I don’t remember the first time I heard the term “codependency,” but it probably was in the mid-1980s. I must have been about 20. I’m not even sure in what context I heard the word, though it likely was in a psychology class or perhaps in one of my first visits to Al-Anon. The term originated in the 1980s, but the concept dates to the founding of Al-Anon by Lois Wilson in 1951. Whenever, wherever, however, I eventually became a codependency poster boy.
We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves; this enables us not to look too closely at our own faults, etc. – Adult Children of Alcoholic’s (ACOA) 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic
My story is not unique, though I grew up feeling it was. My dad became an alcoholic when I was young. He and my mom divorced when I was around eleven. That was when I took on the role of man of the house. I watched my younger brother, cleaned, cooked and was a confidant for my mom. I developed the persona of the good son –hero, helper, rescuer, rock. I nearly lost all sense of my authentic self.
There’s always something in it for the person who is allowing himself or herself to be taken advantage of. – P. A. Speers, Type 1 Sociopath: When Difficult People Are More Than Just Difficult People
I was embarrassed to be the son of an alcoholic, a child of divorce and a member of a financially-struggling family. I was envious of friends and relatives whose families seemed perfect. I felt perpetually frustrated, and wondered if my dad really loved me and why he chose the bottle over me. I assumed most men were like my dad – weak, selfish, unreliable and angry. I decided that to receive love, I had to be the opposite of my dad – strong, selfless, reliable and kind.
For a time, my codependency served me well. It occupied my mind so I didn’t have to feel anything or look at myself. I learned home-life skills. I felt special, superior, even like an adult. But I also became a martyr – always sacrificing something for someone else.
The truth is we tend to train people how we want to be treated. If others know you have wishy-washy boundaries then they are free to walk all over you; the result . . . you become a doormat. – David W. Earle
Even though I was talented in sports, arts and particularly music, my core self-esteem was in the toilet. What few feelings of inherent value or worth I had came from what I did, not who I was. I was a giver, not a receiver. I felt overburdened, unable to say no and unable to ask for help.
Eventually, I hit a bottom. At age 25 while in law school, I was arrested for shoplifting. My father had suffered a stroke and was wheelchair-bound. I tried to set some boundaries, but my guilt was excruciating. I felt like Michael Corleone from The Godfather – Part 3. “Just when I thought I was out, they keep pulling me back in!” I went into therapy and began peeling the onion layers of my life. I learned codependency was at its core.
It’s one thing to know your habits but quite another to change them. – David W. Earle
I read many books on codependency and soon noticed a pattern in my intimate relationships with women. My idea of love was caring about and helping others. I was always putting everyone’s needs ahead of my own. I deluded myself into thinking I didn’t have any needs . . . except maybe for sex. I had to keep giving more to get “a few scraps from the table of love,” which led to resentments as well as crazy fears. I felt if I was no longer needed, I’d no longer be loved.
We confuse love and pity, and tend to love people we can pity and rescue . . . We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves instead of giving in to others. – ACOA’s 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic
I had begun distancing myself from my father when my worst fear came true; he died. I first felt relief, then guilt that I felt relief, then anger and finally rage. Finally, I felt immense sorrow. I filled the void left by his death with another codependent relationship. Within three months, I was dating an older divorced woman with three young children. The four years with this woman were very tumultuous. We must have broken up at least a dozen times. I even traveled out West for two months to keep from going back to her; that only lasted a week.
I used to spend so much time reacting and responding to everyone else that my life had no direction. Other people’s lives, problems, and wants set the course for my life. Once I realized it was okay for me to think about and identify what I wanted, remarkable things began to take place. – Melody Beattie, The Language of Letting Go: Daily Meditations on Codependency
After breaking off our relationship for good, I went back to school to become a social worker. Codependents often work in the helping professions, and I was certainly guilty as charged. My first two years as a therapist at a substance abuse clinic were challenging, but not as difficult as the next two years, when I took on a familiar man-in-charge role as director of the clinic. I overestimated my ability to do the job as a non-codependent. I soon burned out and quit.
There were tough times to follow, but I continued my personal growth work. I eventually met a healthy partner who is now my wife. I bought my first home and finally started living my own life!
Today, my recovery from codependency continues. It is a one-day-at-a-time journey.
Terrence Shulman ©2015