“No, Mrs. Wishnefski, I don’t know why the cereal boxes are on the top shelf.” It was a flippant answer, I know. I just didn’t want to interact with her—again. I turned my back on Mrs. W. hoping to avoid a barrage of snooping questions. She refused to read my body language and tried to pry and gossip about several of the neighbors.
That was it. I had had it. I stopped slicing the boiled ham, turned, and said, “Mrs. Wishnefski, please. I have no idea why Mrs. Cegielski hasn’t been in to shop this week. Please stop interrupting, and wait your turn like the other customers.”
Dear reader, who or what, you may ask is a Mrs. Wishnefski. Well, Mrs. W. was a real person. Moreover, Mrs. Wishnefski was a label. She was the first label that stuck to me in my formative years.
Mother had divorced my alcoholic dad when I was five years old. My sister Peg, brother Joe, Mom, and I lived with my Grandpop who owned the corner Polish butcher shop. Four uncles, an aunt, and two cousins also called this attached three-story house their home. At one time or another, we all worked in the store.
One of our regular customers was the neighborhood busybody, Mrs. Wishnefski. I must have imitated some of her nosey-body characteristics, because whenever I tried to fix things around the store, or join in the gossip, my uncles scowled at me and said,
“Okay Mrs. Wishnefski let me handle this.”
When I tried to tell my younger sister what to do, Mom bent down, eyeball to eyeball and reminded me, “Mrs. Wishnefski, stop bossing your younger sister. I’m the mother in this family.”
With all the authoritative figures in our competitive household, it was natural I would want to be just like them. But it was the covert drama played out between mom and dad that convinced me to always have a plan. To practice my A B C’s—Always Be in Control. Alert and ready to protect my mother, younger sister, and my older brother, if needed. That was my introduction Codependent Training Course101.
In high school, my people-fixer trait (or was it a curse) kicked in. I was the “Go-To” classmate who would nurse a friend through a breakup with her beau. If there was a committee to join, I signed up and followed through to make sure things were done the right way—my way. Trying to win the “Satisfaction Guaranteed” award perfected my enabling personality.
After graduation, I proudly wore the label of “Mrs. Robert Jellen.”
Among friends and neighbors, I earned the labels, “Helpful neighbor.” “Dutiful wife and mother.” “Party planner.”
Not surprisingly, I accumulated more merit badges than most Girl Scouts. Outwardly, I basked in the glowing labels while inwardly I felt overwhelmed. It wasn’t long before bitterness pasted a “Victim/ Martyr” badge on my lapel.
Denial had blinded me from what was to come. The booze parties I contributed to were not so much fun anymore. My plan to oversee every situation crumbled as my husband’s drinking spiraled out of control. That was when I earned the label, “Designated Driver” long before the term was in vogue. Little did I realize making excuses for my husband’s habit contributed to his addiction. Simultaneously, my co-addiction took an equally deep dive.
At this low point, I didn’t argue when my husband labeled me “Party pooper,” “Nagging wife.” He was right; I wasn’t fun anymore.
Then a label I prayed I would never wear was branded on me like a scarlet letter, “D”.
I was now a “Divorcee.”
Along with the big “D”, I pinned badges of depression, anger, fear, isolation and hopelessness to my chest. Weighed down with labels and guilt, a therapist suggested Al-Anon.
When I got to Step 6, I was more than entirely ready to have God remove my defects of character. It was then my Higher Power helped unpin the heaviness of labels He never intended for me to wear. It was time to reinvent myself and acknowledge the admirable titles I had worked to achieve.
After eight years of night school, I received a proud new label, “College Graduate.”
My outlook brightened when a “Grandmother” pin took center place on my chest.
When I added “Blogger,” and “Author,” I realized my personal worth.
Like Rembrandt, Renoir, Michelangelo, I am one of a kind.
My Higher Power’s intervention convinced me. I am a Masterpiece.
My codependent friends. What will it take you to discard the degrading labels you’ve accepted as truth?
January 2017 marks the third annual National Codependency Awareness Month. The New Year is a perfect time to transform your self-image with labels of hope. The following list is an awareness exercise to start you on your way. Feel free to add other labels that have influenced how you see yourself.
1. Growing up, what labels/names did your family call you?
2. Were they complementary names or painful insults?
3. Junior and senior high school – our emotional years. What labels did others hang on you?
4. What loving pet name did your boyfriend or girlfriend call you?
5. Or was it a not-so-tender pet name your significant other called you.
6. What name-calling stuck to you and broke your spirit?
7. What steps will you take to rid yourself of the lies of the past?
My friends, it’s time to grab the Goo Be Gone label removal and rub off those lies. Next, take a stick-‘em-note, or slip of paper and write down the goodness you see in yourself. Tomorrow, write down the significance of who you are—that day. Then one day at a time, pin a label describing your unique specialness. Put your proper name(S) on the refrigerator, computer screen, bathroom mirror, or wherever to remind you of the dignity of who you are that particular day. And every day to come.
Give yourself permission to remove the labels you have allowed others to brand on you. Together, let’s define who we are with brand-new names of optimism.
“You’ll get a brand-new name straight from the mouth of God. You’ll be a stunning crown in the palm of God’s hand, a jeweled gold cup held high in the hand of your God. No more will anyone call you Rejected” ~ Isaiah 62:2c-4b MSG
Diane M. Jellen has worked at several treatment facilities in PA and FL. As an employee of the School District of Palm Beach County Alternative Education Department, she worked at an adolescent drug and alcohol recovery center. Diane designated January as National Codependency Awareness Month. She is also the author of the award-winning book, My Resurrected Heart: A Codependent’s Journey to Healing. Be sure to read Diane’s insightful daily blogs during National Codependency Awareness Month at www.dianejellen.com.