When working with clients or living with someone who drinks/uses or used to drink/use and/or struggles with mental illness, there is a pull and a risk of falling into a codependent relationship – a danger that may lead to stress, burnout and disease. In order to understand this phenomenon, here is an excerpt from Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself by Melody Beattie:
"Codependents were a necessary nuisance. They were hostile, controlling, manipulative, indirect, guilt producing, difficult to communicate with, generally disagreeable, sometimes downright hateful, and a hindrance to my compulsion to get high. They hollered at me, hid my pills, made nasty faces at me, poured my alcohol down the sink, tried to keep me from getting more drugs, wanted to know why I was doing this to them, and asked what was wrong with me. But they were always there, ready to rescue me from self-created disasters. The codependents in my life didn’t understand me, and the misunderstanding was mutual. I didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them.
. . . I saw people who felt responsible for the entire world, but they refused to take responsibility for leading and living their own lives.
I saw people who constantly gave to others but didn’t know how to receive. I saw people give until they were angry, exhausted, and emptied of everything. I saw some give until they gave up. I even saw one woman give and suffer so much that she died of “old age” and natural causes at age thirty-three. She was the mother of five children and the wife of an alcoholic who had been sent to prison for the third time.
I worked with women who were experts at taking care of everyone around them, yet these women doubted their ability to take care of themselves.
I saw mere shells of people, racing mindlessly from one activity to another. I saw people-pleasers, martyrs, stoics, tyrants, withering vines, clinging vines, and, borrowing from H. Sackler’s line in his play The Great White Hope, “pinched up faces giving of the miseries.”Most codependents were obsessed with other people. With great precision and detail, they could recite long lists of the addict’s deeds and misdeeds: what he or she thought, felt, did and said; and what he or she didn’t think, feel, do and say. The codependents knew what the alcoholic or addict should and shouldn’t do. And they wondered extensively why he or she did or didn’t do it.Yet these codependents who had such great insight into others couldn’t see themselves. They didn’t know what they were feeling. They weren’t sure what they thought. And they didn’t know what, if anything, they could do to solve their problems – if, indeed, they had any problems other than the alcoholics.It was a formidable group, these codependents. They were aching, complaining, and trying to control everyone and everything but themselves. And, except for a few quiet pioneers in family therapy, many counselors (including me) didn’t know how to help them. The chemical dependency filed was flourishing, but help focused on the addict. Literature and training on family therapy was scarce. What did codependents need? What did they want? Weren’t they just an extension of the alcoholic, a visitor to the treatment center? Why couldn’t they cooperate, instead of always making problems? The alcoholic had an excuse for being so crazy – he was drunk. These significant others had no excuse. They were this way sober.
By then, I had been sober for a while. I was beginning to understand myself, but I didn’t understand codependency. I tried, but couldn’t – until years later, when I became so caught up in the chaos of a few alcoholics that I stopped living my own life. I stopped thinking. I stopped feeling positive emotions, and I was left with rage, bitterness, hatred, fear, depression, helplessness, despair and guilt. At times, I wanted to stop living. I had no energy. I spend most of my time worrying about people and trying to figure out how to control them. I couldn’t say no (to anything but fun activities) if my life depended on it, which it did. My relationships with friends and family members were in shambles. I felt terribly victimized. I lost myself and didn’t know how it had happened. I didn’t know what had happened. I thought I was going crazy. And, I thought, shaking a finger at the people around me, it’s their fault.Sadly, aside from myself, nobody knew how badly I felt. My problems were my secret. Unlike the alcoholics and other troubled people in my life, I wasn’t going around making big messes and expecting someone to clean up after me. In fact, next to the alcoholics, I looked good. I was so responsible, so dependable. Sometimes I wasn’t sure I had a problem. I knew I felt miserable, but I didn’t understand why my life wasn’t working.After floundering in despair for a while, I began to understand. Like many people who judge others harshly, I realized I had just taken a very long and painful walk in the shoes of those I had judged. I now understand those crazy codependents. I had become one.Gradually, I began to climb out of my black abyss. Along the way, I developed a passionate interest in the subject of codependency. As a counselor (although I no longer worked full-time in the field, I still considered myself one) and as a writer, my counselor was provoked. As a “flaming careening codependent” (a phrase borrowed from an Al-Anon member) who needed help, I also had a personal stake in the subject. What happens to people like me? How does it happen? Why? Most important, what do codependents need to do to feel better? And stay that way?
I saw people who were hostile, they had felt so much hurt that hostility was their only defense against being crushed again. They were that angry because anyone who had tolerated what they had would be that angry.They were controlling because everything around and inside them was out of control. Always, the dam of their lives and the lives of those around them threatened to burst and spew harmful consequences on everyone. And nobody but them seemed to notice or care.I saw people who manipulated because manipulation appeared to be the only way to get anything done. I worked with people who were indirect because the systems they lived in seemed incapable of tolerating honesty.I worked with people who thought they were going crazy because they had believed so many lies they didn’t know what reality was.I saw people who had gotten so absorbed in other people’s problems they didn’t have time to identify or solve their own. These were people who had cared so deeply, and often destructively, about other people that they had forgotten how to care about themselves. The codependents felt responsible for so much because the people around them felt responsible for so little; they were just taking up the slack.I saw hurting, confused people who needed comfort, understanding, and information. I saw victims of alcoholism who didn’t drink but were nonetheless victimized by alcohol. I saw victims struggling desperately to gain some kind of power over their perpetrators. They learned from me, and I learned from them.Soon I began to subscribe to some new beliefs about codependency. Codependents aren’t crazier or sicker than alcoholics. But, they hurt as much or more. They haven’t cornered the market on agony, but they have gone through their pain without the anesthetizing effects of alcohol or other drugs, or the other high states achieved by people with compulsive disorders. And the pain that comes from loving someone who’s in trouble can be profound.‘The chemically dependent partner numbs the feelings and the non-abuser is doubled over in pain – relieved only by anger and occasional fantasies,’ wrote Janet Geringer Woititz in an article from the book Co-Dependency, An Emerging Issue.Codependents are that way sober because they went through what they did sober.No wonder codependents are so crazy. Who wouldn’t be, after living with the people they’ve lived with?It’s been difficult for codependents to get the information and practical help they need and deserve. It’s tough enough to convince alcoholics (or other disturbed people) to seek help. It’s more difficult to convince codependents – those who by comparison look, but don’t feel, normal – that they have problems.Codependents suffered in the backdrop of the sick person. If they recovered, they did that in the background too. Until recently, many counselors (like me) didn’t know what to do to help them. Sometimes codependents were blamed; sometimes they were ignored; sometimes they were expected to magically shape up (an archaic attitude that has not worked with alcoholics and doesn’t help codependents either). Rarely were codependents treated as individuals who needed help to get better. Rarely were they given a personalized recovery program for their problems and their pain. Yet, by its nature, alcoholism and other compulsive disorders turn everyone affected by the illness into victims – people who need help even if they are not drinking, using other drugs, gambling, overeating, or overdoing a compulsion.
I’m not an expert, and this isn’t a technical book for experts. Whether the person you’ve let yourself be affected by is an alcoholic, gambler, foodaholic, workaholic, sexaholic, criminal, rebellious teenager, neurotic parent, another codependent, or any combination of the above, this book is for you, the codependent.This book is not about how you can help your alcoholic or troubled person, although if you get better, his or her chance of recovery improves too. There are plenty of good books on how to help the alcoholic. This book is about your most important and probably most neglected responsibility: taking care of yourself. It’s about what you can do to start feeling better."