Saturday, July 29, 2017

What Anne Frank Would Be Listening To

Finally - the long promised short blog post.  The reason?   My daughter has a classmate sleeping over who brought her laptop to play Minecraft. For once they're letting my son play too, so I've had to sacrifice access to all the computers. I'm holed up in my room, recognizing once again I was born much too late to be capable of typing deathless prose on a phone with my thumbs.  Even on an iPhone 7 Plus.  So this is what you get today.

I did have my trusted KING FM Seattle Symphony app and a good book, and a chance to text with another stoic ex Mormon about the irresistible cruelty of hope and meaning.  As I listened to the  great classical music streaming, I caught myself loving best whatever I heard last.  That's another major logical fallacy you know.

Romantic music is best because it's so Passionate.  Not just Wagner and ballet scores.  That piano stuff....

Classical period is best because it's so Triumphant.  And they're such unrivaled geniuses....

Eventually however I come back to Baroque.  Home to Bach.  If you are not yet convinced there is meaning in the universe to be found or created (and does it really matter which?), come sit with with me on a lovely happy summer evening and listen to another Brandenberg concerto....

Friday, July 28, 2017

Classic Codependency

When my new Bellingham physician diagnosed me with PTSD in November 2015, all my recent strange symptoms, feelings, and behavior suddenly made sense. He was absolutely right, and I have learned a lot about trauma and recovery in the last year. Unfortunately, I have learned even more about the social stigma and legal barriers that can deny fair opportunities to individuals affected by mental illness.

My doctor also told me to go home and read the book Facing Codependency.  As I wrote a couple of months ago in “Avoiding Codependency,” when I finally faced his homework assignment, all my strange symptoms, feelings, and behavior for the last forty years finally made sense, too. 

Me being me, Dear Reader, it will come as no surprise I don’t get the luxury of a nice normal mental illness diagnosis. No, everything aways has to be more complicated. I don’t resemble the typical PTSD sufferer. And most people haven’t even heard of being “codependent.” Or they use the word to describe enablers who can’t break free from the addicts in their life.

As I understand the term now, “codependency” is a pattern of deeply rooted compulsive behaviors that interferes with individuals’ ability to sustain healthy relationships, maintain functional boundaries, and express their reality appropriately. Codependency is rooted in sometimes moderately, sometimes extremely dysfunctional family systems of origin.   

These days many therapists offer counseling aimed at codependents. However, for historical and professional politics reasons, codependency as such isn’t listed in DSM-V. The organization Codependents Anonymous (“CODA”), found online at, does not to purport to offer medical definitions, but it provides study materials to a network of support groups. CODA grew out of the recovery movement, and adapted Alcoholics Anonymous’ twelve steps to individuals struggling to have healthy interpersonal relationships. The author of Facing Codependency, herself an addiction treatment professional, offers her own tweaks on CODA’s definitions and its version of the traditional twelve steps.

Codependency has a complicated relationship with other mental disorders, particularly other compulsive behaviors. As they recite at the beginning of every CODA meeting, “Many of us were raised in families where addictions existed - some of us were not.” I’m one of the “some of us.” It turns out being around Mormons can be more harmful than growing up in a saloon.

One of my Mormon friends read CODA’s “Patterns and Characteristics of Codependence” pamphlet and exclaimed “That sounds like just me!” Maybe it’s like one of those online personality tests where regardless how you answer everyone gets to be Luke Skywalker. (Yep, my Meyers-Briggs type is INFP. Duh. Our mnemonic is "I Never Find Perfection".)

Actually, codependents are doomed to live more like C-3PO (“Characterized by the ability to identify the needs of others and meet them selflessly”), or Jar Jar Binks (“Characterized by their genuine concern for others, which drives everything they do”). It's never going to be about me, it's always supposed to be about you.

CODA’s pamphlet identifies four clustered patterns of codependent behavior. Highlights of Denial Patterns include “masking pain in various ways such as anger, humor, or isolation," and failing to “recognize the unavailability of those people to whom they are attracted." Low Self-esteem Patterns include “valuing others’ approval of their thinking, feelings, and behavior over their own,” and the inability to “perceive themselves as lovable or worthwhile persons.” Compliance Patterns involve things like being “hypervigilant regarding the feelings of others and taking on those feelings,” and “putting aside their own interests.” Control Patterns are traits like “using blame and shame to exploit others emotionally.” And classic Avoidance Patterns include “pulling people toward them, but when others get close, push them away” and “using evasive communication to avoid conflict or confrontation.”  (I know what you’re thinking – but codependency is not the same as our region’s passive-aggressive “Seattle Nice.” The polite local culture probably makes it easier for us to blend into our surroundings, however.)

The other day I heard someone describe himself as a “classic codependent.” That probably fits me.  My first time through the CODA checklist I admitted to 6 out of 9 Denial Patterns, 12 out of 13 Low Self-esteem Patterns, 8 out of 8 Compliance Patterns, and 11 out of 11 Avoidance patterns.

Don’t I get a ribbon at this point?  Or a toaster oven?

More good news in my ongoing seach for the silver lining in Donald Trump’s poisonous orange cloud:  in contrast to explaining codependency, suddenly it’s quite easy to describe what malignant narcissist personality disorder looks like.

Codependent people have a fatal attraction to narcissists. We’re sucked towards the gaping void of all those unmet needs. And narcissists can sense when they are in the presence of exploitable minions. As one therapist writes, “codependents habitually find themselves on a ‘dance floor,” attracted to partners who are a perfect counter-match to their uniquely passive, submissive and acquiescent dance style.”

Looking back over the last forty years, I realize some of my most poisonous professional and personal relationships consisted of me orbiting around various narcissists. No doubt my codependency helped bring out the worst in each of us.

As well as my own less-malignant narcissism. 

Recently I went back to the CODA pamphlet. The four items I didn't check the first time through have something in common. In turns out that in addition to "classic codependent" traits exhibiting patterns of abnegation and excessive solicitousness, codependents can also

• perceive themselves as completely unselfish and dedicated to the well-being of others. 
• lack empathy for the feelings and needs of others.
• label others with their negative traits.
• perceive themselves as superior to others

There's a bit of the dark side in all of us. Fortunately, unlike narcissists, codependents have tools to overcome self-delusion. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Adoption Stories: Flashpoint

Yesterday I wrote about Shawn and Carrie, the dishonest Nebraska couple we supported during her pregnancy ten years ago, only to find out they’d sold the baby to someone else.

I hadn’t planned on following up about their tawdry episode, but I was surprised by a couple of my friends’ very strong reactions to the story.  One was sad, and the other was furious. 

Their reactions made me realize I had moved on long ago – to me, the Nebraska story is just an amusing anecdote about the bumpy road to adoption. I don't remember writing the Dear Baby letter I found on my computer recently. I completely forgot we had reached the point of giving him a full name – “Henry” and “Graeme” were indeed our top boy baby names. (Later we gave those names to the two little boys who were placed with us in turn, only to be taken away.  I’ll tell their stories eventually.)

I also can’t remember the pain I described in my Dear Baby letter, or even how I felt when Graeme [Ed. note:  no spoilers].  All I remember now is my heartbreak when Oliver’s adoption fell through after he had lived with us for several months. That knocked memories of lesser pains away forever. 

But the real reason I am unmoved as I describe various failed adoption attempts is I have no regrets about anything before Spring 2011. 

Our family’s favorite television show is The Flash. It has perky heroes and dastardly villains, and a fundamental optimism about life even in the middle of tragedy. Like many movies and TV shows these days, The Flash is filmed in Vancouver. This winter Eleanor diligently researched online to figure out where The Flash’s major locations were filmed, and we made a minivan pilgrimage to sites around the city.

It turns out that Barry Allen, who eventually becomes the Flash, grew up on the same street as me. He was at 2757 Cambridge Street, and I was up the hill at 3925 Cambridge Street. We both tragically left our beloved childhood homes at age twelve -- his mom was killed by a speedster villain from the future and his dad wrongly imprisoned for her murder, while my parents thought it would be a good idea to move to a small town in Utah for five years and ruin my life. So basically the Flash and I have the same origin story.

One of The Flash’s major themes is our relationship with the past and future. If you run as fast as the Flash you can go back in time. And forward. Barry and Team Flash are always agonizing about when you’re allowed to go back and change the past, and the potential consequences for the present and future. If you’re a fan of Doctor Who, you already know there are certain fixed points on the timeline of the universe that cannot be altered or revisited, even by a Time Lord. 

This season on The Flash, Barry went back to the past and created an alternative timeline, called “Flashpoint,” where his mother was never murdered or his father imprisoned. Barry spent a few idyllic months living the family life he never knew. Then the whole universe fell apart, and Barry realized by creating Flashpoint he wrought havoc on everyone around him.

The most important fixed point on my own timeline occurred in Spring 2011, when we salvaged Oliver’s adoption.

Since 2011, I have made numerous mistakes I would reverse if I could. I have been beset by plagues I would avoid if I had the Flash’s timetraveling abilities. I would love a do-over.

I also made a lot of mistakes before 2011. I suffered trauma that still haunts me. But I would not change a single moment that led me to my daughters and son.