by Darren Littlejohn, guest writer for New Life Foundation
Over the last 28 years I’ve held many positions in meetings and on 12-Step Hotlines. I’m still on the graveyard shift on Sundays. Since the 12-Step Buddhist came out, I also answer questions by email, Twitter, Facebook. One of the most common questions I get is from codependent friends and family members with an addict in their lives. The co is usually desperate, confused and at wit’s end. They ask, “What can I do, he’s killing himself?” I try to never answer that question. At least not in the way that’s expected. That’s because there’s no way to cure anybody’s addiction. If we’re involved with addicts, we have to work on ourselves to heal.
These questions are pretty much always about how the co-addict can “fix” the addict, or help him or her find a solution. What is missing from their understanding is normally the “co” piece, namely that addiction is part of a system; family, social network, workplace. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. But it’s easy to view the crazy-making behavior of the addict and to focus all the blame on that individual. True, us addicts can act pretty weird. But those in relation to us participate in the sickness based on their own dynamics. These issues were present in the codependent from their own history.
Many times over the years I’ve seen one or another version of a common scenario. The addict, after plenty of struggle, finally does get some clean time. We’d expect that would make everyone in his life happy. It does and it doesn’t. With sobriety the mechanisms of relationships-individual, family, or workplace-shift. Things fall apart. When an addict stops actively participating in their addiction, the co-addict sometimes loses their place. The frame of reference changes. Things stop making sense. That’s because each player in the system has a role. The system is sick.
If the addict gets clean, it doesn’t really solve the problem of the system dynamics. Since addiction is a disease which affects relational systems, recovery needs to happen in all of the members of the system – on some level – for the system to heal. It follows that if the addict isn’t the only person in the system who is sick, their sobriety isn’t going to make everyone else well. Whether the addict gets clean, relapses or stays clean, the dynamics of the system will shift.
Codependency Red Flags
(adapted from Melody Beattie, Codependent No More)
How do you know when you’re being co? For me, it’s a feeling I’ve come to recognize. When I feel myself being drawn in, I usually notice it and draw back. But it wasn’t always this way. It took a long time to see how this works and longer to get enough space to work on solutions.
Here are some codependent habits that are more related to taking care of an addict who is still active in their addiction:
Following up after giving advice. Being attached to the results. Being preoccupied with the addiction of another. Inability to experience emotion in your own life but regular emotional experiences regarding someone else’s life. Micro-managing someone else’s life. Making their life an extension of your own. Being a martyr. Getting defensive or protective over, lying or covering up the addict’s behavior.
If we don’t get some distance from sick situations, it’s difficult to seen what’s going on with a clear eye. It may be helpful then to keep an eye out look for what I call red flags-warning signs. Here are a few. If you relate to these, you may be in trouble. If so, please seek support from the resources listed below.
If you feel compelled to help someone fix their life to the point where you feel anxiety about not doing it, red flag.
Do you know what people want before they do?
Do you seek love from people who are not capable of loving you in return?
Are relationships your primary source of good feelings?
Do you put up with abuse?
Are your relationships copies of each other?
Is there an elephant in your living room with a rug over it that you pretend isn’t there? RED FLAG.
Do you use coercion, threats, guilt, threats, domination to get what you want? Hmm.
Are other people your main focus?
Do you allow fixation on others to get in the way of your daily responsibilities?
Do you feel loose and flexible or bound up?
Do you feel like you’re not good enough for a better relationship?
Are you ashamed of who you are?
Do you have a hard time believing that good things can happen for you?
Do you say what you mean and mean what you say, or say what you don’t mean because you’re afraid others won’t like you?
Trouble saying no?
Do you keep letting people hurt you, despite proclamations to the contrary?
Codependency in Recovery
Codependency may appear at first glance to be limited to dealing with addicts who are still active in addiction. But what happens when we deal with those in recovery? My own experience is that while more subtle, the dynamics of codependency can still operate in sobriety. In my 15th year of recovery, I am prone to be codependent. It looks different than having an active drunk in the house or on the job. But the dynamics can still come up, causing much pain.
For me, it was hard to admit. It took years and a lot of suffering to see it in myself. Tysa, my soulmate and life partner, has two alcoholic parents, as well as myself to contend with. After several years of Alanon retreats, Adult Children of Alcoholics and CODA step study groups, she’s developed a pretty keen insight into the dynamics of codependency. Enough, in fact, to point it out in me! I’d complain about the behavior of others, whether is was another emotional disappointment within the 12-Step community (and there have been so many I could never count them all) or a sponsee who refused to work their steps – she would look at me and say, “You’re being pretty co right now.” For the longest time I could not for the life of me figure out how she could say that.
Much of my time is spent in service to people in recovery, though in non-traditional ways. Whether it’s teaching yoga or meditation, making coffee, writing books and blogs or answering phones, my time is oriented towards healing others. My boundaries are pretty good. But sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the behavior of other addicts. When that happens, I usually joke that “I’m not co, I’m just concerned.” But I can get as sick as anybody else when you get right down to it. The way it looks for me is that I get fixated on the way others are acting and lose focus on who I am because I base my self-worth on the actions of others. As you can see from the red-flag list above, one of the tendencies of being co is basing our self-worth on the actions of others. I spend a lot of time around people in recovery as the person in a helping role. Sometimes my energy is low or I’m having an off day. That makes me vulnerable to feeling that the feelings of others are my own. Old tapes, such as self-loathing, start spinning in my head. Before you know it, I feel depressed, angry or upset in some other way. Without strong boundaries and some insight into the mechanics of codependency, time spent around addicts can create a seemingly endless loop of suffering. It’s really hard to quiet the sound of our old tapes when those around us are playing theirs through loudspeakers.
Turning Codependency Into an Asset
One of the main characteristics of codependency that I relate to is loving people who can’t love me back. In a recovery sense this is an unhealthy pattern that results from not getting needs met as a child. We tend to repeat such patterns until we realize we’re in them and seek relief in something different. It’s fairly easy to see how it works in terms of my own history. My mother was ill, I felt on some level responsible to make her happy. When I couldn’t, I felt bad. When I encounter a woman who is broken and complicated and needy and smart and sexy it triggers a super deep response in me. It feels like my life depends on connecting with the lady. If I can fix her, she will give me the love that I needed at that some point in time, maybe pre-verbal infancy. I know in my head that I can’t fix anyone. But knowing something intellectually doesn’t stop the trigger from firing on a pre-cognitive, trauma based level where suffering is frozen in time. The drive can make me crazy. And it has.
Does it mean that those of us wounded healers should get out of the helping professions? No. It means that if we’re going to help anyone we might need to do very deep work for a very long time – maybe our entire careers. Does our codependency mean that we can help people without expectations? No. It means that we might have to take our healing to such a spiritual level of acceptance and Presence that we can still help without losing our sanity in the process. It’s pretty hard to make the claim that anyone helps anyone else with absolutely no gain. Unless we think Buddha.
Was Buddha Co?
If we can keep the focus of unlimited, unconditional love without any of the requisite unhealthy dynamics of codependency, we might be on to something big-Buddha big. We can use our codependent traits to become enlightened Buddhas. By getting familiar with the traits of codependency, we may have a chance of taking our capacity of loving, even though it’s sick, to a deeper, more spiritual level. On the Buddhist Mahayana path-the Great Vehicle, our goal is to save all beings. But we have to start with ourselves, such as on the Hinayana or Lower Vehicle path. This is explained in detail in many places but for our purposes, the Hinayana is said to be lower in scope because it focuses on enlightenment for the sake of the individual. Compassion is still developed but through the experience of the wisdom of emptiness which ultimately results in enlightenment. In the Mahayana or Bodhisattva path, the path is more focused on our intention to save all beings through not only the development of wisdom but also of compassion. Compassion is seen as relative and absolute. We reach absolute compassion by practicing relative compassion. In this path, we look at our defects like we do in the 12 Steps, remove obstacles through many means (such as purification, meditation, accumulation of merit) and ultimately gain the ability to help others.
I saw a quote on Pinterest recently, “Helping someone who can do nothing for you is having character.” It sounds Buddhist. Or Alanon, “Do something for someone today and tell no one.” But Buddha talked about ending suffering for all beings. One of the vows is, “Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them all.” So what is the similarity between being co and being Buddhist and what is the difference? The similarity in my view is that both codependents and enlightened beings love people who can’t possibly reciprocate. The difference is that totally realized Buddhas-or even those real Buddhists who are practicing Dharma-aren’t hooked on the results. They offer blessings, teachings and other forms of help. But then they let beings do what they need to do. This is out of deep self-less compassion which is different than self-based codependent passion. How could a Bodhisattva who has vowed not to attain enlightenment until the infinite oceans of samsara (cyclic suffering) are empty possibly function if she’s worried about the results? Can you imagine Tara saying, “OK, I helped you when you needed it, so now why don’t you love me?”
We codependents should train our minds to think like Tara, the fully enlightened female form of Buddha. Tara is said to love all beings like a mother loves her only child. That’s the absolute compassion of an enlightened being. But to enter the Bodhisattva path we try to generate the aspiration or wish to be more compassionate. I think that codependents are compassionate, deeply so. But not selflessly. In fact, we’re very self-centered. If we can integrate the 12-Step of recovery and put some principles of other-centered love into action, we can enter the path of the Bodhisattva. In that regard, being co might be seen as preparation for the aspiration of unlimited kindness such as we learn about on the Mahayana path. We can turn our codependent lemons into Buddha lemonade. Sounds like a good deal to me.
Darren Littlejohn is the author of 12-Step Buddhist. His website is here.