A tennis court is defined by crisp white lines. You slice the ball cross-court. You send it down the line. No matter what you do, you need to keep it within the designated boundary. Wallop it too hard, and you lose the point.
In girl's lacrosse, there are no boundaries. I remember being baffled by this the first time I heard the rule.
"Wait, so I can run up over to the soccer fields?" I asked, my head cocked to one side and my brow crinkled. "And the whistle will never blow?"
"Sure, though I'm not sure why you'd want to do that since the goal is right over there," the coach answered, pointing to the cage ten feet behind her.
Until last summer, I lived my life like a lacrosse game. Nary a boundary to be found. If my mother asked me to drive her to Florida, I booked a one-way return ticket. If my coworker needed a ride to the train station, I grabbed my keys. The issue wasn't that I was being asked but that I struggled to say no. It was to the point that I'd change my plans, alter my wants, to accommodate a request. Being needed compensated me for the sacrifices made.
After a few months of therapy and extensive pep talks with myself, I established my first boundary.
"I can't drive you down and back to Florida this year," I announced in September, my voice quivering and my knees shaking.
My mother sat there quiet, her only response a flurry of blinking.
Though my stomach tightened and every drop of saliva suddenly evaporated from my mouth, I held my ground. The annual Florida pilgrimage, either down in the fall or back in the spring, was fatiguing and tedious. It also robbed me of time I needed to put toward my graduate studies. Plus, my parents could easily ship the car on a truck. Or drive it to DC and take the auto-train. Just because my father was too sick to make the trip or my sister had a family to tend to didn't mean it was solely my burden to absorb. A week after setting the boundary, my mother announced she'd be taking the auto-train.
"I have to cancel dinner," I said to Bess in November. "Work's been nuts and I have a school deadline. So I need to write."
Before I would have gone to dinner, enjoyed the food and the company, and then headed home and stayed up until three in the morning pecking at the keyboard. Because canceling felt so selfish. And I didn't want to be that girl.
"No problem!" Bess said, her voice cheery. "Go write and when things settle, we'll make another plan."
The more boundaries I set up, the easier life got. I didn't stress about running late or postponing plans. Suddenly I saw the world more balanced, lived more in the center. I still gave without expecting. The difference is I also started to feel more comfortable taking where it seemed necessary.
"I can't keep doing this," I said to a friend, a classmate in my program. "I'm in school for me. And while I'm happy to help you manage things as you tackle personal issues, I can't do it to my detriment." I went on to point out her husband and how he's in between jobs, thereby making him available. Or that she should involve the school administrators if her needs aren't being met.
She said she never wanted her cancer to be my burden. She said she understood. Except she really didn't. Because right after I established the boundary, drew a thick white line in the dirt, she stepped right over it. Not intentionally. She wasn't trying to be malicious or disrespectful. It's just my boundary didn't match her needs. In the midst of her illness, everything was about her. And in the midst of my studies, I couldn't continue to put her first. The sacrifice was just too grand.
As I walked out of the room, meandered down the hall, I realized I was also walking away from a friend. It wasn't the ending either of us wanted. I'm sure the sour taste filling my mouth filled hers too.
I stepped out into the cold Maine night, a collection of stars dotting the dark blue sky, and inhaled a deep breath. For a second I considered marching back inside, apologizing for my opinion. But I didn't. So instead of going backward, I moved forward. Walking across the driveway, snow crunching beneath my feet, I realized it wasn't that I loved or cared for her less. It's just that I finally loved and cared for me more.