I will always think of my Bellingham physician as a kindly version of Dr. House – the abrasive but insightful head of TV’s fictional “Department of Diagnostic Medicine.” When I showed up in November 2015 and described the weird assortment of symptoms plaguing me, he told me two things. One was that I appeared to be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many of my acute symptoms indeed point to the impact of trauma, and the PTSD label has offered a useful shorthand for the disability that has transformed my life over the last two years.
But the very first thing my doctor told me was that I needed to read Facing Codependency, by Pia Mellody. I promptly bought a copy at Henderson’s Books, the best used book store in Washington.
I always thought “codependency” referred to the unhealthy dynamic between substance abusers and their caretaking enablers, a phenomenon you learn about from cable TV movies on Lifetime, or pamphlets published by Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon. Nothing to do with me – I grew up in a Mormon family and never even tasted alcohol till I was 25, and my boyfriends and partners have all been light drinkers at most. Other than Skinny Pharmacist introducing me to fancy wine tastings years ago. (However, there is something to be said about the power trip you get from dating a guilty smoker. Something unhealthy, as I now realize.)
It took me six months to finish the first chapter of Facing Codependency. Admittedly I was so anhedonic last year I couldn’t read any other books either, but this was suspiciously avoidant behavior. I’ve always been the avoidant type, and you can learn a lot by examining what I avoid most. As the author insightfully points out throughout her book.
It turns out “codependency” can also refer to a disorder separate from the dynamic between addicts and enablers. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have healthy, mutually satisfying relationships. Codependents share traits such as:
· Denial patterns, like difficulty identifying one’s own feelings; masking pain in humor, anger, and isolation; and communicating passive-aggressively (which seems perfectly normal in Seattle)
· Low self-esteem patterns, like perfectionism, indecisiveness, and reliance on others’ approval
· Compliance patterns, like hypervigilance for others’ feelings, and putting aside their own interests to do what others want
· Control patterns, like the compulsion to take care of others
· Avoidance patterns, like pushing others away, evading direct conflict, and allowing addictions to distract from achieving intimacy in relationships
The author of calls this her favorite codependent joke:
Two codependents have sex. In the afterglow one says to the other, "Well it was good for you, how was it for me?"
Codependents grow up in an environment where they never develop the necessary tools for valuing and expressing their individual identities, or for maintaining healthy personal boundaries. Many codependent individuals come from homes affected by addiction, but others do not. Like me.
Last fall, when I finally had the strength and courage to read Facing Codependency, I knocked my head against a passage late in the book that probably jolts many readers. The author offers two insights in quick succession – that you the codependent reader are busy thinking “my parents are wonderful people, I can’t accuse them of neglect or abuse” – unless you are busy thinking “OMG someone needs me to stop me from messing up my own kids.”
In response, her advice is twofold. First, remember bad things can happen even when no one intends to cause harm. And second, worry about your own progress out of codependency, and the kids will be alright.
I am blessed with loving parents and children. We will all be alright.