Updated: Nov 9, 2020
We have all heard the term, codependency, before. Some of us may have even heard ourselves referred to as co-dependent, but what does it really mean? Codependency, simply defined, is a relationship where one person needs another person and the other person needs to be needed. In essence, without the other, the other cannot survive. Of course, this is not a literal case of life and death, but to the people in a codependent relationship, it may feel that way. I would be willing to bet all of us, at one time or another, were involved in a codependent relationship with someone or something. Yes, I believe we can have a codependent relationship with something. Generally, we associate the term with a relationship between two people, but I believe that does not always have to be the case, especially if the thing has a life of its own. Take, for example, alcohol.
Before I dive further into this, let's take a moment to define codependency. Codependent: noun; a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected by a pathological condition. The term is widely used when referring to a person who is in a relationship with someone who is an addict. The addict needs the other person to help maintain any semblance of normal living, but the other person needs the addict to need them. This relationship fosters a myriad of unhealthy outcomes, none of which, benefit either party in any way. Along with the definition, it is important to also consider the signs associated with codependency.
- Having poor self-esteem
- Needing the other to feel better
- Difficulty saying no
- Feeling trapped
Do any of these things sound like the relationship you have had with alcohol?* Unfortunately, the list goes on and on, but for the sake of this blog, I thought I would focus on what I deem to be the most poignant in regard to our relationship with alcohol*. Some of these characteristics may not apply to you. Feel free to make your own list, and use your list to evaluate your own codependent relationship with alcohol*. We cannot fix a toxic relationship until we understand what makes it toxic in the first place.
Signs and Symptoms
In a codependent relationship, there are two participants. For our purposes here, the first is the enabler (alcohol), and the second is the enabled (addict). The enabler helps maintain the status quo of the enabled, or it further perpetuates the behavior of the enabled. You may ask how the enabler in this scenario needs the enabled. Well, without us addicts, alcohol could not survive, could it?
Feeling worthless, unwanted, or incompetent is a horrible way to walk through life. It leaves a person feeling extremely lonely. We (the enabled) use alcohol (the enabler) to erase those feelings of inadequacy, to numb the pain, and to pretend we are worthy of something even though we know, in our mind, we are not worthy. Alcohol becomes our best friend. We need it to carry on through our lives ravaged with poor self-esteem. Little do we know, of course, alcohol only continues to feed and lower our self-esteem.
Needing Alcohol (enabler) to Feel Better
How many times have we been in a situation where we felt out of place, lost, or simply uncomfortable and knew alcohol would fix everything? It is one of the most prolific uses of alcohol; to make us feel better, stronger, or like we fit in. Without the enabler, we would avoid doing the things we needed to do. We would act in ways that would make us outsiders. We would go to extreme measures to avoid uncomfortable situations, even if we knew those situations would benefit us in some way. Without the enabler, we were unable to be the person we wanted to be.
Difficulty Saying No
I think this goes without saying, but the addict cannot say no to the enabler, whatever form it comes in. That is kind of the whole problem, isn't it? The enabled not only believes they need the enabler to survive, they cannot say no even when it is clearly a bad decision. Some of us can say no for a period of time, but some of us cannot. Regardless of which category you fall into, all of us cannot say no once we succumb to the enabler. The enabler knows this, and it uses it against us. That little voice in our head telling us to repeatedly do stupid shit, yeah, that's the enabler. Once it gets in our head, we have a long journey ahead of us. It is not a hopeless journey, and the journey is different for everyone, but a journey lies in wait, nonetheless.
One of the quintessential pieces of a codependent relationship is feeling we are trapped. With addiction, once the voice gets in our head and the codependent relationship starts to evolve, our inner-self begins to feel trapped, even if only on a subconscious level. We start to ask the question, "Do I have a problem?" Even though the enabler has turned us into master manipulators to get what we want, deep down we know we have a problem. It's the fact we know we cannot solve the problem that makes us feel trapped. We try to escape in varying ways, but we never succeed. With each failed attempt, we sink deeper and deeper into the trap intentionally set for us by the enabler. Until we see or believe there is a way out, we remain stuck.
Of course, no codependency is complete without the use of denial for purposes of self-preservation. It begins with our own insecurities and low self-esteem. It gets further solidified once we begin to feel trapped. The easiest way to deal with the myriad of negative emotions associated with all of this is to deny it is happening. We say things like, "I don't have a problem." "I can control my addiction if I want to." "I am not one of those people." We have to say these things to keep us from feeling even more worthless than we did before the enabler took hold of us. Interestingly, it is this single act that holds the most power. It effectively prevents us from taking the first step toward walking away from our codependent relationship with alcohol.*
Treatment (otherwise known as recovery)
Obviously, this is incredibly personal and up to each individual's own beliefs, background, and journey. Today, there is a multitude of avenues available to the addict for treating their codependency with alcohol. There are some programs available with strict guidelines to follow and the potential for sponsorship to help us along our way. Other programs offer a more fluid structure with a, choose your own adventure, approach to treatment. Additionally, there are other plans that deviate from the traditional program approach and encourage us to find our own program, which is more in line with what I did. Regardless of how we approach our treatment or recovery, there are some commonalities between them all.
We have to recognize, acknowledge, and accept a problem exists before we can even begin to approach ways to fix it. First, let go of the negative stigma formally attached to alcoholism. Understand there is a massive community of non-judgmental and supportive people ready and willing to help us. We have all been there. We understand what each other is going through, and we want to help. All we have to do is reach out.
It doesn't stop there though. Knowing we have a problem and reaching out is only the first phase of our treatment. The next phase involves engaging with the problem. We engage by growing our knowledge base around our codependent behavior. Some people say to focus on the chemical effects of alcohol and the science behind its effect on our minds and bodies. I agree, but I suggest taking it a step further. Not only do we need to understand the science behind alcohol, we also need to understand the psychology of our minds. We have to understand what got us into the codependent relationship in the first place. Remember, alcohol was not there in the beginning. Other things were going on in our lives and our minds first. It was because of those things we found, developed, and fostered a relationship with alcohol*. It was only a matter of time before codependency took place. Understanding how we see ourselves, the world around us, and our relationship with alcohol* is the fundamental key to successful sobriety.
Once we understand the negative effects of alcohol and how our minds work, we can finally begin to recover. In recovery, we begin to learn new strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with the trials and tribulations associated with life. We understand it is okay to not feel well sometimes. We learn to embrace those moments because those moments afford us the ability to truly embrace the other times when we feel good. In recovery, we quickly learn we have the potential to experience far more good days than bad. This leads us to learn gratitude. With gratitude comes even more good things. Things like love, friendship, accomplishment, appreciation, value, worth, and high self-esteem. This all culminates in a desire to want to give back and be of service to those who come after us in the sober community. Helping others completes the circle and around and around we go.
If this sounds overly simplified to you, good. That is what I am going for. As humans, we tend to overthink things. As addicts, we tend to get in our own way. I am reminded of the old acronym K.I.S.S; keep it simple stupid. I am also reminded of the principle of Occams Razor; of two explanations that account for all the facts, the simplest explanation tends to be correct. Isn't that a subjective principle? I can believe sobriety to be easy, or I can believe sobriety to be a lifelong journey of recovery. Both experiences exist, both can be correct, but only one can be viewed as simple. Which belief do you choose to employ on your journey?
* The use of the phrase, "relationship with alcohol," is derived mostly from Annie Grace and her book, This Naked Mind.