Understanding Codependency

Who can relate to the pain and suffering that comes from loving an addict? Or the feeling of powerlessness associated with being part of a dysfunctional family unit?

If you're nodding yes or raising your hand, I see you.

Being in a relationship with someone struggling, whether or not it’s a family member, romantic partner or friend, may be one of the most challenging aspects of addiction, life and recovery. Feelings of fear, sadness, hopelessness, anger, resentment, disappointment, expectation and emotional exhaustion are hard to avoid, nearly inescapable. Oftentimes there is a great deal of difficulty that can arise with interpersonal dynamics, especially when one person is dealing with their own demons. There’s this need to control, barter and intensely focus on what the other person is doing in hopes of feeling better internally. If we don’t like how someone behaves, we're reactive. When someone doesn’t follow through on their promise, we push. And lastly, if someone disregards our feelings or experiences, we incessantly attempt to be understood. What follows is undeniable. A self-imposed, anxiety-ridden feeling and false belief that if we get the answer we need, or our person behaves in the way we see fit, that everything, including our personal wellbeing, will be okay.

Codependency is a condition effecting many. It develops slowly and over time, having a detrimental impact on one’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. We love, we fight, we control. Stripped of our self-worth and purpose, until there is nothing left but a shell of ourselves. There are many moments in which we feel insane. Our minds and egos warped by the vicious cycle perpetuated day in and day out. I’ve been there and the experience is painful beyond belief. However, there is hope for change.

When an individual is unknowingly struggling, certain behaviors don't always present as codependent, at least not at first. It's progressive and the experience of the one suffering is oftentimes ignored or devalued.

Wondering if you fall into this category? I've included a list of the common signs of codependency for review and consideration.

• Worry and anxiety

• Bending over backward to take care of others

• Not knowing or not trusting one’s own feelings

• Feeling guilty for not doing enough

• Feeling isolated or depressed

• Staying in bad relationships (or sabotaging good ones)

• Trouble with emotional intimacy or sex

• Fear of abandonment

• Workaholism

• Lack of energy

• Low self-esteem

When I work with clients, there is often this belief that how they react and respond to the behavior of other's is warranted. It’s hard for them to see how their own behavior impacts their ability to function within the relationship. Once the underlying issues are addressed, there’s this naive expectation that after one session, they will kick codependency in the teeth. If only it were that easy! In some instances, codependency is a learned behavior, passed down from generation, which makes the process of unlearning more difficult. I watched my mother love my alcoholic father. Pleading and begging for him to change, while also justifying his behavior. As I grew into adulthood, I subconsciously participated in similar relational patterns, finding myself in partnerships with people either recovering or requiring help. During this time, I accepted, ignored or made excuses for the behavior of my partners/friends/family members. I acquiesced to their feelings, their needs, all with the misguided hope that they would somehow magically stop acting out or disappointing me. It was far too easy to play the role of caretaker, enabler, compulsive problem solver, victim. My sense of self ultimately shattered.

The progression was slow, subtle even, but nonetheless detrimental. Eventually, I would find myself solely focused on the “sick” person in my life; the identified patient. I was giving too much of myself and ignoring my own needs. Incapable of seeing my part and resenting every moment.

Once I got sober, my codependent tendencies intensified, which isn’t uncommon. I was suddenly awakened to feelings and it was intolerable. When I felt uneasy, I fixated on someone else to avoid looking within. As time went on, I found myself in a pattern of feeling needed, which kept me in denial for many years. It wasn’t until I was in my early-thirties that I hit rock bottom, emotionally speaking. I was in a relationship which was one-sided (another common codependent trait), giving every ounce of myself, unhappily playing the role I felt most comfortable in, being taken advantage of and finding myself unbearably angry as a result. And then, I lost my shit.

Years of repressed feelings and emotions came rushing out, at a speed I was unprepared for. It felt like I was rolling along in life and then bam. I was hit hard with the realization that I could no longer operate at this capacity. I fell apart both emotionally and physically. I cried. I lashed out. And I hurt myself. I equate the experience to that of a 4-year old child being told no for the first time. It wasn’t pretty, but emotional bottoms rarely are. What I had tolerated in the past was no longer tolerable and so after a long period of denial, confusion and complacency, I asked for help.

Recovering from codependency hasn’t been easy. Not by any means. It’s a lifelong process, one that I have to be diligent about. I make a point to check myself in relationships, listening to my intuition and being aware of how my interactions with others make me feel. Healing isn’t linear. There are periods in which I am strong and then I quickly fall back into old habits - it’s only natural. Instead of beating myself up or freely participating in a dysfunctional relational pattern, I rely on self-awareness, therapy/coaching, support groups and the experiences of others to help keep the focus on myself, instead of those around me. As a result, my self-esteem has improved, I can communicate clearly and without fear, I take care of my personal needs, set appropriate boundaries, detach easily, cope with stress more effectively and can maintain healthy relationships. More importantly, I no longer feel entitled to other’s feelings. That has been the most eye opening piece of recovery.

If you’re feeling desperate or alone, please know there is hope. Healing is possible with time and commitment. I’ve been there and I understand the depth of pain that comes along with being in a codependent relationship. It feels powerless at times, unfair even. Nothing will change if you don't take action. The cycle breaks with you.