Codependency with an addicted person is sometimes thought of as an addiction in itself, an addiction to helping that actually makes things worse. There is some truth to this, but it paints the codependent as a sick person, which is not so true. In fact, healthy people including good bosses and even health care professionals fall into codependent patterns. What I see the most of are normal reactions to someone who is lost but rejects real help.
My most sophisticated definition of codependency: Wishful thinking.
Every instance of codependency involves fooling yourself into thinking you can help when you can’t. Concretely, there are four distinct codependent reactions. They often take place in sequence. Each one, while completely natural and understandable, makes the situation worse. A fifth reaction, which is not natural and must usually be learned, actually helps. Here are the four codependent reactions and the fifth, healthy one.
1. Denial. The first reaction is to look the other way, normalize the situation. “Everyone drinks a little too much from time to time.” Of course this supports the addict’s denial and helps the illness to progress. The addict gains confidence that everything is OK as is.
2. Control: Hoping to influence the situation, you avoid parties, you mark the bottles, you plead and nag. Addicts hate to be controlled but love to play cat and mouse. Guess what, the mouse wins. Addicts are happy to let you be responsible for the good behavior while the addict handles the bad. Attempts to control the addict will soon fail. What’s worse, since you have become involved, the addict will now hold you responsible for the failure. It is no longer his or her problem, it is yours. “You are always on my back. If you would only stop nagging me, then I wouldn’t use drugs!”
3. Anger/Depression: When your efforts to control the other person fail, you begin to feel angry. Or, depending on your personality, you might start to question yourself and feel depressed and guilty over your failure. Your expressions of anger will bring self pity, “I drink to escape from your constant criticism.” Your self-doubt will fuel the disease: “That’s right, I get high because you are so inadequate.” Either way, you have only fueled the fire.
4. Rejection: Finally, you have had it. You have tried everything, and in your frustration and rage, you are ready to blame your addict and banish him or her from your life. Of course that, too is fuel for the self-pity engine that relieves the addict of any remaining sense of responsibility for his or her fate.
5. Detach with Love. This is the healthy one that most people have to learn. Al-anon, the 12 step program for codependents, teaches that you do best to accept that you can’t control the other person and to recognize that he or she isn’t in control either. We feel angry and rejecting when we think the addict WON’T control the problem, but when we realize the truth that he or she CAN’T control it, then the appropriate emotion is sadness. To make it more understandable, think of being at a sports event where you care very much about the outcome but have no power to control it. It is OK to be vocal about your feelings, but you can’t go onto the field and tell the coach and players what to do.
Sometimes detach with love is interpreted as being completely passive. When you can do something effective, please do. For example, protect yourself, think about doing an intervention, consider applying consequences. Just don’t do things you know will be of no help. I only advocate letting go when it is clear that all genuinely helpful actions have been tried. Then, and only then, it is time to accept reality and stop the wishful thinking.
When you actually let go, interesting things may begin to happen. The addicted person no longer has a cozy, comfy foil to play off. The addict feels alone for the first time. There is a sudden cool breeze that may lead to self reflection. Hitting “rock bottom” is not always when things are absolutely terrible. Sometimes it is the dawning of awareness that something in the world is even more precious than the substance and that one can’t have both. Even if there is no awakening, at least you will know that you have done all you realistically can. When you acknowledge this, you will be cured of wishful thinking and codependency.