Codependency – so what is it?
This was a very difficult concept for me to grasp. And for the longest time (like almost 4 decades as of 2003), I didn’t even try because I didn’t think it had anything to do with me. But for those of you who’ve read my book, If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!, and “met” Alex, you know it was Alex’s 2003 admittance to a residential treatment program for alcoholism that turned my life upside down.
You can imagine my reaction when the family therapist at the treatment center suggested I get help. “Me? Why me? He’s the alcoholic!” I’d argue — sometimes rather hysterically. She’d patiently explain that my getting help would not only help me, but it would also help him. “That’s all fine and good,” I’d argue, “but I don’t have time!” I was already juggling life “outside,” while he was in residential treatment doing yoga, journaling, attending meetings, “doing his program,”…. The last thing I wanted was to have to “do one more thing to help him. I’d been doing that for years!” I’d screech.
So, I continued to resist her gentle suggestions for weeks, until desperate, I finally took her advice and started attending Al-Anon meetings. I doubled my weekly individual cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions with my therapist (a therapist who specialized in addiction, by the way) and forced myself to find time to attend additional family group sessions at the treatment center. And, as a writer and researcher, I also buried myself in books, conversations with others in my situation, and websites addressing alcoholism, alcohol abuse (excessive drinking) and addiction. It was during this search that I learned the name of my “condition” — a condition commonly referred to as “codependency.”
It may be hard for you to accept this right now, but I can tell you that coming to grips with codependency gave me back my life. And believe me, I completely understand if the very thought of labeling yourself “codependent” makes you want to close this page and never return to the website. I didn’t like the word “codependent,” either. But please know there is no need to label yourself or put yourself down for something called codependency, especially if you are in the middle of an entanglement with an alcoholic or alcohol abuser; it’s how you’ve survived. At the same time, if you want to unravel that entanglement and take steps to move forward in your life, the following information can help:
- Alcoholism doesn’t just strike one day, like waking up with the flu. Instead, it ekes and creeps and slowly crawls forward because alcoholism is a developmental disease. This means it starts with alcohol abuse (the kind of drinking that causes drinking behaviors, like fights, DUIs, verbal/physical/emotional abuse of loved ones, missed work/school, wanting to drink more than 1 or 2 at most events and on most days), which is what sets up the chemical and structural changes in the brain that makes a person more vulnerable to his/her five key risk factors (genetics, social environment, mental illness, childhood trauma, early use).
- In order to accommodate and survive the progression of the alcoholic’s disease from alcohol use to alcohol abuse to alcoholism, the people who love him (or her) have had to adapt and change their thinking and behaviors and join in the denial that’s protecting the drinking. In other words, they’ve had to adopt their own version of denial that supports the notion that it’s something else that’s contributing to the person’s decision to drink during the alcohol abuse stage (like work, the kids, fights with the spouse, a bad boss), not the person him/herself. Once the drinking has progressed from alcohol abuse to alcoholism (addiction), it’s the brain disease of addiction that further compromises the person’s decision making ability.
- Through all of this adapting and accommodating of the alcoholic’s and/or alcohol abuser’s drinking behaviors, family members unconsciously collude to make the unacceptable acceptable. (1) Just as the alcoholic or alcohol abuser is focused (dependent) on alcohol, the family members’ lives are focused (dependent) on trying to stop the alcoholic/alcohol abuser from drinking so much — they are “co” – “dependent” with the alcoholic/alcohol abuser on his or her addiction to or excessive drinking of alcohol.
- This is why alcoholism is often referred to as a “family disease”(2) and why codependents are often referred to as “enablers.” It’s also why a codependent’s denial-type behaviors are often called “enabling” (enabling the alcoholic/alcohol abuser to continue the denial that protects their drinking by making or agreeing with one excuse after another that the excessive drinking was “because of ____________” or “I’ll never do it again” or “I’ll only drink on the week-ends and holidays but never more than 3 at a time”).
- Compounding the problem for everyone concerned is society’s inaccurate view of alcoholism as a problem that results from a shameful lack of willpower. This assumption — which is wrong — drives the alcoholic and his or her loved ones to continue making one Herculean attempt after another to battle the disease in isolation. And it drives the alcohol abuser and his or her loved ones to find ways to excuse the alcohol abuse for fear it might be labeled “alcoholism.” Not only this, but it makes the family members – the loved ones – sick. Sick because of the constant activation of their brain’s fight-or-flight stress response as fear, anger, frustration triggered by the drinking or drugging behaviors trigger this system, activating physiological changes to course throughout the body (which are never used as intended to physically run or fight and thus “sit,” “marinate” in body organs), resulting in migraines, stomach ailments, anxiety, depression, skin disorders, headaches and a host of other changes. Not only that, the brain maps the loved one’s unhealthy reactionary coping skills as key to survival. I named this concept secondhand drinking | secondhand drugging (SHD) and started using it in 2009 to help us better understand the physical, emotional, and quality of life impacts of codependency, and the importance of helping family members seek and succeed in recovery, as well. For more on this, check out “The Fight-or-Flight Stress Response – Secondhand Drinking Connection.” [This portion updated 2016.]
- Additionally, society is even more silent about what life is like for the family and friends who love the alcoholic or alcohol abuser and presumes that if the individual stops drinking, then all should be well with them, too. This is another gravely destructive assumption. As I’ve mentioned, I had been living with alcoholics, alcohol abusers and the family disease of alcoholism for decades by the time I finally admitted, “I need help!” It wasn’t until the course of my own recovery work that I finally admitted how many intimate relationships in my life included alcoholics/alcohol abusers — talk about DENIAL!
You may also be interested in reading my latest book, a short eBook, titled: Crossing The Line From Alcohol Use to Abuse to Dependence, or the two eBooks I published in 2014, Quick Guide to Secondhand Drinking: A Phenomenon That Affects Millions and Quick Guide to Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn’t.
And please know that while I’ve written about alcohol abuse and alcoholism in this post, the same applies to drug abuse and drug addiction — addiction is addiction regardless of the substance of choice. Addiction is a developmental disease. It is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. It starts with substance abuse, which is what sets up a person’s chemical and structural brain changes, the brain changes that makes a person’s brain more susceptible to his/her risk factors.
One more thing – if you are identifying with this post, please know you can always send me a confidential email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 650-362-3026 for additional resources that might help you and your situation. You may also wish to check out my books, videos, and blog category geared to helping the family.
©2012 Lisa Frederiksen. All Rights Reserved. Portions revised 2016.
(1) Brown, Stephanie, Ph.D. and Virginia M. Lewis, Ph.D., with Andrew Liotta, The Family Recovery Guide, A Map for Healthy Growth, Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2000, p. 3.