CW: discussion of mental illness and addiction, racism, sexism, colonization, gentrification, incarceration, etc.
My name is Angel and I am codependent. And there’s actually a good chance you are too, at least to some extent, especially if you are part of a marginalized or otherwise displaced community. I should advise that I am not a medical professional and nothing in this document constitutes medical advice.
I argue we live in a codependent society.
But when I say codependent — what do you think of? Probably someone (usually a woman) staying in a toxic, unhealthy relationship with a no good man she thinks she can fix. That’s a valid image and actually is the root of the term — but it is an oversimplification. [This shouldn’t be confused with someone, usually a woman, who is forced to stay in a toxic relationship due to financial or socio-economic restraints — that’s another discussion entirely and can exist both with and without psychological codependency.]
Codependency is often described as one-sided relationship, usually involving someone caring for or coddling someone with substance use disorder. Again, valid, but not far enough. However, because there is no medical consensus on codependency, and it is absent from the DSM, there doesn’t tend to be common agreement on the terminology.
Fact is, codependent behavior can exist within a variety of different dynamics. I argue that codependency is actually the parent of substance use order. And for that matter, I will argue that substance doesn’t necessarily mean intoxicants. Rather, it has a deeper meaning.
Substance is whatever device or devices a codependent uses to fulfill their void. It could be drugs, alcohol, family members, partners, children, careers, volunteer work, pets, money, wealth, fame, celebrity worship, sex, gambling or a combination thereof.
Codependency is described by psychologist Bruce K Alexander as a powerful dedication or devotion to a habit or pursuit that may interfere with one’s life.
Does Alexander’s description fit in the above substances? Can someone have a powerful dedication or devotion to alcohol which will interfere with one’s life? A powerful dedication or devotion to a partner? Their own child? A dog? Their career? The answer is, quite frankly, yes.
According to Alta Mira Recovery, the term codependency was initially created to describe the wives of alcoholics, for their tendency to need to fix their husbands. They state that codependency is born out of dysfunctional family dynamics, mental health or physical health disabilities and/or child abuse.
And when we look at the traits of codependency by Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT, we can see these types of behaviors and feelings in people across the spectrum of substances listed above:
- Low self-esteem (✓)
- People pleasing (✓)
- Poor boundaries (✓)
- Reactivity (✓)
- Caretaking (✓)
- Control (✓)
- Dysfunctional communication
- Obsessions (✓)
- Dependency (✓)
- Issues with intimacy (✓)
- Painful/overwhelming emotions (✓)
(✓) indicates that it is something that I experience. Certainly, you could be codependent and not experience ALL of these symptoms. Additionally, you could be experiencing some of these symptoms and not have codependency. Everything psychological exists on a spectrum — but this opens some guidance to commonalities. For example, caretaking isn’t inherently codependent behavior. Sometimes its an obligation due to your relationship (such as a parent) and sometimes its just the humane and decent thing to do. But there are healthy models of caretaking and destructive models — because again, spectrums.
Now, many of us (although not many enough) have an understanding of how addiction plays into this when it the substance is alcohol or drugs. Sadly, addiction is criminalized deeply and stigmatized and that is rooted deeply in racism. That is important to acknowledge and will become relevant again later during this discussion.
I like to define codependency into two categories: respectable codependence and non-respectable codependence.
Respectable codependence is romantic relationships, parent to child, pets and career. These are considered good things — and our society has a very unhealthy image of what these SHOULD look like, so often dangerous codependence is seen as something to be proud of. (Slight sidebar, but think about the language we use about love: “you are my world’, “I need you”, “you complete me”….not healthy…but it’s in every movie or popular song in one way or another). Nonrespectable codependence is alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex or other “seedy” fixes. Though society will still glamorize them through our media, in ways.
Dr. Marie-Line Germain, PhD in Leadership with a Specialization in Human Resources did a fascinating dialogue with Codependency No More. In her discussion, she mentions the lack of information on the subject by the American Psychological Association. She then goes on to talk about the codependent employee and how it is detrimental to all involved.
Dr. Germain brought forth some incredibly insightful discussion pieces, one of which was the traits of the codependent employee. Seeking approval, low self-esteem, dependency in boss or co-workers, oversensitive to feedback, excessive feelings of being overworked and higher stress levels. These can lead to an inability to not delegate work and, of course, burnout. Have you ever worked with an employee like this? Is this you? It’s me.
Have you ever known someone who is “married” to their job? What are some things you see? Let’s go back to Lancer’s symptoms of codependency. Do these people that are “married” to their jobs seem to have people pleasing elements (people could be their bosses or customers), lack of boundaries (sure I’ll stay late on my daughters birthday), caretaking mentality (I’ll fix it!), control (never delegates or when they do, nitpick or micromanage), dysfunctional and inconsistent communication (tone is always variant, over-communicates, IMs you the same thing they just emailed you), obsessive behavior (got to meet the goals!), issues with intimacy (never sees spouse, children or friends…because work) and painful or overwhelming emotions (actual feelings hurt when there is performance feedback, takes issues at work personally).
Many people whose substance is career suffer with meaningful relationships, if they have them at all. They see friends drop off and their partnerships fail — or suffer greatly. Career codependents may also take to additional substances, like alcohol or drugs, to take the edge of. It will not be uncommon for career codependents to be identified by their job (such as, Carol the Accountant) because there isn’t much else known of their identity.
But can you see Lancer’s symptoms in parents? Unfortunately, usually mothers due to the misogynistic gender roles imposed upon the parental roles. This one is complicated, of course, because parenting is a huge responsibility but far too many mothers lose their identity when they become parents. Now they are so-and-so’s mom to everyone. Ever met a parent that was a people pleaser with their children — sure, they should want to make their children happy but even with children you have to assert boundaries at SOME point. I know parents who have no boundaries with their ADULT children. That’s where both poor boundaries and unhealthy caretaking come in. OF COURSE a parent should be a caretaker of their young children — but when the means are available, a codependent parent might obsessively call Grandma (who is babysitting) to check in when she’s supposed to be on date night or out with the girls — because of her desire to be the caretaker and her feeling of needing to be in control. Ever met a parent that was obsessed with their child? I don’t mean like loving their child. I mean their child signs up for activities or wants to go hang out with their friends and there is Dad, going along with them, every time. The parent finds themselves unable to detach in a healthy way — and then when the child finally does break away, the parent obsessively checks in, even when there is no indication of worry. While empty nest syndrome is perfectly natural — it will be particularly detrimental to the codependent parent.
And so on and so forth.
Psychologist Alexander hones in on the subject matter in a much deeper way. If you’ve ever heard of the Rat Park experiment in the 1970’s, you’d know that community is the key to recovery from addiction.
The War on Drugs was started with a clear and evident racist intent, “declared” only six years after the end to legal de jure segregation via the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Since the declaration, drugs have been criminalized and have impacted Black communities across the country at alarming rates, despite the fact that white and Black people do drugs at the same rate. Of course, white people have been locked up and criminalized as well, but as Dr. Michelle Alexander explains in her book The New Jim Crow, they are casualties of war rather than the target. While addiction stigmatization (for nonrespectable codependence) exists toward many, it is particularly noticeable that when and if compassion for addiction is ever shown, it is usually toward a cis white person, whereas Black people suffering from addiction are considered criminals and “lost cause”s by almost all onlookers, which allows dominant society to remain, in their minds, “better than them.”
But is [Bruce] Alexander’s assertions that community is a key competent to addiction recovery lie only within the Rat Park? No. Look at Alcoholics Anonymous. While not successful for everyone, it has made an impact, as well as it’s sister organizations for other addictions (and for supporting loved ones of addictions, who usually are codependent). Following the 12 steps might have something to do with it, but ultimately, AA brings a sense of community. Community brings a sense of belonging, pride and purpose. The community theory isn’t limited to AA. Researchers Jerome and Halkitis (2014) discovered that Black gay men suffering from substance abuse tend to perform better in recovery when in support group communities with other Black gay men, as it builds not only community but mutual trust.
But now it’s time to dive deeper in Alexander’s research “Healing Addiction Through Community”.
Alexander states that addiction is a way that people with unmet needs respond to what is missing or causing trauma within their lives or communities. Alexander also does not limit addiction to intoxicants but rather includes sex, wealth, power, gambling, love, shopping, hoarding, social media, etc. And his belief, as cited earlier, contends that addiction is the powerful dedication or devotion to a habit or pursuit that is damaging to one’s life.
I was interested when I saw Alexander begin by talking about Christopher Columbus, a well-known Genoa born colonizer who lead to the genocide and pillaging in the Americas in his “voyage” from the Crown of Spain. In Alexander’s text, he brings up fragmentation of societies. With that, he means the literal destruction of communities through forces such as disease, enslavement, religious indoctrination, economic or resource exploitation and ecosystem destruction. All of these horrific actions tore communities apart violently, and of course, Columbus is only one example of colonizing. As a result of fragmentation, communities experience dislocation, which is an experience of void or multiple levels of alienation.
And as such, dislocation leads to an absence of an enduring or sustaining connection between individuals and their families, communities and/or societies.
How truly connected are most people to society? In this capitalism? It’s pretty much a rat race to be better than the other with a survival of the fittest attitude.
Now, let’s think about fragmentation in a more modern context. The enslavement and trafficking of African people. The war on drugs which took over and destroyed entire communities. Gentrification. The exile and exclusion of gay, bi and lesbian people from society. The further exile of transgender people from both dominant society and the niche gay communities. Even poverty through middle class working lives — with one or both parent working 40+ hours, how can families develop true, sincere bonds, let alone communities?
Alexander states that prolonged dislocation undermines the societal bases of belonging, identity, meaning and purpose. This creates an empty and dismal life experience. Think back to AA — a community which has belonging, identity, meaning and purpose. While imperfect, think about the gay scene — belonging, identity, meaning and purpose. Even think about churches — belonging, identity, meaning and purpose.
Alexander cites several contributors to codependent and by extension addictive behaviors, including intrauterine stress due to overworked and/or under-resourced pregnant parents-to-be, lack of attachment and bonding during infancy (common due to parents being required to return to work or go without pay), child abuse or trauma due to fragmented families (divorce, incarcerated parents, poverty, overworked parents, death of a parent), lack of stable housing and lack of community within neighborhoods. Certainly that is not an exhaustive list.
So — how does this relate to codependency? Well, fragmentation leads to dislocation which leads to a void and emptiness. And one’s substance can help make someone feel like that void is being filled. So, being the star employee fills the void or being the cool dad. Being the wife that holds the family together. Or drugs, alcohol and party life fill the void. In essence, it creates at least an illusion of belonging, identity, meaning and purpose.
Not surprisingly though, codependency only leads to further dislocation. And one particularly troubling aspect is how Alexander acknowledges that society knows and understands the true, deeper impact of dislocation. It’s seen as unbearable. That is why it exists as a punishment (solitary confinement, excommunication from communities or religion, exile).
I think most people in the United States land somewhere on the codependent spectrum. Some may be less chronic or severe than others but somewhere. The lack of emotional connection and the absence of community makes it almost impossible avoid — and if you exist in a marginalized identity, your likelihood of codependency is even stronger. It is easy to look into marginalized communities and blame them for their plight. Because they stay in bad relationships. They chose to get high or drunk all the time. They chose to this or that.