Codependency – what is it?
It is a heart wound. It is the rational fear that you will not be loved enough. That fear did not come from nowhere, it is supported by experience. It happened. At crucial times, the love you needed as much as air to breathe was lacking, and its absence caused damage – if nothing else, it hatched this terrible anxiety that short-circuits even the smartest minds.
There are critical times for learning certain skills. Feral children who miss the language window, for instance, will never use words. Similarly, a certain amount (and quality!) of love is vital at certain stages for certain things, such as self-soothing (the reason toddlers need to carry a blanket or a teddy bear), motor skills, brain development, self-confidence, resilience, strength… etc.
Codependent people are often labeled ‘needy’ and ‘clingy’.
Well, they’re starving.
To use an inelegant simile, would you be surprised to learn that concentration camp survivors are obsessed with food?
Of course, the skeletal bodies of of the survivors make the ‘problem’ painfully obvious and strike our hearts with horror and pity.
Not so a needy person. Their problem is not visible enough and yet… people know. People instinctively avoid them because they feel their hunger will be bottomless. Or that they will not be aware of other people’s limits and keep sucking. And most people have barely enough love for themselves.
Their reactions are valid, of course. Needy people are lonely precisely because they tend to act like Dickensian urchins in a candy store. They raid what they can while they can, before going back to the gutter. And they get more desperate as people avoid them more and more. The more you need something, the less you get it – what a harsh lesson…
One of the pieces of common wisdom I hate the most is: “If you don’t love yourself, no one else will.” No matter how true/or not, it makes me go ballistic. Will you only lend me money if I’m filthy rich? Yes, probably, but then, why would I need the money in the first place? What is it about vicious and virtuous cicles? Is it our fault then that we suffer, are we unworthy of love because we cannot love ourselves enough? Add insult to injury, with a nice dollop of guilt and shame on top, why don’t you! Could you look at the guys in the Dachau infirmary and tell them “well, you guys should have fed yourselves better, you’ve really let yourselves go!”?
Sometimes, we simply DO NOT have the ressources. Sometimes we’re poor in self-love, as we can be in money or talent. Sometimes we lose our way, or we never found it. But love – love is an absolute necessity. And naturally, because humans are gregarious creatures and are not expected to fulfill all their needs by themselves, they turn to others. Self-love is not naturally self-generated. The injunction that we must “LOVE OURSELVES” sounds like auto-cannibalism. Self-love is taught, funny as it sounds. Someone who loves you shows you that you are lovable. And you can start your journey.
Someone who missed that vital ongoing lesson (I’m looking at you for the cause, parents) will always be starving. And they will act strangely, as do all starving creatures. They will hoard things. They will never give or lend anything, or they will constantly lose all their possessions. They will be rough and nasty, or cloyingly ingratiating. They will be weird to people who have never known hunger, because their behavior cannot be unaffected by their hunger. Some will try to hide it, some will try to buy love. Some will bargain, some will hate, some will lose themselves into substitutes. Those are all branches from the same tree.
Codependents are actually more honest than most. They stay close to the source. They do not pretend they want riches, or fame or power. They still remember what the real need is. They want love. Pathetically maybe. But it’s a valid desire, and one that is rarely celebrated, while people will smile fondly if you tell them you want to be a rock star…
So what if you were to bet on a Codependent? What if your goal were to heal that person – what would you do?
What if you were to say – “I will stay by your side until your violent needs stop torturing you? I will keep feeding you as long as you’re hungry. I will stay the distance, no matter how scary you are to me right now. I will be there for you. I will not call you ridiculous or needy. I will hold your hand and I will prove to you that I’m not going anywhere even when you go over the top with your demands” – which they will, since it is the only way to test that you are, indeed, going to stick around. There will be crises, and if you weather them, they will peak at some point, and then – then! – go down in intensity and number. This is the nature of the healing process. It’s brutal. Have you ever seen The Miracle Worker, a beautiful movie about Helen Keller? It’s harrowing and true. If you stay the course, eventually, the Codependent will begin to trust, and calm down, and develop another set of skills and desires that will not involve systematically sucking your lifeblood. Other needs, such as the need for autonomy will appear, for our natures always strive for balance.
Does that covenant sound familiar? It is the one parents – good parents – tacitly give their children. Very few people can imagine doing all this for an adult – because those things are supposed to be done for a child. Done once and done well.
And yet… what if we have an adult population that did not experience the covenant? How messed up are they? How do we help them? Is it even appropriate to help them as ‘children’? How can we increase the levels of love in our societies, so that everyone gets enough ‘strokes‘ on a daily basis?
I don’t believe a single person can fulfill the starving needs of a codependent adult. He or she did not receive the right amount of love and support at critical times in their childhood – their hunger will be compounded manifold. One single person, not even a parent! cannot heal such an exponential wound. It’s too late. It’s also useless to keep expecting love from the people who were not able to give it to you in the first place, lest you want to adopt a version of insanity. Forget about reparation from your parents. Just let it go. Even if they try, it won’t fill the need.
It is up to us, the codependent person, to be smart about this. We have to spread the weight. We must, as certain vampires do, take only a sip of blood from each person we meet. We must be aware of our capacity for destruction. We must learn to tame the demon of our hunger in many ways.
Our need for touch may be assuaged by massages, by sports, even by swimming and cuddling animals. Our need for camaraderie, by having many friends, belonging to groups, clubs, feeling useful, doing good. Our need for support, by all the above and by finding extraordinary therapists who will have your back. Our need for understanding, by reading the books of those who survived such circumstances, and even our own parents. Our needs for love, by loving very much but not just humans – art, music, hobbies. We must practice the muscle of our heart, so we are not just a gaping, walking need. We must learn to receive before we ask. What are ALL the things that make you feel warm and cuddly and safe and unique and special? Make a list, keep expanding it and use the SH*T out of it! Force yourself to accept love. It sounds weird but we often shut down that capacity because we were disappointed (betrayed) so many times.
Just don’t put it all on ONE person. No matter how much love there is between you two, you will kill that person. You will drain him or her. Such absolute gifts of self only seem to happen (healthily) in parenthood. You are not a child anymore. That way is closed. Get over it.
But there are others. The wound can be healed. It’s more difficult, awkward, painful. But what a person you’ll be, then!
Of course, it would have been much more convenient to not have had that wound in the first place (anyone who’s ever been hurt would agree). However, Gandalf was right – we don’t choose the circumstances, we simply must choose what to do with them – and hopefully we choose to not become vampires. Master your hunger, Codependents, come back to health. The world will be happier if we are healthy…