will commit to helping her out around the house.

Let your mom know what you are doing so that she knows when she can count on your help.  That’s good boundaries, too—communicating with others so that they know how and when they can count on us (and when they can’t).  Share your plan with her as a fellow adult, not as a teenager.  Maybe you could say something like,

“Hey, Mom.  Thank you so much for everything you are doing to help me get back on my feet.  Early recovery is so tough, but with the help of all of Intensive Outpatient treatment, 12 step meetings, counseling, and working with my sponsor, I actually think I’m doing okay.  My brain needs time to heal, which is a slow process, but thanks to your help with food and housing and gas for my car and stuff, I’m able to dig in to the resources I need and it’s making a big difference.

“Speaking of which, Mom, I want to make sure that I take some time to give you a hand each day.  Soon, I’m going to be ready to get a job so that I can get back out there on my own, but while I’m here, I’m sure you could use some help holding down the fort.  I’ve decided that I’m going to set aside an hour each day to pitch in.  I go to my meetings at 8am, but then I don’t have my first therapy group until 11am, so plan on having my help for an hour every morning between those two things.  If you want me to run errands, work on a project, or just tidy up the house, let me know, okay?  It’s a small way that I can say thank you for believing in me right now.”

That, my friend, is called taking care of the hand that feeds you.  Nothing will make her more proud.  And, most importantly, it’s going to make you proud, too.  Because now you’ve moved out of the teenager mind-story and into the real world of What Is, a world in which you are an adult, and a fine one, at that.

Honestly, Iris, you are pretty lucky.  You are a grown woman who is brave enough to face addiction head on and take her recovery seriously.  On top of all that, you also have a mom who believes in you and is willing to support you while you get back on your feet.  I’m so impressed with you both.

Paw Bumps,