There’s an old joke : How do you know if you’re codependent? When you die someone else’s life flashes before you.
Codependency is no joke nonetheless. When Nancy Sykes sang As long as he needs me in the musical Oliver! shortly before being murdered by her partner, she spoke for the millions of codependent people around the world who are in abusive relationships but cannot break free.
Codependency is an important issue for staying ageless because of the emotional stress it causes.
Codependent adults usually had an emotionally deprived childhood. A child who does not have his/her emotional needs met and who was surrounded by significant adults saying things such as, “Who do you think you are?” if the child asks for something is likely to develop codependency. A traumatic event before the age of six months is thought to cause the worst form of this crippling condition, programming the child’s subconscious to associate love and pain. A normal loving relationship between respectful adults doesn’t feel right to codependents (it is often discounted as boring, and the partner fails to command respect in the codependent).
The codependent is frequently exposed to angry outbursts from their partner. They react by dissociating – switching off emotionally – something they learnt to do as children when physical escape was impossible. Healthy people know when someone is angry it is the angry person that has to deal with their emotions. Codependents find anger terrifying, since they assume the anger is their fault – a message they picked up from their parents, who may have actually stated this was the case on numerous occasions when the real reason was work or marriage-related stress. But codependents are, none the less, addicted to expressions of distress and anger in others.
The codependent therefore believes everything is their fault and that they are responsible for the emotions of their significant others. This leads to toxic shame, the default setting for codependent adults.
Toxic shame causes someone to second-guess everything they feel and believe. Disagreements with others will lead to panic and severe feelings of guilt. They seek out people with problems because they do not believe they deserve healthy people, and through helping someone they find identity and self-worth. Compliments are shrugged off and rapidly discounted, and they apologise all the time. Many codependents are driven, high achievers – doing well in school was the only way to gain their parents’ approval when they were young. Their emotional lives are therefore often chaotic. They have problems setting boundaries, since their parents failed to respect the child’s boundaries. The parents of adult codependents may continue to do this throughout their lives –for example, entering a bedroom or bathroom without knocking, going through their things, telling them they are self-obsessed if they express feelings and so on.
Self-care is a big problem with codependent people, who feel it is self-indulgent. They will have been given the message when young that they did not deserve time out. Codependents feel an urge to spend any free time getting chores or odd jobs done.
Sam is a typical case. He booked a holiday for him, his two children and his new partner, a volatile young woman called Alicia. The children wanted to camp but Sam felt it would be better to book the hexagonal building on the camp site known as the folie, away from the other families. He told himself this was for more comfort. During the holiday, on cue, Alicia turned on Sam and began to abuse him in front of his children when she saw he had forgotten to pack her cigarettes. Idiot, asshole, can’t trust you to do anything, you make me want to vomit….her screaming went on for hours.
The cigarettes were an excuse of course: Alicia was repeating a pattern of severe holiday rows she had experienced in her childhood. Her mother had ruined all the family holidays. Alicia developed borderline personality disorder as a result and proceeded to do the same to her own loved-ones.
Sam’s background was being raised by narcissistic parents. Sam developed codependency. As Alicia screamed at him, he realised he had booked the folie because he knew Alicia would have several violent outbursts during the holiday and wanted to avoid the shame of being right next to other campers who would have overheard everything.
Alicia finally took the car and drove off at speed, leaving Sam with his two frightened children and no transport. In doing this she was reproducing the behaviour of her father who would regularly storm out of the house and drive off dangerously, disappearing for days. Her father had once abandoned the entire family without transport in the middle of the countryside leaving them to find their way home – ten hours away – by taxi and train with all the luggage.
Sam simply waited for Alicia to return, feeling a crushing sense of grief, rage, embarrassment she had humiliated him in front of his children, and shame. These negative emotions are also highly addictive. That night she returned. The screaming fit had ended, and she veered once again to idolising him, as borderlines always do. He apologised to her even though he wasn’t sure what for. This seemed to satisfy Alicia, and she complained of chronic stomach pain, a complaint which had plagued her for their entire relationship. He showed empathy, and cared for her. Sam’s codependency told him to just forget about the abuse and rage, for the sake of peace and Alicia’s health.
What should Sam do in such a relationship?
• Separate his feelings from Alicia’s.
• Stop giving her support at such personal cost.
• Stop modelling victimhood to his children.
• Stop playing the role of enabler. His compassionate attitude ensured Alicia would repeat the behaviour over and over on every holiday they would have from then on. Instead, he should have found a way of ensuring her bad behaviour had severe consequences.
• Realise that when Alicia stated she adored him, this actually meant that she needed him. Someone who loves us does not plunge us into mental and emotional turmoil and does not seek to humiliate us.
• See the humour in the repeated drama they are both playing out, and extract himself from the relationship immediately. This is helping Alicia change her behaviour which is ruining her health.
• Rehearse over and over how he will react next time he finds himself being drawn back into the same scenario – with her, or with someone else.
Sam eventually left Alicia a few months later, when she betrayed a secret he had entrusted her with. This action by Alicia was an act of revenge – common BPD behaviour – after an argument when she had accused him of being with another woman (he was in fact at a social event at work at which he had volunteered to provide drinks). Four months separation followed. Alicia had intensive therapy, and sent a mutual friend around to beg for another chance, saying she could not live without Sam.
Sam had not found anyone else with whom he had experienced such a bond. In fact he had not found anyone else at all in those four months. He agreed to see her, but not to live with her, and said if there is one more abusive incident when we are on holiday, our relationship will be over for good. Sam felt good about himself for saying this. For four further months Sam and Alicia were ecstatically happy. Alicia was a very funny, intelligent and attentive girlfriend, not to mention beautiful. She utterly captivated him. He was delighted he had agreed to give her another chance. He called this compassion, and understanding for her abusive background. He took her to Paris for a romantic weekend to celebrate their reunion.
On the second day, when he expressed exasperation over a work issue, she flew into a rage at him for ruining their weekend away with his ‘stupid problems’. To Sam’s astonishment, the exact same scenario ensued as on the camping holiday. He felt his bloodstream fill with adrenaline and toxic stress hormones. She left the hotel in a fury, and this time he did not wait for her to return. He paid the hotel bill and travelled home alone. Six months silence ensued, and Sam began to read books about codependency and setting personal boundaries.
This Christmas Sam’s children are going to their mother’s. He has not found another partner. Alicia will send him gifts, and then call him. The old loneliness from Sam’s childhood will return, and he will take her call.
Codependency is an addiction every bit as powerful as heroine. It is ruinous to our health, to the length of our telomeres, and therefore to our lifespan.
Mindfulness is rapidly being adopted by the medical community as an effective way of combatting stress. It involves noticing what is going on – in the external world, and inside us, in our bodies and in the world of emotions. Mindfulness can be practised through meditation or by moving through tasks in a self-aware manner. In this way we live life fully, rather than constantly projecting into the past or the future. This is the meaning of living a true present. But what happens when the present moment is truly awful?
Nina, a primary school teacher in her forties from Aberdeen, found herself in just such a moment when during an argument on holiday her partner became physically and verbally aggressive. He bundled her into a car and, shouting insults at her, drove onto the motorway. He said he would be dumping her in a rest area and would choose one with no shops or phone. She did not know where he was taking her. She asked him not to be cruel, and he shouted that if she opened her mouth one more time, he would leave her on the hard shoulder. She fell into silence, while the car was being driven at top speed. This terrifying journey continued for seven hours.
Nina used mindfulness techniques to cope, which she had practised all her life. First of all she sank into her emotions. “I am afraid. My neck and back are tense. I am cold. My legs and arms are rigid. I am terrified he will drive off leaving me with no money and no coat. It is raining and windy outside. I am afraid I will have to ask strangers for help and I will feel shame. I am enraged at the mistreatment I am enduring. I am angry with myself I chose a man capable of treating me with contempt. I am wondering how far he will go, is my life in danger? Will his rage make us crash? I am confused at how he could be so loving before. These are my emotions.”
Then, she focused on a raindrop on the window. She glanced at his body, fixed, hands gripping the steering wheel, and noticed the power he was enjoying over her. She realised this power could not last forever.
Heraclitus of Ephesus was a Greek philosopher known for stating that change was central to the universe: “Everything is flux”. This moment, although it seems endless, is also in flux, she told herself.
The circumstances were external. The emotions temporary. Nina knew she was an immortal being, and that the moment could not touch her soul. Eckhart Tolle in his famous book, The Power of Now says of such moments: accept then act. Nina accepted her circumstances, then took action. There was no physical action she could take, but there was plenty that she could do in the privacy of her mind. He has taken my body captive, she thought, he is trying to frighten me. But my mind is still free.
In such moments we need to become alchemists, transforming the base metal of dark moments into the gold of the soul, into conscious awareness and detachment. When she realised she was indestructible, the resistance to the moment relented.
Having located the trauma in her emotions, she set about allowing it to dissolve, imagining the tension crackling and dispersing. The earth was still holding her, the air still nourishing her body. Much of her suffering was due to what she imagined others would think of her circumstances, the outrage other women would express at being called a whore and disgusting by her partner, the ‘received opinion’ of what constituted abuse in a relationship. This caused her shame. Accepting what is without judgment is central to sensing the true present when the moment seems unacceptable. I will make this moment my ally, she said to herself, and allowed a private smile to form behind her lips. He is gripped by rage and feelings of revenge, but I am just sitting in this moment, and watching.
Nina then acted by choosing not to suffer. For seven hours she focused on joy, filling her mind with the good things in her life. Periodically the fear returned. She observed it, dived into it, and emerged once again.
Marianne Williamson talks of the law of divine compensation. She says even when we experience diminishment there is more than enough for the universe to compensate for any lack. In a car if you take the wrong turn, the GPS automatically corrects the course. Even if there is material ‘lack’ in this moment, there are ways through our energy, attitudes, perspective and behaviour to invoke peace, a peace that cannot disappear. If you stop giving a problem energy, the moment is transformed. Nina clung to this concept as the hours ticked by. She found her sense of time dissolving.
Then she recognised the signs of their home town Aberdeen. They hit heavy traffic. She felt his power waning. She noticed his body language changing. He was screaming at the traffic, blaming her for the congestion, for the situation she had got them both into, in his words. He began to berate her for not speaking to him to try and ‘make things all right’. ‘You told me not to speak,’ she said. He denied this.
And then he stopped the car near her flat and she got out. He got out too and stood her opposite her, his face conciliatory. “Make me a cup of coffee and we’ll talk,” he said, sighing.
“No,” she said, and walked out of his life.
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