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Travis-ArticleBy Travis Ramsey, LMFT, LAPC
Family Counselor
, MARR, Inc.

It was a standard first call with parents until I began fielding their questions.  “How will Brad* get his clothes cleaned?  Who fixes his meals for him?  How will he wake up on time in the morning?”  As I began to understand these questions better, I soon realized that mom and dad had basically taken care of all Brad’s responsibilities his entire life.  A young adult, Brad was now at MARR, the furthest he had ever lived from his parents, addicted to alcohol and drugs, and having never learned to wash his clothes, wake up on his own, or make a meal.

Another term often used to describe addiction is chemical dependency.  It’s literally true, as addiction is more than a liking or craving, but actually registers in the brain as a need along the same pathway as oxygen and food. Addiction requires not only a substance but another person.  While an addict is forsaking all else to take in a substance, he/she will die (or hit their “bottom”) unless someone else is taking care of the things needed to actually survive, i.e. food, shelter, finances, and relationship.  Initially, this was the definition of codependency: being in a relationship with an alcoholic or addict.  This is someone who needs the addict’s life to be okay as much as the addict needs their drug.  And the only way they can continue their addiction is if someone else is cleaning up the wreckage of it.  While this remains the natural and normal state for families in active addiction, the characteristics of codependency can arise in a variety of relationships and carry over into all areas of one’s life.

Codependency always develops out of an adaptive change to correct a problem.  In families, this problem might be a parent who has just lost his job, a child who is failing in school, a mother suffering from depression, a lonely or bullied child, or a father who becomes abusive when he drinks too much.  Because this is too painful for other family members to experience, they lovingly step in to “help” with the problem.  Parents might do their child’s homework for them or lobby with school teachers and administrators to make changes in their child’s education.  Spouses might cancel their own activities to focus on being sensitive to their partner’s needs.  Brainstorming, problem-solving, and long conversations about the problem begin to dominate the family’s time and energy.  While these behaviors might actually alleviate the problem temporarily, it may also create the breeding ground for addiction.  For addicts, their drug of choice is the solution to their problems.  So while the person with the problem is feeling better by using drugs, others in the family, not knowing about the drug use, are trying to fix these problems (which just seem to be getting worse).  It’s a vicious and exhausting cycle.

Maintaining his sobriety in MARR’s therapeutic community, Brad felt less need to depend on his parents and his calls home tapered off. His parents were beside themselves. Dad was livid. How was he going to know what to do with Brad’s bills, what to tell Brad’s friends, and how to take care of Brad’s legal troubles? He was adamant that no one else would do these things for his son. Mom took the avoidance personal; she wondered if he felt abandoned by her. Her son’s treatment at MARR meant that she had failed her son, that her love and support weren’t enough to help him, and now he was shunning her.

Though it’s quite healthy to feel concern for someone we love, codependency uses this concern to justify boundary violations as attempts to help the person we love. Their bad feelings make us feel bad, so their problems are our problems. The only way to feel better ourselves is to make them feel better by trying to fix their problems. Brad’s parents knew they were doing too much for their son, but couldn’t stop. Not only did Brad’s addiction grow under their caregiving, but their own sense of purpose depended on Brad’s needs. It’s difficult to know which comes first: many times someone else’s problem brings up our own codependent tendencies, but other times, our own need to be liked and feel important lead us into behaviors that handicap others from addressing their own issues successfully. Why is it so important to us that others around us be happy, comfortable, and pleased with us all the time? Often, codependency is learned at a young age within our own families.

Brad’s father and mother each had their own reasons to be codependent with their son. Like many families, alcohol use was an important part of their leisure activities. His father had also used drugs recreationally as a young adult. How could he possibly tell his son that using drugs and alcohol were not okay when he himself wasn’t sure if his own use was a problem? When Brad’s addiction landed him in treatment, the father felt guilty for his silence. Taking responsibility for his son’s illness, he was compelled to handle all of Brad’s consequences. Brad’s mother grew up with an alcoholic parent. Feeling lost and neglected, children like Brad’s mom may believe there is something wrong with them that caused their family problems. They often attempt to “keep the peace” and make their parents happy so that their own needs are met. Doing everything for her son gave her the feeling of being needed and important, feelings she was deprived of as a child.

In our society, codependency is as deceptive as addiction. It often hides behind “doing the right thing,” obeying God, taking one for the team, and coming to the rescue of others. Though it looks benevolent, codependency serves the giver more than the receiver. Those who suffer from it use other’s dependence and approval as a means to feel loved without risking the disclosure of their own needs and doing that which is truly best for them. Like addiction, codependency is a way of coping with our true feelings by avoiding them and managing our external world. Drugs make the world a safe place for addicts and alcoholics; the neediness and approval of others make it safe for codependents. And it is a terrifying endeavor to reach out for help.

Unfortunately, Brad’s parents found it much easier to clean up their son’s messes than to attend a support group for themselves. Though they all agreed that returning home was not the best for Brad’s sobriety, neither Brad, his father, nor his mother were able to make the necessary changes to support Brad’s recovery. If you are in a relationship with an addict or alcoholic, it is natural to experience codependency. It is tempting to believe that your efforts to help your loved one will influence them to stop using. This is simply not true. Finding peace and healing for yourself is the greatest thing you can give an alcoholic or addict in your life. Please reach out for help. You’re worth it.

*Brad’s story is a fictitious example of many families who come to MARR.


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22 Comments

  • Tim melton says:

    Great!!!

  • Patty says:

    So true

  • Penny says:

    This is a very clear description of codependency. Thank you.

  • Steve says:

    I needed some direction in this aspect as I am going thru a similar scenario right now with a close friend who is an addict and codependency on my end. Thank you for the information

  • Toni Miller says:

    So true this sickness has ravaged my family . Being the oldest I felt responsible for my mothers alcoholism and Protected my Dad and siblings from her. I’m 61 and have done this through marriages and my own son. Recusing and softening the blow. I know I need a lot of help to stop this cycle. Do they have rehabs for codependency?

    • Tina says:

      I found recovery in Al Anon from codependency. Why not try it?

    • MARR says:

      Toni, we are here to give you as many resources as we can. We offer a “Loving Someone With Addiction” 1-Day seminar for families with addicted loved ones that will help you understand their disease, and also how to set boundaries for your own health. If you are in the Atlanta area, MARR offers Family Support Groups every Tuesday and Thursday nights. Another thing you can do is go to a local Al-Anon or CoDA group. It is best to join a group after going to several meetings. Lastly, there are workshops and treatment centers that treat codependency, simply research Codependency treatment.

    • Jennifer says:

      Celebrate Recovery!!! A wonderful program for those suffering with codependency and enabling.

      • Victoria B says:

        The Celebrate Recovery that I attend in Florida, has a testimony or a lesson in large group each week. Sadly, that is what the small group focuses on. It does not get down to the meat and potatoes of codependency. I did Alanon for 10 years, but still, my recovery has been so enhanced by attending CoDA.
        Coda.org

  • Margie says:

    This is so true for me. I find your article spot on. Thank you for your accurate description of codependency and how it is much like the addiction the addict feels. I am passing this on so others may see what and how I’m feeling each and every day. Thank you.

  • Sherri says:

    My dad finally realized, about a week before he died, that all he was to his son was a means to an end. He realized that there was no love, only what could be given or done for my brother to make is addictive/alcoholic life better and easier. However, dad somehow came to terms with it before his death and the co-dependency cycle between the three of us was broken at last. It’s been almost four years since that realization and death and I still find it hard to come to grips with “I don’t have to save daddy anymore.’ It’s very hard on family – sometimes I think it’s harder for family than it is for the abuser.

  • Cynthia Delgado says:

    Great definition, I needed to read this and hope to get the help I need.

  • Regina says:

    I too struggle with trying to fix everything for everybody. .I’m trying to detach with love as taught in AlAnon. ..It still breaks my heart that I can’t fix the problems that are in my family but I have to control my own emotions first to be,able to help anyone else….very informative tno..

  • Donna Doughtie says:

    I have really learned to take care of myself and not everyone in my family. they are free to make their own mistakes and have their own feelings. life is much better without codependency and it’s baggage.
    and they have learned life is not all about me and my addiction. thank you Marr!

  • Barb W says:

    As the addict gets high on drugs, the enabling parent gets high out of being needed and fixing the addict. Both need a recovery program.

  • rebecca butler says:

    Thank you! Needed to read that today. My sons lack of planning, is not my problem. His emergencies are not mine.

  • Anonymous says:

    I attend ALANON meetings. It has really helped me.

  • annonymous says:

    I am a living definition of co-dependence. My son is at a critical time yet he can’t admit to being an alcoholic. He says he can do it by himself. He was so abusive this week we got an eviction notice for him. When the police went to serve him he started cussing and threatening them and they put him in jail. He blew a 3.74 When he finally got home he told us not to worry he would be dead in 3 weeks and threatened suicide. We had him admitted for a psyche evaluation and they said he was just trying to get us upset and they let him go. When he came home he said he would think about treatment. We told him to get treatment or we would uphold the eviction. Now after all this I am worried about what will happen to him. I can’t believe that I am thinking of ways to ease his pain. I am taking a united front with my husband because insanity is doing the same things and waiting for a different outcome. My son has no job, loses any job he does get, and will lose his car. I spoke with my nephew who is a recovering drug addict and he said this the only way since he won’t listen to reason. My son has no insurance and we can’t afford 30 thousand a month to help him. My husband is 66 and I am 63. We just about have enough for retirement if we both stay healthy. I feel this is a no win situation.

  • Karlyn Finnegan says:

    It is common in families like this not to talk about the problems and to abuse certain people with double standards and for people to be in rigid roles that keep the family enmeshed, with a control freak who actually sabotages people’s recovery.

  • Catherine Walker says:

    As the mother of a heroin addict…I quickly related to all the comments shared.
    In an attempt to “help” my son I was always the bad guy, while my ex-husband was the good guy.
    I refused to let my son live with me, refused to let him use my car and would no longer agree to be a blank check for him. My ex-husband on the other hand has lost his own place to live 3 times due to our son’s addiction and breaking the law, damaging property. He spent more than 40K in legal fees trying to defend our son and our son has repeatedly stolen checks from his Dad’s checkbook…my ex-husband had to close 2 bank accounts that I am aware of due to our son.
    I am now estranged from my son. He blames me for everything that is wrong in his life.
    I supported him in Rehab 3 times, gave him a car once so he could work and now when I do hear from him randomly…it is in the form of a ranting text message.
    I no longer leave my phone on all night. Because he only ever calls me between midnight and 5am.
    I think of him everyday…but literally put all of this in God’s hands a few years ago.
    My heart goes out to the family and friends who are still in the eye of the storm of addiction. You have to save yourself first before you could possibly help someone else. God bless.

  • Kim says:

    Very helpful reading this. Thank you and everyone’s comments. I enable my alcoholic husband and I just can’t do it any longer. The stress makes me so sick. How do you walk away and detach yourself from someone you have been with for 20 years? Since I was 16 years old. This is all I’ve ever known. I just don’t feel like I have the strength, but I feel the stress is literally killing me. I’ve already been through cancer at age 23. I take a lot of medication for my depression and anxiety. I just sleep my life away. I just don’t know what to do:(

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