As many of you know I work a family recovery program called Al-Anon, and have been an active member for nine years. I actually just celebrated my 9th year anniversary on June 14, 2019. One of the many things this program, as well as C.R.A.F.T., Nar-Anon and other family programs do is help address the issues that family members struggle with who live with and/or love someone with alcohol or substance use disorder. As co-alcoholics or co-addicts, we tend to struggle with the same pathology as our loved one—meaning that our compulsions and our tendency to act on them are similar to those of our addicted loved one. And, we do so with the same abandonment and detriment to ourselves. As I have said before, my daughter chases the needle. And for years, I chased her with the same ferocity and predilection.
To understand what I mean, it is important to examine why family groups such as Al-Anon were formed and why they have become so important in the continuum of care for friends and family members who love and live with those who suffer from the drink or the drug.
The History Of Codependency And Families
In 1936, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was formed by two men, Bill W. and Dr. Bob. The creation of AA begin to change the narrative around alcoholism, both socially and medically. By 1951, Bill W.’s wife, Lois W. and her friend Anne B. had begun a support group for those who they called co-alcoholics—the family members and significant others of alcoholics. It was their belief that family members shared the same root “symptoms” of their alcoholic loved ones, with the exception of the drink. Thus, Al-Anon was created to address the suffering family members and loved ones experienced who, like the alcoholic, felt that their lives were out of control.
Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s treatment of alcohol and substance use disorders begin to change. The limitations of the medical model that focused solely on the treatment of the alcoholic or addict were finally being exposed. The development of treating alcohol and substance use disorder within the context of family systems and social networks became more mainstream, producing better and longer lasting results for sobriety, along with fewer relapses. As addiction and alcoholism were viewed as having more similarities than differences, the diagnostic term “chemical dependency” was adopted to describe both disorders. Likewise, co-alcoholic was updated to “co-chemically dependent.” Eventually, it would be shortened to simply “co-dependent.”
In the beginning, the term “codependency” was used to define the behavior patterns and actions of family members—spouses, partners, parents, siblings, any persons living with or in a relationship with a person suffering from alcohol or substance use disorder. We now see that similar patterns also occur in family members and those in relationships with chronically or mentally ill individuals.
Over time, the term codependency has been expanded to describe the behavior patterns and actions of individuals in any dysfunctional family system or relationships. Codependency can be situational and/or episodic or it can be learned behavior that is passed down generationally through family systems. People who struggle with codependency generally report prolonged bouts with fear, anger, pain or shame that is either regularly ignored or denied. Living with these factors either individually or within a family system can cause individuals to develop excessive reliance on other people. Unable to derive their self-worth and value from within, they seek it in other people, places and things. The inability to define their own self-esteem and confidence from within affects a codependent person’s ability to have and maintain healthy, mutually satisfying relationships.
My Experience With Codependency
Whew!!! That was a long set up, but significant because it shows that long before substance use disorder entered my daughter’s life, my tendency for codependency with her already existed. The seeds of codependency were sown long before my daughter ever arrived. So, it was natural that when the nurse placed my sweet baby girl in my arms after delivery that one of my first thoughts as I looked down at her perfect, angelic face was that through her I could make right all I had gotten wrong in the world. I decided then that she was my second chance and that she would become the best of me. In that moment, I began what would become more than a 21-year codependent relationship, although for decades I simply identified what I was doing as love—as a normal, loving relationship between a mother and her only child. Today, I can admit that much of what I normalized and classified as a healthy, strong and loving mother-daughter relationship was, in fact, fraught with codependency tendencies and emotional abuse.
I bred an environment of codependency and neediness into our relationship. She relied on me as a child, which is normal and natural. But, during her formative years, I taught her to rely on me for things she could and should have been responsible for. I also taught her that “mom knew best”—meaning that if she wanted to do it the “right” way she would need my guidance and input. My control as a parent was ultimately more about me than it was about providing appropriate safeguards and healthy boundaries. Today I realize that was emotional abuse and manipulation.
As Alex’s substance abuse disorder (SUD) developed, her dependency on me thickened. Alex struggled to take care of herself—mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually—without me.
Codependency And Addiction
During Alex’s formative years and in the early years of her addiction, I had no boundaries and I was unhealthy in my thinking. Unable to see Alex as separate from me, I took on what I thought she was feeling and made her responsible for my happiness and joy. We were so intertwined that on some days it was hard to decipher where she stopped and I started.
When addiction entered our story and began writing the script of Alex’s life, as a codependent parent, it slowly begin to erase all of which I had built my life upon. Being her mother had been my bedrock, and as the disease began erasing my daughter, it erased me and everything I believed to be real and right along with her. I was engulfed in shame, guilt and fear, certain that I had done something very wrong along the way to cause her addiction. Immediately, I set to fixing her and obliterating the addiction. Ten years later, I know that all of my efforts were for naught. I did not create her addiction, and I cannot control, cure or eradicate it.
I learned that what I can do, and have been doing for almost a decade, is to work on me.
Three Tips On Healing And Codependency
It is unreasonable and even irrational to expect a person, especially a parent, to disengage from a loved one or child through complete detachment. This can, in fact, actually be counterproductive. Sometimes Al-Anon gets a bad rap because they do promote a form of detachment. However, in truth, it is through Al-Anon that I learned that detachment is to be tempered with LOVE. It does not require that I abandon my loved one. Rather, it’s important that we recognize that we don’t have all the answers nor are we our loved one’s sole solution.
We are evolutionarily wired to be dependent upon others. Being dependent on others is not the issue. Rather, it is WHO we are dependent on that becomes the issue. Our intrinsic need for emotional connection (i.e., love) is not the problem. The HOW and WHY of who we fulfill these needs with is the problem we need to negotiate.
Developing healthy, connected relationships with individuals who face the same struggles as I do and are farther along in their journey than me is a good example of my WHO. HOW I choose to engage with my daughter today is bounded by principles that are NOT derived from a stance of fear, anger, pain or shame. The reason I choose to remain in relationship with my daughter is simple—she is my child and I love her. So the question is not what I am doing—being in relationship, taking a call, visiting if I am in town—but rather WHY am I doing it. If my motive for doing these things has any other correlation—manipulation, control, fear, shame, pain, etc—then I try to be honest and not engage in the act.
I acknowledge and accept that my intrinsic value and worth are an inside job and that my compulsion to want to make others responsible for me is, at its core, a way to avoid responsibility. As long as we USE others to determine our self-worth than we are DEPENDENT on their whims, beliefs, moods and value systems. Taking responsibility for my own well-being has been unbelievable painful, but well worth the effort. Admitting that my dependence on others was selfish and self-centered was key to my being able to surrender to the work that was needed to change my behavior and thinking.
You Can Take Back You
My recovery journey has been hard for Alex. Even in her early 30s, and with long periods of time apart, she still struggles to be a separate human being. And, it’s been hard on me too. The new parenting style that her addiction and my recovery led me to is based fully on a different kind of love—that real, raw and true love that forces me to make hard decisions and stick to them no matter how much pleading or pushback I get from Alex. It’s sometimes hard for her to see my refusal to give her more money or choosing to end conversations with her when she’s high as love rather than punishment. I spent 20 plus years loving her the wrong way, yet calling it love. I held her hostage to my emotional wellbeing, but it was never meant to be her role or responsibility to emotionally balance and care for me. I understand now that I didn’t see her as a distinct individual. Today, I know that she is her own woman, and I am mine. Our lives are still intertwined and I will love her for all eternity, but I cannot fix her, nor can I hold her responsible for my happiness and sanity. That job is 100 percent up to me.
If you’re struggling with codependency by loving someone in an unhealthy, unproductive way, I strongly and compassionately encourage you to get support. I offer Prodependency Coaching, and would love to talk with you about your situation. I can help you develop and maintain healthy, prodependent boundaries by creating margins within which you can love unconditionally while not enabling or doing things that your loved one could and should be doing for him or herself. Knowing your WHO, HOW and WHY enables you to create a new lens through which we can examine, evaluate and improve your relationships, develop healthy and proactive interactions, and maintain happy and active daily lives despite the oftentimes debilitating presence of an alcohol or substance use disorder. I know both personally and professionally that healing a codependent relationship is possible. It’s often not easy, and it certainly takes time to unravel years of conditioning, but with support, you can heal too.