Late one evening, a friend went to the university cafeteria to get a cup of coffee. The kitchen was closed and he inadvertently walked into an Al-Anon meeting, but the group was welcoming and invited him to stay; he accepted the invitation and took a seat. As he listened to the group he gleaned two principle messages. First, “You can’t argue with a drunk.” And second, “He was not responsible for his husband’s alcoholism.” While these themes were specific to spouses of alcoholics, their message was universal. We all have “drunks” in our lives: irrational individuals with self-defeating behaviors.
When I recommend Al-Anon to the parents and families of my clients, they often report that it doesn’t apply to them. “Most of the people at the meeting were dealing with an alcoholic spouse. I can’t see any connection to them.” Some complain, “Those people seemed so stuck, so depressed. I walked away feeling sorry for them.” In his book Addictive Thinking, Twerski offers that people suffering from codependency have the same excuses for avoiding treatment as addicts. Excuses like “those people are different,” “I don’t have a problem,” and “the people in those meetings are much worse than me” are common refrains.
The fact is that everyone could benefit from attending 12-step meetings for codependent behaviors. When clients tell me they are not going to get anything out of treatment, I respond tongue-in-cheek, “Wow. You must really be sick. There is a lot to learn here and the healthier you are, the more you will benefit. If you are so sick that you can’t get anything out of treatment, the problem is more serious that I thought.”
I have treated many addicts and alcoholics who have either refused to look at their own codependency or have never considered it. It is my experience that codependency is at the root of most addiction. In some ways it is the purest form of addiction. The addict is often medicating guilt, shame and anxiety from relationship trauma. The problem in codependency is that the markers are subtler than those in chemical dependency. After all, our codependency usually doesn’t lead to jail or the hospital.
I was talking with an acquaintance in long-term recovery for addiction some time ago. He was telling me the story of his engagement and he shared some of his doubts, “I don’t think I am ready to be married, but my fiancé has told her family and we have a date.”
“What does she say when you tell her about your reservations?” I asked.
“I haven’t told her,” he responded. “She would freak out.”
I asked him if he had ever been to an Al-Anon or CoDA meeting and he laughed at the thought. “I don’t have codependency! Those meetings are full of pathetic people.”
This sentiment is not rare. Many addicts see the codependents as weaker people, perhaps because they project onto codependents the traits they see in their codependent family members. Regardless of the resistance, I believe most could benefit from a closer exploration of their own codependency. Whether through misunderstanding or due to the negative associations of codependency, I think that many of the core tenants of the disease are missed by many. I want to highlight a couple of ideas that I think many miss when considering their own codependency.
Guilt is not the cure. Shame is the feeling that “one is bad” while guilt is “what I did was bad.” The implied idea might be that guilt somehow correlates with morality: shame is something that causes us to hide, but guilt is how we know right and wrong. The idea that guilt is our conscience is both universally accepted and fundamentally incorrect. Most of us learn guilt from our parents. They tell us how we upset them or hurt them in an attempt to get us to change our behavior. We replicate that dynamic when we tell the addict about how their addictive behaviors hurt us and worry us, “We love them and they should stop doing those things so we will stop hurting.”
While relating to the addict how their addiction hurts us can inform
the addict, it usually doesn’t work as the reason for recovery. Others being hurt by our behavior is not necessarily an indication that we did something wrong. We can all think of examples where we have felt guilt while doing the right thing. When I talk to family members of alcoholics, they often tell me they did the wrong thing even though they knew it was wrong at the time. Inevitably they state, “I felt guilty.” We must have the courage to feel guilty in order to do the right things. And we mustn’t reduce our interventions with the loved ones in our lives to “guilting.” We do tell them that we care, but more centrally we offer a mirror to them so they might see how they are failing themselves. Morality and empathy come as we learn to feel. When one learns to feel one’s feelings, one recognizes and is sensitive to the feelings of others.
Healthy detachment, connection and healthy attachment. During a family weekend, a parent complained “You are always talking about detachment. When are you going to talk about reunion and connection?” I was taken back by the question and paused. Had I, in my emphasis on detachment, missed honoring the need for connection?
He was grieving his son and wanted reassurance that this process would conclude with an improved relationship with his son, not estrangement. I responded,
“Healthy detachment is healthy attachment. The opposite of healthy detachment isn’t connection; the opposite is unhealthy detachment or unhealthy attachment. If we can develop differentiation in our relationships, we also create intimacy. Intimacy requires the separation of identities. This development of individuals is the first ingredient in intimacy.”
Many make the mistake of equating over-identification with “too-much-love.” Over-identification or enmeshment is the most severe form of abandonment since over-identifying misses the other person altogether. The fusion of selves in over-identification results in one person being left out of the equation.
Finally, addiction and codependency are insidious diseases, inextricably linked. The addict is suffering from facets of codependency and these dynamics play out in their relationships. Treating professionals also suffer from codependent traits and
if these are not explored, they will play out in relationships with clients. To be effective, treating professionals should lead by examining and exploring their own codependency. Just because the disease of addiction is an insidious one, it should not preclude the self-examination of the therapist or the therapeutic approach.
Brad Reedy, Ph.D. is the Owner and Clinical Director of Evoke Therapy Programs
He is also the author of The Journey of the Heroic Parent: Your Child’s Struggle and the Road Home