“It’s amazing how many people still don’t understand codependency, even when it is consuming them and those they love. The need to fix others is always easier than accepting we are codependent and need help.”
~Jeanette E. Menter, Christian Lay Counselor and author of You’re Not Crazy—You’re Codependent: What Everyone Affected by Addiction, Abuse, Trauma, or Toxic Shame Needs to Know
In relationships that are healthy, both partners comfortably and confidently rely on each other for help, understanding, and support. The relationship brings something positive to both people’s lives.
Interdependency is a GOOD thing. After all, everyone occasionally needs help from someone else.
However, when you are close to someone with a Substance Use Disorder—alcoholism, illegal drug use, or the abuse of prescription medications—it is far too easy to become trapped within a dysfunctional and desperate downward spiral.
Of course you want to take care of and protect your addicted loved one – it’s only natural. However, when your efforts to “help” the substance abuser result in the neglect of your other important obligations – your family, bills, job, or health – then it indicates a problem. When you are so responsible for that person that you lose yourself, you have developed a codependency.
How Codependency Affects YOU
“To love an addict is to run out of tears.”
~Sandy Swensen, author of The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction
Codependent people allow their wants, needs, and responsibilities to become secondary to those of the addict. It is accurate to say that they “need to be needed”, because a codependent’s identity is largely defined by all they do for their addicted loved one.
This is particularly true in relationships impacted by addiction. Frequently, the non-drug-using/non-drinking partner becomes the “caretaker” of the addict, whether they like it or not. It becomes their job to clean up the addict’s messes.
This warped dynamic causes the codependent to suffer just as much as the addict. The other areas of their life are significantly and negatively impacted because they focus all their time, attention, energy, and resources on the person with the SUD.
Eventually, codependents start to resent all the one-sided “sacrifices” they are making for their “unappreciative” substance-abusing loved one. They become:
- Passive aggressive
- Emotionally manipulative
In other words, the SOBER person becomes just as sick as the ADDICTED one. Their life spirals out of control as they allow the other person’s addiction to control them.
How Codependency Affects the Addict
And here’s the thing – overprotective codependency doesn’t help struggling substance abusers. When you are constantly covering for them, supporting them financially, or turning a blind eye to their actions, you are enabling their addiction to continue.
In fact, when an addict never has to face the consequences of their actions because you are always there to clean up after them, you are, in essence, giving them “permission” to continue to drink and use as much as they want.
Signs of a Codependent Relationship
“A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”
~ Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself
What is the difference between caring and supportive interdependence relationship and a codependent one? Here is a short test you can give yourself that lists some of the warning signs of codependency. Do you:
- Deny there is a problem?
- Have low self-esteem?
- Have a problem accepting compliments?
- Have difficulty expressing your feelings or thoughts?
- Think you are unlovable?
- Find it hard to say “NO”?
- Feel shame or embarrassment because of your loved one’s addiction?
- Ignore your own personal needs to take care of the addict?
- Neglect other obligations?
- Take responsibility for other people’s feelings?
- Blame the addict for your sadness, anxiety, or frustration?
- Find it hard to establish personal boundaries?
- Get defensive when other people disagree with you?
- Think it’s your responsibility to “fix” the addict?
- Feel rejected when someone doesn’t want your help or advice?
- Try to control or manipulate other people?
- Tell other people how they ought to behave?
- Get frustrated when they act contrary to your expectations?
- Obsessively worry about what the addict doing?
- Dream about how your life “should” be?
- Reject help from others?
- Feel afraid to be honest?
- Feel angry, anxious, or depressed?
- Worry about being “abandoned”?
- Feel trapped in your situation?
- Misuse alcohol or drugs so you can feel closer to the addict?
The more questions you answered “YES” to, the more likely it is that you are codependent.
Focus on YOURSELF to Break Free from Codependency
“Caretaking doesn’t help; it causes problems. When we take care of people and do things we don’t want to do, we ignore personal needs, wants, and feelings. We put ourselves aside. Sometimes, we get so busy taking care of people that we put our entire lives on hold… Caretakers look so responsible, but we aren’t. We don’t assume responsibility for our highest responsibility – ourselves.”
Ending codependency starts with YOU. You didn’t CAUSE the other person’s addiction, so you can’t YOUR it. Most importantly, you can’t CONTROL what your loved one does because of their disease.
If you want to help your substance-abusing loved one, YOU have to be well first. After all, you can’t be there for another person if you aren’t there for yourself.
Breaking free of codependency begins with self-examination. Ask yourself the following questions:
What Are My Strengths?
When all of your time and energy is spent on your addicted loved one, you start to lose touch with yourself. Your identity becomes lost in their disorder.
Instead, reflect on your own talents, strengths, and personal value. More importantly, remember to live your life by making positive use of those qualities. This helps you reestablish your own life and your own separate identity.
What Do I Need to Make Me Happy?
Your addicted loved one is too overwhelmed by their disease to meet your emotional needs. And, when you are codependent, you are too focused on the other person to meet your own emotional needs. Obviously, this means YOUR needs are being satisfied.
Stop neglecting yourself. Reflect upon your own needs and desires, and then take steps to fulfill them.
What Are My Financial Obligations?
Like it or not, you probably help finance your loved one’s addiction.
Oh, you may not actually buy their alcohol and drugs (although many codependents DO), but when you support them financially – paying their bills, buying their groceries, handling their legal bills and fines – it amounts to the same thing. THEIR money goes to feed their addiction, while YOUR money goes to their obligations.
By financially supporting their addiction, you may even have made a mess out of your own financial situation. That means even MORE worry and stress.
But when you take care of your own obligations FIRST, you remove that worry and stress. When your bills are paid and your financial responsibilities are met, you feel less anxiety, depression, and resentment towards the other person.
Just as important, you force the addict to face the financial consequences of their disease.
How Can I Engage with Others?
As their addiction and your codependency worsens, you may find yourself withdrawing from others – family, friends, coworkers, clergy, etc. Unnecessary shame and guilt prevents you from reaching out for help. Eventually, you are isolated, and the addiction becomes your entire world.
However, during recovery from codependency, you learn to engage your mind and occupy your time in other positive ways. You rediscover how to interact healthily with other people, especially friends and other family members that you may have ignored while focusing on the addict.
DON’TS when Loving an Addict
- Don’t let yourself be burdened by shame and guilt – 24 million Americans struggle with substance abuse, so YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Everyone knows and cares about someone else who has an addictive disorder.
- Don’t waste time nagging –. Everything that you want to say to the addict – “You would stop if you loved me” or “I wish you would quit” – they have most likely already heard somewhere else, or perhaps told themselves during a moment of remorse.
If you keep harping at them with the same worn-out arguments, they will just tune you out and stop listening to anything you say.
- Stop preaching – Adopting a “holier than thou” attitude only serves to drive the other person away.
- Don’t try to “fix” them – When you finally realize that addiction is a disease that can be managed with proper professional treatment, the better off you will be. You can’t cure their disease.
- Don’t try to “control” them –You can’t convince, argue with, or threaten the disease that compels their behaviors.
- Stop taking responsibility for their disease and their actions – You didn’t cause their addiction or make their mistakes.
- Don’t remain where there is abuse – 20% of batterers abuse drugs and 70% abuse alcohol. Over 90% of assailants admit to using drugs or alcohol on the same day they committed domestic violence.
DOS When Loving an Addict
Your energy and time are best utilized focusing on yourself. While you can’t control the addict, you CAN control yourself. This reduces the impact their disease has on your life.
- ALWAYS remember that addiction is a medically-recognized disorder of the brain – No one chooses to become addicted.
- Learn everything you can about substance abuse – Read books, attend 12-Step meetings, and talk to addiction professionals. This will help you understand what you are up against.
- Set boundaries – Enforce personal limits on the impact you allow the addict to have on your life.
- Take a break – Every day, meditate, pray, or read inspirational or positive literature while you step away from any problems.
- Get professional help – Talk to specialists who offer counseling for the families of addicts.
- Join a peer support group – You are NOT alone. Group fellowship can give you the strength and inspiration you need.
- Try to stand by the addict – Even if your physical and mental well-being requires you to separate from the other person, try to offer moral support and understanding, especially if they are sincerely making an effort to recover.
Codependency can be likened to an addiction to an addict. Your recovery from such a turbulent emotional situation will take time. So take it easy and address your issues same way that someone recovering from alcohol or drug dependence – one day at a time.
Whether or not your addicted loved one chooses to get help for their disease, YOU can still heal.