The power of ‘no’ will help patch up my personal boundaries

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Several people have said they don’t understand why Leslie Pinkston’s murder affected me so much, given that although we worked under the same roof, we weren’t close by any means.

We were mostly each other’s ambient noise at work. Her more than me. When Leslie was in the building, you knew she was in the building. I’d secretly nicknamed her L.G. — Loud Girl. What was once often a minor irritation has since become a fond, wistful memory.

We were cordial, but certainly not pals.

So why am I still struggling with what happened?

Sure, there was the horror of a murder happening at all. Right where I work. Sure, I see apparitions of that day every time I walk up to the office. But it’s more than that, I’m only now beginning to realize. It’s what happened afterwards.

I was still writing the horrible story for the Express when people started dropping by the office wanting to know what happened. They didn’t want to wait for the paper to come out. They wanted to know everything, right now. On press day!

Drop what you’re doing, Debra, and tell me everything!

And I did.

Now, I’ve been known to bite fingers off of anyone fool enough to come into the Express office on press day. My patience is paper-thin and the deadline clock is ticking. But on that Tuesday, the entire community, including me, was frozen with shock. It didn’t seem right to chase people out the door or brush them off with a curt “Call me tomorrow and we’ll make an appointment.” As they say in “Star Trek,” my shields were down. But here’s the thing: They didn’t come back up. I lost my boundaries.

In the weeks and yes, months, that followed, I couldn’t go out to dinner, put gas in my car, go to the bank or simply walk down the sidewalk from point A to point B without someone stopping me and asking me to retell the details of that day. And don’t skip a thing! Now, it’s one thing when people you actually know do this. It’s quite another when total strangers approach you as you’re having a glass of wine with your husband and essentially demand a personal recount of the entire horrible tale.

But I would. As the editor of the local paper, I felt like I owed it to them. People know that regardless of whatever rumor is circulating around town, they can come to me and get the truth, and nothing but the truth, to the best of my knowledge. People trust me. That matters to me. I’d also remind myself that we were all shocked and hurting, and I have strong shoulders. I can handle it.

Until I couldn’t.

I remember the day I finally snapped. I was sneaking down the back alley one day, avoiding the world, going for some take-out lunch. Before I even had the bag in my hand, the cashier asked me to tell him about that morning.

You know — not what was in the Express. All of it.

I inhaled, started to answer, and then just exhaled. Paused. And finally said, “Yeah, it was a really bad day. So, how much do I owe you?”

That’s it. I can’t go anywhere in this town — even to pick up a freakin’ sandwich — without being emotionally hijacked, so you know what? I’ll stop going out.

And I did.

I started avoiding events and gatherings. I’d suggest to my husband that we go to Davis or Sacramento for dinner — anywhere where I’m unlikely to be recognized. I suddenly developed a desire to “just stay home.” My husband, Mr. Homebody, was right on board with that. But he didn’t realize that it wasn’t that I wanted to stay home all the time. It was that I didn’t want to go out.

Not the same thing. Not even.

Suddenly, I had a glimpse into what it must like to be agoraphobic. Every thought of going out in public generates anxiety. Better to stay safe inside your cave. But that’s not my nature. I’m the “get the party started” gal. I knew something was really screwed up, but I didn’t care. I either stayed in, or only went out to meet with friends — who already knew that story, and wouldn’t ask me about it.

Of course, little by little, time passes, and people stopped asking me about that day. I started to relax and feel like myself again. Until the trial began and the “anniversary” rolled around, and every detail of every moment came roaring back into memory, and — so did the anxiety. People might start asking again. I might lose my boundaries again. Or — epiphany! — I could choose not to.

Bingo.

I’m not everyone’s personal walking, talking video newsstand. I don’t owe this to anybody. Most important of all, however, is I realize that it’s my own responsibility to take control of that situation. I can’t control what other people do, but I can control how I respond to them. I can decide whether or not to participate in a conversation.

Now, if I could just stop feeling guilty about that!

I have to get used to calmly and firmly saying, “I’d rather not talk about that right now.” No apologies, no explanations, just an embellished way of saying, “No.”

“No.” It’s a complete sentence. “No” requires no further explanation. I used to know that. Somewhere along the line, I forgot.

“No” is a boundary, and nobody’s going to protect mine but me. It’s not other people’s job to respect it. It’s my job to enforce it. I feel a bit like Dorothy, discovering she had the power to return home all along — I had the power of “No” all along, too. I just didn’t remember. Now I do. And somehow, just knowing that relieves the anxiety. It’s time to get out and about again.

— Email Debra DeAngelo at debra@wintersexpress.com; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.ipinionsyndicate.com

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