Since I like telling stories and I think you can read about codependency on Wikipidia, I want to tell you a story. This story is about a girl. We’ll call her M. M had a tough life. She was born in a small town and her life was filled with turmoil and heartache from birth. Her mother was addicted to crack cocaine and alcohol. On one of her attempts at getting sober she met a wonderful man in AA. He had been sober a little longer so he took it upon himself to help her and care for her. They married a few months later. But M’s mother was not ready for a sober, normal life. 6 months after they married, she got pregnant by another man. Her husband didn’t know this until M was born a different color. M would forever bare the shame of her mother having an extramarital affair and child with a black man in white, rural America. When M was 3 months old, her mother left her husband and ran away. Her husband was an honorable man and raised M as if she were his daughter. Almost. She would always be her mother’s daughter to him and a reminder of a bitter betrayal. Here’s a codependent man who fell for the wrong woman and set out to save her. She, not only took advantage of his kindness and betrayed his trust, but she left him with her bastard child, a child who’s skin color would remind him that no one deserves love and that he is, from now on, angry and bitter. And bitter he was.
M grew up with this story. Not only this story but also the unheard story of her not being good enough for her mother to be around. This story would haunt her, and probably still does. Eventually, she ended up turning into her mother, hating her father while strangely clinging to what she knew of her biological father. She grew up never knowing where she belonged or that she was worthy of love. She started acting out in her early teenage years, skipping school, being sexually promiscuous, experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Angry at her father’s rejection, chased by the ghost of a no-good mother, she ran away, trying to find herself. She found out where her mother lived and that she was now married with 3 children. She wrote letters and cards to her but got no response. She never gave up the hope that they would one day reunite. She had a dream of becoming a chef, having a normal family and raising beautiful, healthy children. Instead she ended up addicted to crack, getting arrested with serious charges, unemployed and having to go from one codependent person to the other to survive and create the illusion that everything was going to be fine.
Then M and I met. And so the story goes pretty much as expected. I am gifted with an amazing ability to feel what others feel. It’s crucial in doing what I do but don’t be fooled. It’s a gift and a curse. My story had nothing in common with M’s story. We were from different planets. It’s a wonder our paths would even cross (no she was not my client). But they did and I set out to save her. And saving I did alright…
Let’s just say after 2 years of friendship and countless failed attempts to preserve my sense of self and dignity, in the midst of lies, betrayal, theft and chaos, I surrendered to AL-ANON. Which is like AA for adult children of alcoholics and everyone else who has ever been affected by addiction. Here I was, an addiction counselor who had never had a problem with drugs or alcohol, beaten down, powerless and out of control. And all because I just wanted to help? I had tried countless times before to set better boundaries and limits with M and cut her out of my life when things got really bad but then things would get better and I would forget, forgive and have hope. I would separate myself form her problems and tell myself that she was only hurting herself. But this time it was different, this time I had to admit that I was in deep denial and needed help. The Al-ANON group I joined was a step-based group. Mostly women. We would gather at an old church in the neighborhood. We would take turns sharing our story and then listen. There was no discussion or feedback. But our sharing was the feedback. We connected through it. We had all experienced similar things but some of us were in a different place. Some radiated a zen-like state of calm, strength and centered-ness, of being OK with oneself and sleeping well at night. And I knew I wanted to get there. I knew I had no choice but to get there if I wanted to save me.
And saving I did. So for what is worth, if you’re struggling with failing at saving someone or find yourself codependent on someone in your life, here’s some tips that don’t come from me being a counselor or from a book. I made these up as I went and just because they worked for me, does not mean they’ll work for you.
1. Be honest with yourself. Get real and keep it real. Get out of your head. There is many versions to one story. Our brains are capable of wonderfully mysterious trickery, they make us believe things that aren’t true. But deep down we know the truth. Trust your gut instead. It never lies.
2. Give yourself time and space. I can’t stress this enough. Yes, it will be hard to do but without space and time you won’t succeed. Distance yourself physically before you can do it mentally. Leave at 3AM with only the clothes on your back. And don’t look back. Don’t turn around. Don’t play it safe. Get off the boat before it sinks. You’ll stay afloat. And if you can’t leave or chose not to, stay but take care of you. Take some space and time for you regardless of what the other person is doing. You can’t truly separate until you learn to spend and enjoy more time alone or with your friends.
3. Ask for help. Get a different, fresh perspective. Be open to it. Reach out to people. Be careful not to play the “yes but” game. No one likes a complainer who is not willing to take responsibility for their own life and make real changes.
4. Learn to self-soothe. Inability to soothe oneself is the biggest problem codependent people have. They have no idea how to regulate emotions. This is a skill we learn over time like cooking a great omelet or typing. You can learn it. Find out what soothes you but make sure it’s a healthy habit. Don’t substitute one addiction for another. Don’t pick up a drug or a drink, or gambling, or a sex partner. They are great temporarily but they only postpone the inevitable. Years have passed but still to this day, when emotions overwhelm me I put on my running shoes and simply focus on putting one foot in front of another. Because when everything fails, I know I can rely on my legs and my lungs to bring me to myself.
5. Remind yourself that it will get better. One day you will look back and smile at your struggles and they will appear insignificant in the grand scheme of things. You’ll know your life would be much different if you had made different choices and you’ll know for once, you saved yourself.
6. Find your center. Meditate, do yoga, pick a religion, whatever helps but find your spirituality. Find where your core is in your body and in your soul and focus on it whenever the wind is blowing and the world is spinning. Sit with yourself, practice breathing, match your attention with your intention. Pay attention to how you’re feeling, acknowledge your feelings and then watch them go by, like the trains coming and going at a train station. Don’t get on the train of feelings or memories. You’ll travel farther by just standing there, on your two feet.
I don’t know where M is today. Sometimes I wonder what happened to her but most of the time I don’t.