Overcoming a Boundary Violation
I regret what I did, but I’m proud of how I handled it
When my husband asked me why I had gotten involved with a patient, I told him the truth: I didn’t know. Now, several years later, having attended three separate PBI courses, I understand why I did what I did, and I’ve used what I’ve learned to create a protection plan that I hope will keep me from ever again violating my professional boundaries—or my marriage vows.
I have been a diabetes nurse for more than 15 years, which means that I see the same patients regularly over a long period of time. The trouble started when I began seeing Joe (not his real name) professionally. I didn’t know why, but I felt drawn to him. He was 20 years older than me, but when he asked me to be his friend on FaceBook, I agreed. Before long, we were emailing each other—nothing romantic or sexual, but looking back now I can see that we were starting to get close. Joe often complained about his wife and his unhappy marriage, and talked about his problems with diabetes. I offered what comfort I could.
Then one night he changed the time of his appointment so that he was my last patient. We walked out together and he invited me to join him at Starbucks. I agreed. Soon we were meeting at Starbucks on a regular basis. I can’t believe now that I didn’t realize I was crossing boundaries right and left, but I didn’t.
Eventually the crossings lead to a clear boundary violation. Joe told me his wife was out of town and invited me over for dinner. We talked and talked, confiding things to each other. The intimate conversation led to a night of intimacy—the first of many.
It wasn’t long before Joe started telling me he loved me. At first I said that our relationship was getting out of hand and that we should end it. But when he told me he couldn’t bear that, and that he would keep pursuing me, I didn’t feel afraid. Instead I felt even closer to him.
I remember thinking it was like an addiction. I just couldn’t stop. I started rejecting my husband, who grew suspicious, but at that point I denied everything. And by then, I had told Joe that I loved him, too.
Finally the inevitable happened. Joe’s wife noticed my emails on his phone, which she forwarded to her own phone so she would have evidence. Then she confronted Joe, who called me and told me what had happened, and that his wife said she would go to my employer and to the nursing board if I didn’t agree to break it off and say that everything was my fault, that I had taken advantage of him.
I agreed, but she and Joe still went to both the hospital where I work and to the board, and filed a lawsuit. I called a lawyer, who, among other things, urged me to sign up for PBI classes, which I did.
During the time I was enrolled in PBI courses, I went through a number of different stages. At first, I was nearly suicidal; I felt that I was about to lose everything I cared about. Then I got angry, not at myself but at Joe. I felt that we had had something beautiful and that he had betrayed me. It took time for me to get past this stage and begin to look at what I had done and why I had done it.
I learned a lot from the teachers of the PBI courses I took, but even more from listening to the others in the classes with me. Hearing what they went through helped me face up to what had happened to me. We all supported each other, and pushed each other to be honest with ourselves.
I realized a lot of things about my vulnerabilities. My father, who had also suffered from diabetes, had died when I was little, and I had tried to replace him by looking up to my older bother. Not long after, my mother remarried, and her new husband sexually molested me.
Then years later, right before I met Joe, while I was working two jobs and seeing my son off to college, my older brother, who I still kind of regarded as a father, passed away. I was still grieving when my mother got really sick and I started taking care of her, which meant interacting with her husband, who I had always tried to avoid. It was a mess, and so was I. Given all the stuff I was going through, when I started treating Joe, a kind older man with diabetes who seemed to care for me, it was a perfect storm.
The board had originally asked me surrender my license, but I asked to be put on probation. I told them what I had learned about professional boundaries and about myself, and showed them the protection plan I had developed as a result. I also got letters of support from friends and colleagues, former patients, my supervisor at the hospital and Steve Schenthal of PBI, among others. Eventually the board decided to give me another chance. I did have to pay for all the costs involved in my boundary violation.
I also had to pay to settle the lawsuit out of court, more than $20,000. So now I’m in a lot of debt and I still don’t know what’s going to happen with my job. I was told the case was being investigated but it’s been over a year now and I haven’t heard anything from HR.
But whatever happens, I know I can survive. Thanks to a loving husband and a lot of counseling my marriage is stronger than it’s ever been. And I’m a stronger person. I still have my health and people who love me, and I still have my license. And now I know how to keep it.