Some Comments About Codependency

Codependency, originally called co-alcoholism, refers to a group of emotional difficulties commonly experienced by people who are involved with addicts: family, close friends, co-workers, and so forth.

Our Addicts Make Us Crazy

Addicts behave in crazy ways, and their behavior affects the people close to them.  As their codependents adjust their lives and attitudes to life with a person suffering from chemically-induced insanity, they begin to move away from normal behavior, in an attempt to keep life on something like an even keel.

To begin with, this may include things like calling the addict in sick when he or she is too impaired to make it in to work, or supplying drinks or drugs to keep the addict pacified.  Kids may make excuses for dad not being at their school activities, or their inability to invite friends home as guests because of mom's condition.  As the addict's functioning decreases, the spouse make take on more responsibilities, and may spend a great deal of time and energy trying to control the addict and keep him or her from using. Most of us have seen this sort of thing, and wondered why in the world people put up with living that way.

Family Secrets

The family is the basic unit of society, and family members are often loyal to a fault.  All of the family members adjust their attitudes and behavior to keep the family as stable as possible — to keep the family secrets — in the face of the worsening circumstances.  Older children may become companions and support for the non-using partner or, in the case of more than one addict, may have to care for smaller children — perhaps protect them from the behavior of the adults.

No one likes these changes away from a normal life, but all try their best to keep the house of cards from falling down because they do not understand that there are alternatives, or are afraid to explore them.  As the process continues, the rest of the family becomes as abnormal in certain respects as the addict(s), because of the forced deviation from normal relationships and childhood development.  Everyone becomes convinced that things can't go on this way, but everyone is stymied, and cannot see a way out — a classic double-bind, that is classically crazy-making.

Looked at this way, it is easy to see how families can come to need treatment as much as their addicts.  However, there is often a lot of denial on the part of codependents: “Hey, he's the crazy one.  I'm the one who keeps things together!”  Adult partners may become accustomed to calling the shots, and may resist giving up the authority when the addict gets into recovery.  Children will not trust the using adult, although they still feel the familial bond.  They will be terribly confused.  Unless these family members — especially the children — get some help dealing with the crazy thinking, emotional (and often physical) abuse, and other problems caused by being so close to an addict's behavior for so long, their difficulties adjusting to new relationships later in life are likely to be severe.

All of the above applies, to greater or lesser degree, to everyone who has to cope with an active addict.  We all adjust our behavior to accommodate the skewed antics of our addicts.  When the adjustments are too big, or last too long, we ourselves become sucked into the addict's world.  That is why we say that addiction is a family disease.  Just as alcoholics and other addicts will do whatever they need to in order to support their addiction, so do codependents change their lives and do whatever they have to do to adjust to life with the addict.  In a sense, they become addicted to their addicts.

Codependency is also common in family members and caretakers of people with disabilities, major grief issues, and other life-changing, chronic conditions.

What To Do?

There are a number of 12-Step groups, such as Nar-Anon, Al-Anon and AlaTeen, formed so that folks who have been through the madness of codependency can help those who are still “under the influence” get their lives together.  There are also treatment centers that offer specialized treatment for codependents.  Such measures are strongly recommended for folks with loved ones and friends in recovery, and will do a great deal to insure the survival of the family after treatment.

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