Codependence – When You’re Addicted to an Addict

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people” — Virginia Woolf


“Gwen” was a well-liked, sympathetic mom who was dealt a hard lot in life. Her husband, “Jack,” was a drunk. He wasn’t abusive in the traditional sense of the word, he was actually a pretty nice guy, but every day he got home from work and started drinking. By seven-thirty, Jack would be passed out on the sofa. People commended Gwen for supporting her husband, and being strong. It was Gwen who had to drop everything to rush to the school when their special needs son had a problem; it was Gwen who spent hours alone sitting by her son’s hospital bed through his numerous minor surgeries; it was Gwen who drove everyone to appointments and took care of Jack’s mother when she was sick. And to his credit, Jack did manage to hold down a good job. In fact, it was Gwen who had been fired repeatedly over the years for being late and missing work because she had to take care of her son and husband.

After about nine years of marriage, Jack got transferred and the family moved to a new area. Then something incredible happened. Jack admitted he had a problem and stopped drinking. He was sober a full year when he returned from work one day to discover Gwen had left him.

Everyone was shocked. Why would Gwen leave when Jack finally got sober?  The answer to that is both very simple and very complicated. Gwen was probably codependent. Her identity and self-esteem came from her roles as the long-suffering wife of a drunk and the mother of a special-needs child. With her husband sober and able to help with their son, the life she knew no longer existed. Her identity had been taken away from her.

The evolving definition of codependence

If you were old enough to listen to the news in the 1980s, then chances are you’re more than a little familiar with the term “codependent.” The books, Adult Children of Alcoholics, by Janet Woititz, Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie and Women Who Loved to Much, by Robin Norwood were at the top of the best sellers’ lists. The authors were featured in major newspapers and magazines on a regular basis, and they were sought-after guests on the TV talk show circuit.

The codependency phenomenon took on such momentum that the entire philosophy expanded to include not just the spouses of alcoholics as it did decades before, but a large portion of the population. Anyone whose thinking and decision making was dependent on another person or even a substance, was considered codependent. Addicts were considered codependent on their drugs, wives were codependent on their addicted husbands, entire families who lived with an addict were deemed codependent (in the latter case, the term is often used interchangeably with dysfunctional).

Today, the term is most often used to refer to someone who is in a relationship with, and offering emotional and/or physical support to someone with an addiction to drugs, gambling or alcohol. The sense of self is lost for the codependent and the role of “carer” becomes the codependent’s main identity.

It’s still a popular theory amongst therapists and recovery groups, and most (but, definitely not all) professionals give it merit.

Are you or a loved one codependent?

If your life or the lives of your family are being affected because you’re making decisions and doing things solely for an addict in your life, then you probably are codependent. If you’ve missed your daughter’s graduation because your alcoholic husband went to a bar after work and didn’t want you to go without him, then there’s a good chance you’re codependent. If you’ve been late paying your rent because your wife has gambled away the money, or you handed it over for her to gamble, then there’s a good chance you’re codependent. It’s easy to see how these actions hurt you, and those around you. You’re undependable to everyone except the addict — who you’re probably hurting far more than you’re helping.

Codependents can hurt, more than help the addict

Quite often, the codependent person becomes an enabler. This isn’t intentional. If you’re codependent, you probably have the best intentions, but ensuring that an addict never experiences the natural consequences of his or her behavior, means the addict is probably not going to get help.

Addiction is far more complicated than just separating a person from the addictive substance. It encompasses relationships and entire families. Sometimes the role of the addicted person is what becomes familiar and even desirable (although destructively so) to those who love and support the addict. For this reason, those in a relationship with an addict will need therapy and support, whether or not the addict seeks help.

Low self-esteem

Codependents usually have low self-esteem. They also fail to take care of themselves, and instead, put other people first. Their identities are not their own, but rather are tied up in the identity, happiness and approval of another, damaged person. For this reason, the codependent can have a stake in keeping the user addicted and dependent.

If you think you are a codependent, or have a loved one who might be, there is help available. Groups like Al-Anon and Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) can be great places to start, as can private therapy. Just take the first step. Do whatever you have to do, to become the best and the strongest you possible.