Boundaries Are Like Tourniquets

The importance of stopping the bleeding not only applies to physical trauma but also to the spiritual wounds we sustain in life.

Both the Army’s Combat Lifesaver course and the civilian Emergency Medical Technician course teach the importance of the “ABC’s” of trauma—Airway, Breathing, and Circulation. Knowing these ABC’s helps responders prioritize their steps when assessing a patient so that they don’t waste any precious time in a moment of crisis.
During my deployment to Iraq, my fellow soldiers and I were required to carry a “tactical tourniquet” in a specific location—our left cargo pocket—so that we would know exactly where it was in case we needed to use it on ourselves or our battle buddies. As blast wounds to extremities from IEDs were common, it was often possible to save someone’s life by applying a tourniquet quickly enough to stop the bleeding and get them back to base. Leading a convoy team, my guys and I were well aware of the dangers we faced and were humbled by the knowledge we might have to use this device and the responsibility that came with it.

After returning home, I became interested in EMS work and landed a job with my county’s ambulance service. The ABC’s of trauma came up in my initial certification as well as calls we’d run.

It’s clear that whether in military service or first responder duty, the urgency of using a tourniquet to stop the bleeding can’t be overstated. This led me to another even greater truth: the importance of stopping the bleeding not only applies to physical trauma but also to the spiritual wounds we sustain in life.

This dawned on me after my wife Sarah and I attended Love Reboot, a weekend workshop for couples in crisis led by Jon Anderson. (Side note: Love Reboot is unrelated to the REBOOT Recovery.) Our marriage had been suffering as we struggled to deal with the aftereffects of my combat trauma, and Sarah and I had determined this was the last thing we were going to try before we filed for divorce.

During the workshop, Jon brought to light four statements that were totally eye-opening for me:

The only person I can change is myself.

When I try to change someone else I hurt them.

When I try to change someone else I frustrate myself.

When I change, the relationship can’t help but change.

For the first time, I was able to see that I was the only one in charge of my healing—not my wife, not the VA—me. If I changed myself for the better, my relationship with my wife couldn’t help but improve. It also was beneficial for my wife to understand that she had spent way too much time and energy trying to change me when I wasn’t ready or willing, and that only seemed to make our situation worse. Putting these truths into practice helped Sarah and I work through our struggles, and I’m thankful that our marriage not only survived but is thriving today more than ever.

These new realizations extended into another pivotal component of healing: putting boundaries in place for ourselves. And what I discovered is that setting a boundary on myself is similar to applying a tourniquet to a wound in order to stop the bleeding.

What do I mean by that? Well, think about an EMT who comes upon the victim of a car accident who is trapped inside the vehicle. While the rescue team works on extrication, the victim is writhing in pain from a broken femur. Looking further down the leg, though, the EMT notices an arterial bleed. Even though the broken femur is what’s causing the excruciating pain, the EMT must apply a tourniquet in order to stop the bleeding before the deeper, more painful injury can be addressed.

It’s the same with spiritual wounds.

We can’t address the root causes of our issues until we “stop the bleeding”—until we put an end to poor choices about our behaviors and habits.

In our REBOOT courses, we have a name for these unwise, self-medicating behaviors: “go-to painkillers.”

Alcohol was one of my go-to painkillers. I was in denial for way too long that I could handle just one drink, but one was never enough; my body always wanted more. It became clear to me that healing from trauma was hard enough being sober, and looking through blurry lenses was making it unnecessarily more difficult.

So, I decided to put a hard boundary in place for myself: not to drink alcohol at all. This is a change that only I could make for myself. Now, it’s been so long since I’ve had a drink that I forget the last time I had one. Thankfully, it no longer controls me.

When I decided to apply a tourniquet in order to “stop the bleeding” that was coming from this area of struggle in my life, it allowed me to work toward deeper healing unhindered by this stumbling block.

So, here are two challenging questions that are worth asking yourself:

  1. What am I doing that’s getting in the way of my own healing?

  2. What boundaries can I put in place to stop the bleeding?

John Dale is a former REBOOT course leader, military veteran and first responder

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