Building a Wall for Protection Kept Me Trapped Inside

By Dorri Olds 04/17/17

The longer I stayed sober, the more reclusive I became. Instead of building a safe space, I’d imprisoned myself. My wall wasn’t protection, it was a separator, a divider. 

A silhouette of a woman behind barbed wire
Instead of building a safe space, I’d imprisoned myself.

Loneliness gripped me when I returned home from rehab. Without alcohol or cocaine, being around others was excruciating. I felt like a dart board, pierced by everything people said and did. One evening, while out in a restaurant trying to be sociable, a friend stuck her fork in my food without asking. Livid, I stood up, reached into my jeans pocket, and slammed cash for my entrée onto the table. Then grabbed my leather jacket and stormed out.

A breeze hit my face. My heartbeat was frantic. “Asshole!” I muttered and stomped down the street. I was surprised by how much I missed the safety of the rehab womb. Now, back in the city, I felt trapped in Sensurround-sound. Beeping cars made me jump as did sirens and drills. Passing pedestrians stared at what a loser I was. My insides vibrated and a lifelong lack of impulse control loomed. I feared getting sucked into a bar against my will where Bacardi and Diet Cokes could pour themselves down my throat.

I spotted the subway and raced down the stairs. Eau de urine wafted up my nose as I flounced over to a bench. After plopping down, I rested my head in my hands. Thankfully, the train arrived quickly. Only three stops and I’d be home. Uh oh. We were stalled between stations. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” the voice boomed over the loudspeaker, “we are delayed but hope to be moving shortly. Thank you for your patience.” Boy, was he thanking the wrong person. I had no patience—only agitation.

As my angst grew, the heavyset man beside me shifted in his seat. His arm now pressed against mine. My hands balled into fists, nails dug into my palms. I was certain I’d explode. My treatment counselor’s voice whispered, “Close your eyes and imagine somewhere you’re safe.” I pictured an impenetrable brick barrier. A yuge wall. Then I added loops of barbed wire to the top.

This new life without drugs or alcohol made a crankypants mood the norm. When anyone bumped into me, I silently cursed them out and hoped they’d trip and fall. I startled myself a few times when I realized I’d cursed at them out loud. Everyone was in my space. Crowding me. Bugging me. They were all selfish idiots trying to upset me and drive me to drink. The hell with them, I thought.

It was unbearable to be around people drinking so I knew I needed to make new friends. I dragged myself to recovery meetings but often split before they were over. Once in a while I said yes to dates but mostly I retreated to the big safe wall inside my head. I stopped answering the phone. Agitated voicemails accumulated. Jilted guys I’d tried dating, former friends, and my family were puzzled why I didn’t call back. But I knew they didn’t really want explanations. They wanted me to be available and I resented the hell out of everyone for that.

The longer I stayed sober, the more reclusive I became. It got to the point where I couldn’t stand listening to my favorite songs anymore because they reminded me of everything and everyone I wanted to forget. Finally, I broke down and called my mother. “Can’t you please go to therapy?” she said.

So, I dragged myself to a shrink’s office that June. The first thing I saw in June’s office were life-sized stuffed animals on the floor—a beagle, a tabby cat and monkey. On the couch were teddy bears perched atop pillows. The shelves supported more huggable creatures. A blanket of safety enveloped me.

“What brings you here?” June asked.

“I’m so lonely,” I said, “I just want to die.” As tears rolled down my face, I was surprised to see June’s eyes tear up.

“Let’s set three goals,” she said. “What do you want most from our therapy?”

“I need friends who don’t drink,” I said.

June kicked off her loafers and put her feet on an ottoman. I was charmed by her informal style. As her fingers tapped on the laptop, I stared at the big stuffed dog on the floor.

“Okay,” she said, “that is a great number one! What’s number two?”

“I want to listen to music again.”

Cocking her head sideways, she said, “Can you explain?”

“My favorite songs are drenched in bad memories and that makes me want to get high.”

“Ah, I see,” she said, “then that’s a marvelous one.” She resumed typing. “And number three?”

“Love,” I said.

June asked, “Tell me more about that.”

“Guys I date are boring,” I said. “And the ones I want are afraid of commitment.”

She stopped typing, sat up, put her feet on the floor and said, “You sound very distressed. Let’s take a moment to help you soothe yourself. Is there anything you like to do when you become this upset?”

“My rehab counselor taught me to close my eyes and create a safe place,” I said.

“That’s smart. Can you describe it?”

I closed my eyes so I could see my wall. “It’s made of red bricks,” I told her, “and strong mortar. At the top, I added spirals of barbed wire. I can see it from the window in my fortress.”

“Wow,” she said. “That sounds really lonely.”

I had never thought of it that way. It was an epiphany. Instead of building a safe space, I’d imprisoned myself. My wall wasn’t protection, it was a separator, a divider. It was the antithesis to everything I wanted. I needed to be brave to make new friends. Sitting in my citadel brooding left no room for the joy of singing along with records I knew all the lyrics to. And, while I’d been so busy pointing the finger, I realized it wasn’t the men who couldn’t commit—it was me.

June taught me a new way to feel safe. She guided me through imagining a picket fence with a hinged gate. I could still choose solitude sometimes but the hinge made it easy to swing the gate open and invite people in. It unlatched a gateway to mental health. As June and I worked together, I learned about boundaries, about fear and defenses, and self-fulfilling prophecies. It was impossible to connect with people when I was panic-stricken and defensive. The wall had shut everyone and everything out. With my picket fence and gate on a hinge, I could choose when to open it and let someone in, and still keep it closed sometimes—but not out of fear.

Over three sober decades, I’ve grown. Experience is proof that I will get through anything. It’s no longer terrifying to think about what people may say and what they might do. I can withstand disappointment, handle anger, and cope with bruised feelings.

Depression still grabs me sometimes and my luck can seem cursed. Last April, my husband relapsed after 17 years clean. Heroin robbed him from me and ruined our marriage. What saved me was strength. That, and accepting gobs of help that was offered to me. My mother anchored me through pain and she suggested a tune-up with therapist June. I swung the hinged gate wide open. In walked my tight-knit sober friends. Old music videos on YouTube comforted me. And during a year of grieving, my closest confidante became my boyfriend. I’m looking forward to Spring—especially June.

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