There’s an old saying that “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” I believed that until someone asked me why it is that we always find what we’re looking for in the last place we look.
However, I did receive an intelligent question today, forwarded to me by “Admin.” One more person wanted to be the exception to the rule that I absolutely do not have the time to reply personally to emails sent to the site. I just don’t. I have three sites going, and I reply to all the questions myself (unless it’s a technical one – in which case I forward it to Chip).
Besides, there is magic in a group – even if the group meets online. Sharing the question and the answer on the forum means others get to learn from the answer too. It means that the person asking the question will likely learn he or she isn’t as alone with his or her problem as that person thought. It also opens the question up for other comments, too, bringing us back to the magic of the group.
This post is solely to answer the question: “Do you have to have alcoholism involved to become codependent?” Group, what do you think? No, what do you know? One issue that surprised me the most after the release of my first book on codependency was the huge number of people who lived in families without any alcoholism or addiction, but codependency had still set in.
This isn’t to “sell books,” (mine are available at libraries for free) but in one of my more recent releases – The New Codependency – I define codependency more by “which of these issues is causing a problem, and how much does it hurt?”
Let’s look deeper. Codependency is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances. That’s what I wrote way back when. I still stand behind those words. Everything written is true. It works. But like others, I’ve learned more and seen more with the passing of time. More has been revealed.
Initially I thought that loss comprised about ten percent of codependency. Now, I’m coming to believe that codependency is often people stuck in one or more stages of grief. The loss may be living with an ongoing illness for which there isn’t a cure; not receiving something we needed to become full human beings as a child (like love and protection); or losing an important relationship now – as adults.
If you add obsession and guilt to the five stages of grief, as outlined by Elizabeth Kubler Ross – you have what we’ve come to define as codependency. Denial; anger (lots of that); negotiation (a/k/a manipulation); sadness; and finally acceptance or surrender to what is.
Listen, guys and gals – people young and old – obsessing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We need to tell our story, sometimes over and over, to integrate it into our life experiences. And the guilt we feel? It’s not authentic (most of the time). It’s a symptom of other losses that have cut into our heart.
Recently the Mayo clinic labeled Broken Heart Syndrome as a true medical condition that occurs when we suffer a deep loss. A deep loss isn’t limited to having someone we love die. It could be, say, having our child develop an incurable illness that he or she will live with likely as long as the person is alive. Control sets in when we do our best to make the problem go away, otherwise known as denial, and sometimes called resistance.
Sometimes natural and normal situations can imitate codependency, such as when we have a newborn baby and we need to center our lives around the child and forgo what we need. The difference there is that the behaviors that resemble codependency are temporary responses to a temporary situation in our life. It’s when codependent behaviors become a way of life that it’s likely codependency has set in.
We think who we are isn’t okay. We don’t trust what we feel. Usually in homes where codependency has set in, feelings aren’t discussed much or at all. People dig a rut, move furniture in, and call it home. They’re miserable but they’re okay with that – at least they know what to expect: not much at all, and surely not a full life.
While none of us are promised the proverbial bed of roses, some of us get unnecessarily enmeshed in other people’s problems. Their problems control our lives. Our emotions control their lives. It’s an ugly dance of quietly or loudly pulling the other person’s strings.
See – this is the deal. It’s not what we do that makes it codependent. It’s how what we do makes us feel. It’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. Are we acting out of obligation, fear, and guilt? Or are our actions motivated by clean choice? Are we doing what we do because it’s what we choose to do, no matter the outcome?
You can have two people doing exactly the same behaviors and one person is making healthy choices. The other is doing the codependency dysfunctional dance feeling victimized, separate from life, likely unloved and unlovable, and perpetually not good enough.
So many people are suffering from chronic depression. It takes two weeks of feeling terribly sad to receive this label. After my son died, I’m certain 99 percent of the doctors around would have labeled me depressed. I wasn’t. I was going through that heart-healing process called grief. Feeling extremely sad when a son you love with all your heart dies qualifies as a normal response to an abnormal situation.
We live in a time where more and more people resist feeling uncomfortable. We expect all problems to be immediately and easily solved. When that doesn’t occur, we may consider our lives a hopeless waste.
Not so. We’ve been dealt a challenging hand. How we’re going to play that hand is up to us. Recovery isn’t about rules (except for two). It’s about tools – accessing them, using them, and freely making our choices. The only rules I have are don’t hurt yourself (which includes don’t let anyone else physically hurt you.) And don’t hurt (physically) anyone else.
It’s not unhealthy to love people, to care about them, and sometimes to sacrifice for them. That’s what can bond us to others and create that feeling called “love.” Again, it all goes back to our motivation.
I cannot judge another’s heart. Can there be codependency without alcoholism? Can there be loss without alcoholism? I’m coming to believe that many if not most cases of chemical dependency began as a survival behavior to self-medicate emotional pain that became too much – more than we could handle without support. Then the “cure” became an illness of its own.
Something else not publicly discussed much are the benefits from growing up in a dysfunctional home. Studies quoted in an article in the New York Times show that in later life situation, such as at work, people who survived heavy dysfunction and then learned to administer self-care and began to thrive make the best employees – and not because they’re codependent and never say, “No.” It’s because they can withstand stress, chaos, problems, and situations that others find overwhelming.
They know how to deal with less than ideal situations in life and they don’t need to live in a bubble to survive. (I’m not doing footnotes in my blogs but if you want more info on this see The New Codependency.)
I now believe that too much loss and grief can cause the beginning of alcoholism and chemical dependency in a family. It can also create codependent responses – responses made out of obligation, guilt, and fear whether alcoholism and addiction are present or not.
The reason we call recovery “an inside job” is because it’s true. We don’t change the circumstances around us to feel better. We deal with what’s inside us, usually the things we most don’t want to look at, expose to the light, or feel. People don’t like to feel pain. They don’t like confusion, not being able to make sense of life, or feeling like life is random — a disorderly, chaotic thing.
We also don’t like it when we realize how vulnerable we really are to all the problems, pain, and situations we used to believe we had immunity from.
While Life is chaotic and often makes no sense at all, many of us have experienced Dnana – a word that means learning or knowing that’s inseparable from an experience. We aren’t what we eat but we are what we’ve been through. We aren’t our problems, but our problems are ours to solve, live with, let go of, or endure.
Underneath the chaos an underlying order exists. The world we live in? A vital universe. One that’s truly alive and will guide us to what we need, if we listen to that still, small voice within.
Another statement in Codependent No More I stand behind one hundred percent: There is no situation that can’t be made worse by severe self-neglect, and it’s opposite, “Self-love and self-care will benefit any situation we need to get through, go around, or endure.”
Self-love isn’t narcissism, over-indulgence, or extreme pampering. In his book, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle defines love for others (paraphrased) as not being something we get and need desperately to fill up the big empty hole within. Loving someone means being present for and aware of another in each moment. To that I add that love means giving what we want to give, and what the other person wants to receive.
That would mean, if accepted as truth, that self-love means being present for and aware of ourselves. Living a “Day at a Time” doesn’t mean waiting to get through today so tomorrow can come. It means, being present for and aware of who we are, how we feel, and what’s taking place within and around us right now.
I hope my reactions to and thoughts about your question help. But remember – I’m a writer not an expert, guru, psychiatrist or spiritual adviser. I’m stumbling my way through life too, just like anyone else. But if I shared all the stories with you (the person who asked the question about codependency) about family situations where codependency ruled but no alcohol or drugs caused the pain, it would take about five more books to write about them all.
To engage in codependent behaviors isn’t a bad thing. In most cases, it means we really care but aren’t sure what to do. Somewhere along the line, we forgot we could trust ourselves.
“Don’t force it,” my friend said, when I tried to open a container. “You’ll break it.” He summed up the effects of control. The other behaviors – taking care of others and neglecting ourselves, repressing and denying important feelings, resisting reality, feeling separate from people and things in the world we live in – and many other traits connected with codependency – are on a continuum. They’re normal reactions that anyone would do, given a similar situation.
Codependency occurs when we cross a line. We’re stuck. We can’t stop doing what we’re doing, even though what we’re doing hurts the other person and us. So now I have a question for you: How much do you hurt? How much does what you do hurt? Or have you become so numb you’re not sure how you really feel?
Not to worry. Most of us step across that line at times. You don’t need to have hope for a better tomorrow. Instead, trust where you are today because that’s what true faith is.
While I’m at it, I’ll answer another question I’m often asked too. “Can you become codependent on another codependent?” Answer: Yes.
It’s the worst.