Codependency — or, as it used to be called, co-addiction or co-alcoholism — is one of the more difficult concepts to grasp in the area of addiction and recovery. The reason for that is simple, really, because codependency is just normal behavior taken to extremes.
I like to speak of it in terms of addiction because it is, in a very real sense. There are two concepts that we need to understand when thinking about it in those terms, best expressed by two well-known recovery sayings:
- Insanity is when you keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results; and
- Addiction is when something causes problems and you continue to repeat the behavior and, thus, the problems.
Both of the above, of course, are contingent upon the idea that there are alternate courses of action. In practically all cases, such different avenues exist; we are simply not conditioned to look for them — in fact, often precisely the reverse. This is sometimes due to lack of information, but more often because of “stinkin’ thinkin’,” skewed by long experience dealing with situations that defy logic. That’s why sayings like these are valuable. They give us a quick, easy reality check once we learn how to use them. The trick is in giving ourselves permission to think outside the codependent box.
Let’s consider an extreme case — extreme, but one that is played out in many families every day, nonetheless.
Jimmy’s mom takes great care of him. When he falls down, she’s there to help him up and wipe his bloody nose. When he makes mistakes, she’s there to chastise him and help him out of the problems that he has created. She provides clothing, shelter, food, medical care, and does all the things that a loving mother is expected to do for her son.
The trouble is, Jimmy is 48 years old. His falls are due to drunkenness. His problems range from bill collectors to DUI charges to difficulty getting to work when he can find employment (Mom’s great at lying to his bosses and justifying her “little fibs” to herself). Then there are the dozens of other little glitches that come up in the lives of alcoholics and addicts that poor Jimmy just doesn’t seem able to handle. “Jimmy means well,” Mom says, “but he has so many problems since his father died, and he tries to stop drinking. He really does!”
Mom tries to help Jimmy out as much as she can, even though he keeps getting into jackpot after jackpot, and even though it seems to be getting worse over time. The trouble is, Mom’s on a fixed income since Dad passed away. She had to take out a line of credit on her house to bail Jimmy out of jail after his last DUI. The lawyer who is defending him is charging top dollar, because it’s Jimmy’s third offense and he’s looking at serious jail time on this one. She wants three grand up front, and estimates the whole case will run about six to ten by the time it’s over with. Poor Jimmy’s between jobs again, and — what’s a mother to do? Isn’t home the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in?
Mom is meeting all the criteria of both of our little guidelines. She’s behaving insanely by helping Jimmy out of his jackpots over and over, even though she sees no indication that anything is likely to change. She hasn’t stopped mothering her poor boy even though it is causing her numerous problems, including financial and emotional hardship and the possible loss of her home. (We won’t even talk about the stress and the physical problems it is causing or complicating.) Simply put, Mom is addicted to helping Jimmy. She’s stuck in the rut, believing that taking care of a middle-aged drunk is part of the job she took on when he was conceived nearly half a century ago.
To put it another way, Mom is taking care of Jimmy at the cost of not taking care of herself. At 72 years of age she’s busting her butt cleaning up after a grown man whose problem is that he is addicted to a deadly drug and has not yet been under enough pressure to cause him to change his behavior. Why should he? Mom will clean up his messes — she always has.
And there’s the crux of the matter. Mom believes she has to help Jimmy. That’s commendable; that’s what we do for the people we love. Her problem (and part of his) is that she doesn’t realize that her way of helping is in fact encouraging the problem to continue. As long as she keeps her son from having to deal with the consequences of his behavior, what incentive does he have to make changes?
Short Zoology Lesson:
Amoebas are tiny single-celled creatures that do very little but eat and split in half to create more amoebas. They are capable of moving around, but have no particular interest in doing so since it uses energy and, to a creature without a brain, one place is about the same as the next.
If you put an amoeba in a dish of water, it will stay pretty much wherever you have put it, provided that it has food and is comfortable. Why should it move? Apply heat to the side of the dish where the creature is, though, and pretty soon it will make its way to the other side, where the water is more comfortable.
This is a demonstration of homeostasis, the tendency of creatures to remain where they are comfortable. Actually, it’s a demonstration of what happens when you disrupt an amoeba’s condition of homeostasis — for amoebas, like every other living thing, do not make changes until they are uncomfortable.
Neither will Jimmy, but Mom doesn’t get it. You see, Mom is uncomfortable when she thinks about not taking care of Jimmy, because she doesn’t understand that she’s caught on a merry-go-round, and the only thing that will stop the thing is for her to jump off. Jimmy ain’t goin’ nowhere.
That’s codependency. Mom doesn’t know that it’s OK to change, because she really doesn’t understand the situation, or what is in both hers and Jimmy’s best interest. She has found the closest thing to homeostasis that she can, given her lack of understanding, but things just keep getting worse and worse. She may even realize that if something doesn’t happen the eventual result is going to be both her and her son living on the street, but she can’t face the unknown — can’t make the changes that she has to make in order for things to get better for both of them.
Jimmy, on the other hand, is a lot more comfortable where he is than in the gutter, or jail, or living in a dumpster, or experiencing any of the uncomfortable places that would upset his homeostasis and cause him to make changes. It’s pretty comfortable on his side of the dish; Mom’s taking all the heat.
The obvious answer, of course, is for Mom to tell James that he’s all grown up now, and he needs to start taking care of himself, beginning with a stint in detox and then treatment or at least some AA meetings, or else he’s going to be out on the street. Then she needs to follow up her decision and statement with the appropriate action.
That’s obvious to us, because we understand codependency now, including how it impacts both the codependent and the addict or, rather, both addicts, since Mom is as surely addicted to the situation (and to James) as he is to his booze. Living with an active alcoholic makes people crazy, and Mom needs help as badly as James does. She needs to understand how “helping” him is actually enabling him to continue his unacceptable behavior, and she needs support and guidance in dealing with an entirely new way of looking at her world, just as he does with his.
We do understand now…don’t we? How many more kinds of situations can you think of where these principles would hold? Relationships of other kinds? Job woes? Abuse? Fear of change is natural. Sometimes familiar things, miserable though they are, are more comfortable that that leap into the unknown. Only when we are ready to make changes and are shown alternatives are we able to overcome the instinct to remain on familiar territory. It’s ironic that disrupting our comfort is the only path that leads to finding it again.