Does the title resonate? Have you felt this before, wanted to offer this act of service to a loved one? Done it, even? No?
Congratulations, you’re not codependent.
Must be nice. The earliest I can remember wishing I could experience someone’s pain for them was when I was fourteen, and my first boyfriend was suicidally depressed. This was Seattle in 1994, people. Our God of Grunge had killed himself that very spring, extinguishing a voice that made art from the collective angst, gathering and expressing the feel of the cultural moment to exquisite perfection. Oh, had I not told you before that Nirvana is my favorite band, Kurt Cobain my personal deity? In killing himself he destroyed some of the stigma surrounding suicide, and suddenly in the adolescent subculture it was ok to feel crushingly low and talk about it.
My boyfriend had been to rehab during the summer, calling me every night until he returned to the city and we became “official”. He was raw, open and accessible, speaking in detail about his tortured emotions and lack of direction. He couldn’t possibly bear it, and I wished with my entire being that his pain could somehow be transferred to me, into me, where I would make it my own, control it. I swear this isn’t a euphemism for sex. You know I would just come our and say it. At fourteen I wasn’t fucking, I was dabbling in codependency, flirting with a dangerous pattern that would become the one by which I related, and lived.
The first memory I have of expressing empathy is from when I was about three, and my dad took me to his hometown in Northern Minnesota to visit his parents’ graves. My dad was in his early thirties at the time, and had lost both parents to smoking-related diseases when he was a teenager. Their youngest child, he called himself an orphan.
We came to the two modest headstones, set in the ground, the names of my unknown grandparents. I can remember my dad dropping to his knees, eyes flooding with tears, which caused an impulse in me to lift him from his sorrow. He was crouched at my level, and I took the hem of my little tee-shirt, pulled it up and used it to dab at his eyes. I said something along the lines of “don’t be sad, me and mom are your new family.” And I’m sure he must have hugged me tightly, and I doubt my little sentiment did anything to decrease his tears, so touched was he. It’s my earliest recollection of emotional connection, and I find it fascinating that at such a young age I sought to control my dad’s feelings in some way.
Codependent. I was born this way, hey!
Because that’s what it is, at the root. An overwhelming need to control people, emotions just part of the tactics. I wanted my fifteen year old boyfriend to feel good…and I believed I had what he needed to get there. I would provide it to him, by taking away his pain, and then he would feel so good he would never break up with me and we would get married and be together forever. It didn’t really matter how I factored into the equation, or what I would do with his angst myself. I had plenty of my own, not that I was willing to look at anything outside a lovelorn lens. By making everything about others, I wouldn’t have to do anything for myself, or make any decisions, or deal with the blank space where a sense of self could have been germinating.
The environmental factors were perfect for reinforcing my burgeoning codependent nature. I had two close family members struggling with devastating, unremitting mental health issues, the kind that turn you into someone else, they change your life so radically. Some disorders can cause unpredictable behaviors and emotional outbursts that have the miserable consequence of alienating friends and family, isolating those in the inner circle with the problems. In a closed system, dysfunction flourishes, hardening into pathology over time. Like I said, the conditions were perfect.
When you’re extremely extroverted and social interaction is a vital energy source, withdrawing into yourself isn’t a viable escape option. So you learn to manipulate and control others to the best of your ability because it’s survival. Not that you think of it in those terms, because, let me be clear, we codependent folks do not have malicious intentions. We’re people who have vast emptiness inside, like the Great Plains during a tornado–grab something and hang on or be swept up and away. Other people’s problems are a reliable commodity. Soon you’re the person people come to with all their deepest secrets, their shame, longing and fear. They’ve never told anyone but you this…and they are desperate for what you have to give: everything.
Next thing I knew I was in my twenties, spending zero time thinking about my future, my needs, my dreams, even. I had bigger, more immediate issues in the day-to-day, and they were chiefly related to (figuratively) carrying my mood-disordered boyfriend on my back so he could have some sort of future. Without me he surely would have crashed entirely, having to quit law school and be hospitalized. I was holding the whole show together, which meant I was putting one foot in front of the other, charting a slow and plodding course forward, a path that would eventually wear down to a grinding, joy- and light-bereft existence. He couldn’t handle himself nor would he. But it was fine, because I was doing all the work for both of us, and none of it was my fault. In some ways it’s a marvelous existence: you control everything and have the satisfaction of knowing you’re the “together” one, that you’re heroically strong, and entirely unselfish, to boot. There is a pay-off, otherwise why would anyone do it?
Codependency is another craft humanity has dreamed up as a form of life-avoidance (see: addiction). God, we’re so smart. And so fucked up.
To be continued Thursday…