Codependency - The Silent Addiction
The Silent Addiction
Codependency sneaks up on you. It’s the silent addiction…no needles, pills or hidden bottles. Instead of inappropriate behavior and near-death experiences, codependency begins with love and good intentions, before spiraling into control and crazy behavior. It took me years, over sixty years, before I truly recognized my codependency and the negative consequences it had on my life. So much time wasted in the illusion that I could control or fix anything or anybody.
I started young. I was the child designated to care for and balance the emotional needs of my parents and siblings in a family riddled with addiction and mental illness. I became the keeper of communications; a sieve in the center where feelings could be filtered and softened before moving on to their intended recipients…only passing them on when I thought it was safe and would not upset the fragile balance of our family.
I was a natural nurturer and I found it easy to take responsibility for the feelings and behaviors of those around me in order to keep our family unit functional and the optics on point to the outside world. Putting the needs of others above my own became the norm, and somewhere along the way I lost myself as well as my ability to separate my wants and desires from all those people I felt could not function without my input. Quite an ego I was cultivating!
In its broadest terms, codependency can be defined as the need to control the people, behaviors or events in your life. Losing that sense of control can send a codependent reeling. I searched for perfection, walked with constant guilt when I predictably failed, and lost the ability to express my true feelings, especially anger. I didn’t see myself as worthwhile or loveable unless I was giving, giving, giving. Eventually, I became a mirror that reflected the emotions and needs of those around me.
By the time I hit my magical twenties and should have been embracing an independent life of my own; I lept into marriage and motherhood! Motherhood is the perfect place for a budding codependent to come to full bloom. Caretaking, sacrifice, fixing, controlling, nurturing, and martyrdom…we live in a world that praises these attributes in mothers. I had found a home. Addiction to my children was acceptable, and with eight children it was doable for decades. They needed me…but so did my husband, schools, various charities, other parents, friends, soccer teams and random strangers on the street. I was always happy to jump in and take control of what ever came my way.
And then, as inevitable as the tides, the walls began to crack and then came tumbling down. My children launched, one by one, leaving my home to find interesting lives of their own. Bittersweet! They like to remind me that I didn’t raise them to move down the street, and so they didn’t! Not long after they flew the nest, my husband was gone, along with my big house and my financial security. I suppose because I still could not figure out how to launch myself…life gave me a heroin addict to fill my days, and that was when the co-dependency almost broke me.
Watching your child disappear into the throws of addiction and become someone you don’t know and can’t reach is the cruelest of twists on the dreams and expectations that we have for our children. The hopelessness and helplessness are punishing on the parent as well as the family. The sleepless nights and uncertainty eat at you daily as well as the guilt and shame of not being able to prevent or cure the addiction.
When my daughter’s disease progressed and landed her homeless and living on the streets in Albuquerque, I immersed myself further into her addiction…obsessing, isolating from friends and stalking her disease on the internet, all the while believing that my love and determination would be enough to will her to get clean. She was feeding off heroin and I was feeding off her addiction…it was a bit of a parasitic entanglement!
In the end, I wasn’t the one to save Crystal and convince her to get clean. She was urged into rehab by people who didn’t even know her. That reality humbled me and drove my ego into the ground erupting in an angry and emotional reaction that was shocking. It was also my first step towards healing.
I read a lot of Brene’ Brown. In her book Rising Strong, she encourages readers to get curious about the narrative behind their feelings; so I started writing a story that turned into a book, and somewhere along the way I began healing – a process that is ongoing. Surrendering control completely and fully will take time but with each step I feel lighter and free. I believe my children are grateful for the change as well.
I am learning to set boundaries and find a balance in my life. I take time each morning to pray and meditate. Pausing for even a moment has always been hard for me, but now I find myself happily quiet for forty-five minutes or more. If the world did not require my presence, I might just stay there.
I was not raised to “be;” I was raised to “do.” And sadly, this is the narrative I passed on to my own children and the one that our culture continues to promote: do more, work more, make more, have more. This approach is clearly not working. The increase in anxiety related disorders, suicide, shootings, addiction and mental disorders makes that clear. We must do better.
The ones of us who so clearly fell down the rabbit hole of chaos and codependency must now teach those lessons to the next generation in order to enact change. At sixty-six, I hope to instill in my adult children the importance of balance and I’m actively working to do so. Life passes quickly and the childhoods of our children go by even faster. Take the time to pause and really look at the faces of your children, your partners, your friends, your dogs…listen to them and learn from them. Before you say “yes,” stop to decide if it is something you really want to do. Failing to do so will only lead to resentment and regret.
Perhaps one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is how to ask for help. I’m still working on it – just ask my kids who give me a hard time for climbing up on a ladder to clean my gutters or dragging an obviously too heavy recycling bin to the curb. One-sided giving will eventually leave us empty and exhausted. We must be willing to receive as well as give if we want our lives to stay in balance. I hate asking for help, and I’m terrible at it, but I cannot always be the giver. Sometimes we have to let others play that role and be willing to accept support in return.