How My Untreated Codependency Led Me to Addiction

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How My Untreated Codependency Led Me to Addiction

By Carol Weis 10/20/16

Fear and shame are at the center of co-dependency: fear that what we experienced in childhood will happen again, and shame that we were in some way responsible for it.

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How My Untreated Codependency Led Me to Addiction
“There are many addictions used to plaster over and pretend away anxiety…. We deflect the work of solving our life’s anxieties and fears into addictions.”

“Co-dependency is our set of self-defeating behaviors that impair the expression of our true, highest selves… Our histories include other powerful addictions that we used to cope with our co-dependency.” These were some of the words I heard the moderator speak when I sat in on my first CoDA meeting. 

I had already been to dozens of AA meetings when my therapist gently suggested I go to CoDA, otherwise known as Co-Dependents Anonymous. I’d been sober for five months and she noticed I had trouble keeping the focus on myself. She mentioned there was a weekly CoDA meeting on the Smith College campus, around the corner from where we sat. 

I soon discovered this was where my true recovery began.

The seeds of co-dependency were planted early in my life. When I was three, my mother was hospitalized with tuberculosis for 18 long months. She had just given birth to my younger brother, who was taken from her before she could even bring him home. My siblings and I were farmed out to various locations, my sister and I were shuffled here and there. At one of these places, I endured sexual abuse that I immediately repressed, only becoming aware of it years later when I got sober.

After my youngest brother was born, my mom relapsed and was hospitalized again for another year. My father’s sister, who’d never had children of her own, came to care for us. The upside-down chaos that evolved from her inexperience with kids was palpable every day.  

This disruption to our family life—this chaotic way of living for many of our early years, deeply affecting our young psyches—was never processed with therapy. My parents didn’t believe in or understand the practice. Instead, they dealt with things like this by drinking—the problem solving elixir that in the long run rarely works. 

Though they seemed fairly functional to the outside world, major damage was being done to our family and their marriage. “Dwelling in a bad marriage is a form of need wrapped up in resentments, which can get very ugly,” says Rhoda Mills Sommer, LCSW. By the time I was a teenager, the destruction that alcohol had caused in my parent’s relationship was unmistakeable, and though my sister and I spent countless hours trying to fix it, we never could. 

Because of all this, I developed a surplus of co-dependent behaviors to help me cope, a list of symptoms that seldom served me (or often those around me) well. These patterns or characteristics erupted around problems including, but not limited to, denial, low self-esteem, compliance, control, and avoidance, driven in most cases by fear and shame. As a result, the feelings these kinds of behaviors produce need to be stifled, and the use of alcohol and drugs answers that call for many.

It certainly did for me.

Fear and shame reside at the center of co-dependency: fear that what we experienced in childhood will happen again, and shame that we were in some way responsible for it. Susan Anderson, an expert on the trauma of abandonment, discusses its effects by saying, “We can see most of the symptoms of traumatic stress in children who go through upheaval, disconnection, and loss in their families. Unlike adults, children do not have the tools with which to temper the impact of separation trauma. Their hurts, heartaches, and disappointments can leave a powerful imprint on their developing brains and affect their emotional responses throughout life.” For me, my core issue was fear of abandonment, so I glommed onto people in a desperate and somewhat pitiful way, oftentimes chasing them away as I tried to make them love me. I once had a boyfriend tell me that my neediness left claw marks, which of course, made him run. 

But the biggest effect my fear and co-dependency had on my life was the feeding of fuel to my addictive genes. My drug of choice was alcohol, but my co-dependency pushed me toward other problematic behaviors—like having sex with every Tim, Rich, and Henry, using it to gain approval and acceptance, accepting sex when what I really wanted was love. “There are many addictions used to plaster over and pretend away anxiety… We deflect the work of solving our life’s anxieties and fears into addictions,” says Mills Sommer. I don’t remember ever having sex without the aid of copious amounts of booze.

This fear of intimacy I struggled with was carried over from my childhood sexual abuse, even though I had no conscious awareness of the abuse until a few years into my sobriety. The fear I possessed was influenced by shame. In his classic recovery title, Healing the Shame that Binds You, John Bradshaw wrote, “A person with internalized shame believes he is inherently flawed, inferior and defective. Such a feeling is so painful that defending scripts (or strategies) are developed to cover it up. These scripts are the roots of… all forms of addiction… To be shame-bound means that whenever you feel any feeling, need or drive, you immediately feel ashamed. The dynamic core of your human life is grounded in your feelings, needs and drives. When these are bound by shame, you are shamed to the core.” Deep down, I felt I was unloveable—which was acted out with risky behavior, validating this belief.

Seeking to numb the shame, I created a vicious cycle, getting drunk then jumping into bed with men I hardly knew, slinking away the next morning, hungover and cloaked in another layer of shame. All the while, searching for the love I missed as a young child, thinking that sex was the same as the love I sought.  

So when I went to my first CoDA meeting and heard this explanation of co-dependency, I knew that this is where I belonged. “Co-dependency is our set of self-defeating behaviors that impair the expression of our true, highest selves… We developed these behaviors by internalizing the oppressive messages and actions of those around us… Our histories include other powerful addictions that we used to cope with our co-dependency.” The meeting was called the Women’s Empowerment group, and was filled with women with all sorts of issues, including addictions to alcohol, drugs, food, love, and sex, to name a few. 

Most of us had grown up in dysfunctional family systems, and/or became enmeshed in toxic relationships. As family therapist and author of Codependency For Dummies, Darlene Lancer says, “Co-dependency is often thought of as a relationship problem and considered by many to be a disease. In the past, it was applied to relationships with alcoholics and drug addicts. It is a relationship problem; however, the relationship that’s the problem is not with someone else—it’s the one with yourself. That is what gets reflected in your relationships with others.” We’d all spent much of our lives focusing on others instead of keeping the focus on ourselves, on our own issues and actions.

When I joined the group, I was fighting to save my marriage, desperately wanting my ex to stop drinking like I did. I was overwhelmed by the confusion of feelings I was having now that I could no longer numb myself with alcohol. This group of women mirrored my confusion and my archive of issues. They cried when I cried, listened deeply to my worries, and laughed at things they connected with, helping me to release a smattering of shame with each meeting I attended, the shame I’d carted around for years. A shame, I’m happy to say, has unleashed its stranglehold on me and my life. 

When I got sober, I recovered the power to change by recognizing the issues and behaviors that inhibited me from loving myself and others in a healthy way. My recovery from co-dependency is still an ongoing challenge. Slipping back into old ways is something I struggle with most days. But I’ve learned a new way of being through this program, and I’m forever grateful for the guidance and love I’ve received.  

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