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by Donna Bailey-Thompson
This first appeared in Challenges (1993).
During my marriage with Harry, I became certifiably codependent.
To define codependency is a challenge: the leading recovery gurus' interpretations vary widely, some almost as dissimilar as the blind men's descriptions of an elephant.
An early definition belonging to Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse links codependency with alcoholism--"a primary disease and a disease within every member of an alcoholic family."
Robert Subby looks beyond alcoholism ties: "An emotional, psychological, and behavioral pattern of coping that is born of the rules of a family and not as a result of alcoholism." Together with John Friel, they delineate the rules which are clearly oppressive, "rules which prevent the open expression of feelings as well as the direct discussion of personal and interpersonal problems."
Charles Whitfield has stated that codependence "affects not only individuals, but families, communities, businesses and other institutions, and states and countries... [It is] ill health, or maladaptive or problematic behavior that is associated with living, working with, or otherwise being close to a person with alcoholism"
Earnie Larsen has defined a codependent as "anyone who has been affected by the person who has been afflicted by the disease of chemical dependency [as well as] anyone who lives in close association over a prolonged time with anyone who has a neurotic personality."
Anne Wilson Schaef avoids making a contribution by stating, "I also believe that trying to generate definitions from a rational, logical premise is actually a manifestation of the disease process."
Morris Kokin writes: "`Codependency,' just like its predecessors `coalcoholic' and `coaddiction' and its contemporary `enabler,' is an absolutely unsatisfactory and insidious term. Granting it further status as a disease only adds to the damage already done by the alcoholic and his bottle."
Melody Beattie's official definition is: "A codependent person is one who has let another person's behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person's behavior."
Melody Beattie's long description is: "Whatever problem the other person has, codependency involves a habitual system of thinking, feeling, and behaving toward ourselves and others that can cause us pain. Codependent behaviors or habits are self-destructive. We frequently react to people who are destroying themselves; we react by learning to destroy ourselves. These habits can lead us into, or keep us in, destructive relationships, relationships that don't work. These behaviors can sabotage relationships that may otherwise have worked. These behaviors can prevent us from finding peace and happiness with the most important person in our lives--ourselves. These behaviors belong to the only person each of us can control--the only person we can change--ourselves."
Others' wordiness has not restrained me from rambling about how I associate codependency with feelings of anxiety about almost anything, anyone, any circumstance; that the individual feels insecure within about most situations, people, events; that the level of anxiety can vary from barely conscious to near panic; that "What will other people think?" is a shared concern among codependents.
Prior to being interviewed by a reporter and guessing she would press me for a codependency definition, I asked my husband (note: the husband with whom I enjoyed a fine marriage) for his help. In his best inquisitive style, the one which works so effectively for him when he is inventing (he is a scientist who holds many patents), he urged me to do what he does, to "get down among the molecules" to determine the essence of codependency.
I cited John Bradshaw who believes "that internalized shame is the essence of codependency." I can see internalized shame being the thrust of codependency but down among the molecules, something comes before the shame. So I said, "Codependency is a feelings affliction." Oh-oh, and from whence come feelings? From thinking. (Years earlier when new to recovery, what a difficult concept that had been for me to understand and accept!)
I said that "failure to thrive" was coined to describe certain infants, but who is more deserving to be characterized as suffering from a "failure to thrive" syndrome than codependents? I felt I was getting close.
Then I said, "Codependents don't have a life," and when my husband asked, "Do you mean as in `get a life'?" the codependency significance of that slang expression dawned on me: getting a life is what recovering from codependency is all about. "I'm going to say that in the interview."
The printed story reads:
Getting rid of codependency "is truly about getting a life," she said.
Now when you overhear, "Ah, get a life!" forget the sarcasm and see the positive side; it's a rallying cry for changing codependent behavior.
As for the ultimate definition of codependency, it's of importance to "outsiders" wanting to understand. But when we are codependent, we may not recognize the symptoms, but we sure do experience them -- as a prisoner within our own thinking.
And so, from the inspiration found while getting down among the molecules, I offer my definitions:
|Codependency is the lack of having a life.
A codependent does not have a life.
A codependent in recovery is getting a life.
A recovered codependent has a life.
. . . And she had a little curl
By Donna Bailey-Thompson
Unless someone is familiar with the cycles of domestic violence and knows what types of behavior foreshadow abuse escalation, the early warning signs may perplex but their significance does not register. This true story which I found a year after my book (Stark Raving Sober) went to press was written early in my relationship with my second husband, a senior USAF officer, a fighter pilot. In the book his name is Steve.
She was a happy child, outgoing but cautious, always sent off with, “Have a good time!” and admonished, “Be careful!” Whatever she did – riding a tricycle and later a bike, roller skating, ice skating, running, swimming, canoeing, dancing, horseback riding, tennis – she was always aware of the intrinsic dangers involved in any undertaking.
When she was ten years old a little friend, only six, was killed by a car. This was not the first time the finality of death was known to her because she had known forever that the reason she did not have a daddy like everyone else was because he had died – not from an accident but because he had been sick. And so illness was something to be very careful about, too. How often she was told, “Don’t get sick!”
After she was without pigtails and began wearing small cup bras and low high heels, she was escorted by fuzzy faced youths to dances and parties and football games. Now she was vulnerable to another danger – riding in a car. Now those final words spoken just before she left the house took on added importance: “Have a good time! And, be careful!”
There was not much she didn’t worry about – and fear.
She married one of the boys who had to shave about every other day. During their courtship, she experienced four minor traffic accidents that were his fault because he was not paying attention. There were never any injuries but thumping impacts and a lot of scary close calls. He drove the best in snow, but on a clear highway, he did not concentrate. There were speeding violations in the 35 to 55 mph range.
Gradually she realized that in many ordinary instances, she couldn’t count on him to be dependable. And gradually her respect for him as a human being did not carry over to him as a husband. After 15 years, she filed for divorce and began a new life. After what seemed like forever, she met a Man she grew to love very, very much. Best of all, she respected him fully. And little by little, she began to feel safe – safe from all kinds of known and unknown fears.
She went swimming with him after dark; with him, the water and the blackness were not to be feared. She rode beside him down highways at high speeds and soon realized that driving was not an afterthought to him but a full-time occupation. As she became accustomed to the faster speeds, she was relaxed enough to fall asleep in the front seat. Through exposure to what he shared about flying, she took a few commercial flights and discovered a special type of exhilaration she had never known. Through education and exposure, he helped her to replace her fear of guns with respect and admiration for firearms. He sat her on an Indian pony and for the first ten minutes, she remembered the old admonitions but when she looked at his back while he sat a horse, riding ahead of her, her fright vanished.
As long as she was with him, she’d be safe.
But then one evening while snaking around curved, washboardy roads with him in his beautiful little blue sports car, the wind stinging her face and twisting snarls into her hair, she wondered if somehow she might be sucked out of the car. She told herself that the seatbelt across her lap would prevent that from happening. She wondered if the car might roll over, but she repeated to herself what he had told her – that the car was designed to be driven hard. Through half-closed eyes, she watched the bushes and trees whiz by in the twilight. She saw the quick lights of oncoming cars and thought she could detect the startled reactions of the drivers, and she wondered how quick their reflexes were, how much maneuverability their cars had. And she became concerned about the safety of the Man and herself because of the other drivers on the road.
Without explaining all these thoughts, she blurted out words that didn’t say what she meant. To stabilize herself, she grabbed the handle on the dash. Soon the speed was reduced, or had the road improved? She no longer needed to grip the handle. Aloud she had a conversation with herself, reviewing the obvious capabilities of the Man at the wheel and the automobile under them.
The twilight eased into darkness – soft, inviting, beautiful. The moon played hide and seek through the new leaves. The automobile purred and hissed and roared, and the Man’s hands were strong and firm on the wheel. All was right with the world.
But once back home, he told her that he’d never take her for her third and subsequent rides in a sports car. And he told her he’d never take her flying. And he told her that he wasn’t angry with her but that he was disgusted with her because it appeared to him that she had lost confidence in him. He fell asleep quickly, and his distance continued even in sleep and into the next morning. But she loved him none the less, nor respected him any less, nor had any less confidence in him.
She felt like a little girl again. She’d said something which another person did not want to hear. She felt she was being punished by being denied future exposure, further education. She wished she’d had more than half a dozen rides in a topless car during all her life; she wished she’d grown up knowing and experiencing the sensations of rides in sports cars; she wished she knew how to drive a sports car and could sense for herself as a driver and not just as a passenger what a sports car could do. She wished that when she was ten and he was twenty that airplanes had become part of her daily life and that she had been airborne more than twice for a grand total of one hour in a one prop puddle jumper, and flown more than once in a two-engine commercial plane from Boston to Augusta and more than once to New York City and back and once to Pittsburgh and once to El Paso.
And she wished she really knew how to shoot, how to hunt, how to ride. And she wished she could fly with him and have him teach her first-hand about flying.
And she wished that there were always open communication between them and a bare minimum of misunderstandings and no more nights when silence was a soundproof wall and even their love for each other was not permitted to flow.
There was a little girl
And she had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
And when she was good
She was very, very good
But when she was bad, she was horrid.
An Updated P.S.
Long before domestic bliss degenerates into filing restraining orders, we who have experienced domestic violence receive gut warnings that, to our peril, we ignore. We overlook slights, slurs, jealous snits. We con ourselves into believing tearful protestations of love accompanied by his promise that he’ll never do it again.
The bewildered, scared woman who cries that she loves such a loving man appears in court with the batterer and cancels a restraining order. You see, he’s going to change because he’s told her he loves her. Watch out, sweetie: He hasn’t proved to you – yet – just how much he loves you.
Wake up! He loves you so much that he shoves you against the wall? When he loves you even more, he punches you? As his love for you grows stronger, he mixes in swift kicks while socking you? When he’s ready to burst with love for you, he throws you down the stairs and then pummels you? The day you’ll know his love for you is genuine, that he loves you more than life itself, is the day he kills you.
There is something that you and I can do. When we are aware of abuse, we can help by not minding our own business. We can risk a friendship – and perhaps save a life – by alerting a stressed-out, hurting woman to a hotline geared to her needs, by calling the police when an attack is in progress. When we demonstrate our concern for the safety of a battered woman and her family, we’re acting out real love – a love that does not hurt.
Books I Read at Age 32 that Changed My Life
By Donna Bailey-Thompson
Mother’s romanticism, laced with practicality, had a profound effect upon how I grew into my future: be truthful, obedient, dependable, attend parties and dances, maintain an exemplary reputation, pursue higher education but have business skills to fall back on “just in case,” marry well (“It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man”), and appreciate literature, the performing arts, glamour, and prestige. I realized, all things considered, that I was glad I was born a girl.
By 1962, I finally had my own family. The two babies fed my maternal instincts, but their precious little souls did not satiate a hunger I could not name. My marriage had become hollow; even our friendship deteriorated. Like Peggy Lee, I wondered, “Is this all there is?”
And then I read three books, starting with Emerson’s Essays. Like many before me and since, I resonated to his essay on Self-Reliance. In an 1842 lecture, Emerson tried to capture in words the elusive components of a philosophy which guided him – transcendentalism. He said, “The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine.” I agreed. He said, “He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy.” I was in favor of all that. From Self-Reliance I gleaned the truisms I needed to see spelled out. He wrote: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” And “Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” “Insist on yourself; never imitate.” “Be oneself. Rely on oneself.” Oh, that last admonition was a foreign thought to the happily-ever-after fantasy embraced by a would-be rescued Cinderella.
Primed with Emerson’s ideals, within days I plunged into Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” and was confronted with examples, throughout history, of male oppression of the female which rendered her to deliberate objectification. Ergo, inasmuch as she was not male, she was not considered fully human. She wrote: “What time and strength he squanders in liquidating, sublimating, transferring complexes, in talking about women, in seducing them, in fearing them! He would be liberated himself in their liberation. But this is precisely what he dreads. And so he obstinately persists in the mystifications intended to keep women in her chains.” My eyes flew open and stayed open.
Fortified with Emerson’s philosophy, much of which I did not understand, and now augmented by de Beauvoir’s cry for woman’s independent existence, I opened the pages of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and was never the same again. How dare Freud characterize women as Noras – subservient, imprisoned in a doll house! How dare society expect women to willingly sacrifice their dreams for their husbands’! How dare I continue to feed into a mystique created eons earlier! Where was my sense of self, the honoring of my integrity? I was weary with manipulating male authority figures through use of so-called feminine wiles, a euphemism for passive-aggressive behavior.
Within a year of reading these three books, one right after another, I stepped off a cliff into the unknown. Periodically since then, I’ve eschewed the unhealthy familiar for a new unknown. Every time, the motivating force has encompassed what Emerson, de Beauvoir, and Friedan reinforced, the seeds which surely Mother planted in me, the principle of integrity which I first acted upon, consciously, when I was almost 11, but which from time-to-time I permitted to be eclipsed out of survival necessity or by acquiescing to society’s preferred structure for the so-called second sex.
When I have stepped into the unknown, it is after I’ve examined my motives and know what guides me is the awareness that to live with myself, I must honor
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thous canst not then be false to any man. *
because if I ignore or override this wisdom, I am miserable.
* Polonius' advice to his son Laertes from "Hamlet."
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