Codependency is a lethal and rarely acknowledged addiction. Here’s how to recognise if you’re affected, and what to do about it.
Saturday morning, 15 January, 2000, was my Armageddon.
I’d been hospitalised – again. Not for treatment of cancer, stroke, or heart disease, but for my codependence. Begging to die because I didn’t feel I could ‘do life’ any more, I’d reached a bottom from which I didn’t think I could return. At that moment, I felt there was no other way. Although I’d left my marriage five times in the preceding decade, this time was different. Hovering in the final stages of a codependent death and wanting out, it seemed to me there was no other option for me.
Nearly 20 years have passed since that day. In full recovery, and with a deep understanding of the insidious and cunning nature of codependence, I know there are literally millions of people in the world who feel now just as I did back in 2000. Merely existing in lives, and unable to say no, they are suffering with an addiction to something as lethal as ice. Make no mistake – codependency kills.
What is codependency?
Have you ever said yes to a person, place or thing, when you really wanted to say no? That’s codependency.
Do you find it difficult to speak what you truly feel, or to ask for what you need? That’s codependency.
Do you stay in relationships for too long, despite the signs indicating that the relationship is not serving you? That’s codependency.
In a world where we’re socialised to say yes – even when it’s not right for us – codependency is at epidemic levels and rising. Quite simply, it is the mother of all addictions, screaming the loudest, yet often not understood or heard, even among those providing psychological and emotional therapy.
Codependency does not discriminate between culture, creed, gender, physical shape, social status, financial position, or level of education. It does not occur in just one area of life. If we are codependent in one area, guaranteed we are codependent in others. Equally, when we clean up one area of life, it follows we must clean up other areas too.
An addiction that presents in many socially accepted behaviours and habits, it’s easy to see how codependency has become ‘normal’.
When we are codependent we can experience symptoms of depression, anxiety and panic attacks. We wake with a sense of foreboding, feeling we can’t cope with the day. We have a deep fear of losing people in our life, thinking we can’t live without them. A fear is carried of people not liking us and that we must do things for their approval. We stay busy, giving, and doing for others, and leaving nothing for ourselves. We say yes when we mean no, even when our intuition or inner voice tells us otherwise.
Saying yes when there’s a no to be said can have deadly consequences. At the tail end of my marriage back in 2000, I was leaving finally, having already done so on several occasions. I was suffering from acute relationship and people addiction, and my husband was my drug. Until I was brought to my knees, as I was that day, I didn’t have the courage, strength, or support to say no – and hold it. The withdrawal I experienced when I left each time was no different from the withdrawal a drug addict feels. It was powerful, drawing me back again and again.
Codependency is progressive and intergenerational
My inability to say no had dire consequences for my family too. The dynamic of the relationship with my husband created the environment in which my children’s addictions cultivated and grew. Despite my best efforts at sustaining a fantasy of the perfect family and white picket fence, our family progressively fell apart, with three of my adult children succumbing to debilitating addictions. For many years, as I worked on my own recovery, I watched my children cycle through a merry-go-round of overdoses, arrests, prison visits, hospital psych wards, rehabs, and open heart surgery.
Now I see the whole family was deep in the throes of a codependent death, and I’m not surprised. I was born into a family riddled with addiction. Both my parents were substance abusers. My father, an enterprising businessman, died of alcoholism at 48. My mother, also an active business woman, had a stroke at 55, which was the direct result of a prescription drug addiction. Each of my parents smoked 40–60 cigarettes a day. Without question, both of their illnesses were brought on by a failure to recognise, address, and heal the causal unresolved issues of their conditioning, which manifested as dependency.
As a child of addicted parents, I covered my pain and emptiness, as codependents are prone to do. Using work, business, marriage, and children, I did what many people do today. I pursued a fantasy outside of myself, rather than treat and heal the pain, which was, in fact, my codependence. Eventually, opportunities for healing and recovery presented themselves. For me, the fence of my marriage, business, family, and life came crashing down. Despite my best efforts to ‘fix’ things, bottoming out was imminent and inevitable. It was also the portal to healing as I realised the need to ‘get honest’.
Is it time for you to get honest? Ask yourself these questions:
Getting honest about your codependent behaviour requires you to look at all areas of your life, and at various life stages. By doing this, it is possible to see how codependence has progressively and insidiously infected and affected you. This is far from an excuse to blame other people, or hand over responsibility for your life to others, or to sidestep the necessity to do the work; this is a great opportunity to do what’s required, to heal, and live your most authentic life.
We can get honest by truthfully answering questions such as:
- Do you say yes to things you don’t want to, and do them despite your inner voice guiding you otherwise (that is, do you need to be needed)?
- Do you feel like you need to cover up for irresponsible people in your life because you don’t want them to suffer?
- When you get in close relationships, do you change to please the other person and lose yourself?
- Do you feel it’s your job to fix, manage, and hold your family/relationship together?
- Do you allow other people’s needs to come before your own, even if you have urgent needs and they don’t?
- Hate being alone? Do you need to be around people all the time, even if you know those people are not good for you?
- Do you cover up feelings of self-doubt with drugs, alcohol, work, sex, gambling, food, social media, shopping, being busy, drama, victimhood, pain, or anything else outside yourself to avoid getting honest?
- Are you quick to blame and criticise people and circumstances for your feelings?
- Do you find it difficult to speak what you truly feel or ask for what you need?
- Do you have a fear of losing people in your life (feeling like you can’t live without them)?
- Are you so busy giving and doing for others that you feel you have nothing left for yourself?
- Do you have a fear of people not liking you or approving of you (people pleasing or subordination to others who you feel are better, or more deserving, than you)?
- Have you stayed in situations or relationships for far too long, despite signs the relationship is not serving you?
- Do you share inappropriately with the wrong people because you think others are well advanced and more evolved than you?
Honesty with ourselves is paramount
Answering these questions honestly can be a challenge, especially if we’ve never understood our ‘normal’ behaviour as codependency. However, honesty with ourselves, and learning to take full responsibility for everything that’s going on in our lives, is the first pivotal step. This means acknowledging the ‘problems’ in our lives are not outside of us, but within us. It means we take responsibility for the challenges we see in our lives, as well as our perception of what we can do about them. We also take responsibility for the solutions.
Learning to take the focus off others’ behaviour, and instead addressing situations by focusing on our own issues, fears, beliefs, and actions, is empowering and liberating. It is also an essential element of recognising, managing, and recovering from our codependent behaviour. It is where we roll up our sleeves and start the work.
As with recovery from all addictions, healing your codependency is best done with support, particularly at critical times. When you are wobbling and terrified – it’s inevitable if you choose recovery – getting the right support helps navigate and manage the challenges that arise.
Honesty is the road to a more manageable and enjoyable life
Twenty years ago, I couldn’t imagine the life I have today. Fulfilled, enriched, and enjoyable, it is a world away from the codependent craziness I used to experience. With my own emotional sobriety now my highest priority, I encourage others to find the courage to take manageable steps towards recovery. Recovery is challenging, especially in the early stages. But the rewards are most certainly waiting, if you stay the course and do the work.
Some support groups
Co-Dependent No More, by Melody Beattie
Women who Love Too Much, by Robin Norwood
Facing Love Addiction, by Pia Mellody
A Course in Miracles, by Helen Schucman
The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron
The Flying Boy, by John Lee
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