Rediscovering my boundaries after achieving sobriety

Drugs and alcohol are endemic to our society. It’s impossible to go out socially without coming across them. There were a lot of complex reasons for why I used drugs and alcohol, but a big one was that they helped me feel more comfortable in social situations.

As an autistic person, I have never found socialising easy, at least not in the way that my neurotypical peers have. I am an awkward and anxious person, constantly second guessing myself and working hard to maintain a neurotypical mask. Maintaining that mask has been a heavy burden, which is part of why drugs and alcohol appealed to me.

When I popped a pill or snorted a line, I was the same as the others around me. Suddenly I was in a world where people interacted with me in the same way that they did everyone else. My anxiety was easier to cope with, and I could flit from situation to situation in a social setting.

The problem was, that my mind and body had boundaries, and when I was using, I did not recognise those boundaries. I would constantly push myself beyond what I had spoons for. The resulting burnout would cause me to use more drugs and alcohol just to cope with the feelings of emptiness. I was trying to pour from an empty cup.

When I achieved sobriety, I had to work to reestablish my boundaries. I no longer had my chemical fix to help me cope with a world that was, quite frankly, hostile to people with my neurotype.

I was still able to enjoy socialising with my friends and family, but at a certain point I would just hit a wall. In the space of seconds I would go from happy and laughing, to withdrawn and unable to speak. Often I would find myself needing to escape situations, feeling panic creep up on me. Sometimes I would take myself off to the toilets and have a meltdown out of sight of those I was socialising with.

I had to learn what my limits were. I had to anticipate that moment when my spoons would run out, and listen to my mind when it said it was time for me to go home.

This wasn’t easy. I wanted so much to be like everyone else. It took me some time after achieving sobriety to find a place of self-acceptance. For a good two or three years I beat myself up for not being like everyone else. I would try and force myself to be like everyone else, while knowing deep in my heart that this was causing me a great deal of psychological harm.

An important part of establishing my boundaries was self-acceptance. I could not have found it without discovering the online autistic community. It seems absurd to me that no one tells you that there is a huge community of autistics, I had to discover it for myself. I suspect some may never find the community because they do not use social media.

The autistic community taught me to love who I am, that it was okay to have boundaries that were different to my allistic peers. Even more so, they taught me that it was okay to have boundaries that differed from other autistics. Suddenly I was in a world where it was okay that everybody was an individual with individual needs and strengths.

I learned that it was okay not to have the energy to maintain a neurotypical mask, and I learned that it was okay to walk away from situations before reaching the point of panic or meltdown.

I am blessed to have very supportive friends and family. They help me maintain my boundaries, and have become adept at recognising when I have met my limits, often encouraging me to go away and do what I need to do to regain those ever so elusive spoons. I can now walk away from uncomfortable situations without blaming myself. I have learned to love my own self-advocacy.

Of course, learning to respect your own boundaries is a piece of work that never ends. Our boundaries shift and change as our lives progress, and what may be reasonable on one day, may be impossible on another. I am constantly learning how to budget my energy.

Some days I still make mistakes. Even recently I have gone through burnout because I over worked myself both socially and professionally; and yes, socialising IS work. However, I have learned to accept my mistakes and learn and grow from them. I no longer attack myself for failing to meet my needs, humans are imperfect, and autistic humans are living in a hostile world that constantly works to oppress them.

If you’re new to sobriety, I want you to know that it is okay to make mistakes. Sometimes we screw up. It’s an uncomfortable fact of life, we can’t be expected to do everything perfectly. The main thing is that we do not allow those mistakes to snowball, and make us give up. Life only moves forward, so once you make that decision to embrace a more positive future, you can’t look back.

Published by David Gray-Hammond

David Gray-Hammond is an autistic mental health and addiction advocate living in the South East of England. He is in recovery from addiction and psychosis, as well as other complex mental health conditions. He was diagnosed as autistic seven months after achieving sobriety, and is resolved to share his experiences with the world in the hopes of being the person that he needed when he was younger.

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