Codependency: A Needed Historical Perspective.


A term which has been a misused and often misunderstood through the years. It is also a controversial topic in the field of addictions and mental health therapy. However, It is a dynamic that exists in dysfunctional relationships where alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness weigh heavy within family systems. The controversy lies within the scope of how it is defined. Addiction medicine professionals may define it differently than a mental health therapist or a psychologist.That said, codependents share similar symptoms and behavioral characteristics across the vast spectrum of behavioral health sciences. By the conclusion of this blog, my hope is that you will be able to define codependency as it pertains to you and your life experiences. Please keep in mind that healthy relationships have elements of co-existing dependency. Also keep in mind that there is always hope regarding the ability to overcome codependency in its debilitating state. Like the disease of addiction, codependency recovery is where hope springs eternal. 

A needed historical perspective on codependency:

In 1936, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith (affectionately known as Bill W. and Dr. Bob) were two alcoholics who were blessed to find each other at a time when both lost all hope due to the ravages of their disease. They were two suffering and dying alcoholics who running out of time. Through the common bond of their fatal disease and a desire to stop drinking, they formed what is known today as Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA. They wrote the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and sought out others who were dying from their diseases of alcoholism.

'12 Step' self help groups were founded by Bill W. and Dr. Bob. They were founded on spiritual principles and guidelines. Such principles and guidelines included service part, reaching out to others who were sick an suffering. They outlined 12 steps and 12 traditions to guide their way. Bill W. and Dr. Bob were visionaries, geniuses, pioneers, heroes and lifesavers. The profoundness of the act of sitting and talking with others dying from the disease of alcoholism with the hope of arresting its progressive nature saved well over 4 million lives since 1936. Over the years, a plethora of 12 Step help groups spun off of their original include a 12 Step codependent self help group. Today, this group is identified as Codependents Anonymous or CoDa for short.

In 1951, none other than Lois W., wife of Bill W., and Anne B. believed family members and significant others of alcoholics needed a place to heal. The origin of this meeting set the foundation for today's CoDa 12 Step meetings. It was not labeled as codependency back in the their day. Like Bill W. and Dr. Bob, they were also suffering. These family members and significant others realized they shared common bonds regarding their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors specific to a loved ones alcoholism. The identification of people with said thoughts, feelings, and behaviors took on a name in the 1980's. They were called Codependents and still are today.

Codependency hit mainstream in the 1980's. Upon it's first interpretation, it came to negatively symbolize people deemed weak, clingy, and needy and unable to function outside of a dysfunctional relationship. Codependent relationships predominantly had alcoholics as the 'identified patient' within the confines of crumbling family structures. Today, codependency has evolved into widespread and often conflicting personal and clinical interpretation. In many therapeutic settings, clinicians are reluctant to use a codependent label to identify a person demonstrating unique behaviors specific to being in relationships with alcoholics, drug addicts, and people with chronic mental illnesses. That being said, codependency is real and it can be just as debilitating as alcoholism and drug addiction. There is much to be said specific to unhealthy relationships addicts and their loved ones share. 

What is Codependency? I researched a straightforward explanation of this debilitating illness. "Codependency is a set of maladaptive, compulsive behaviors learned by family members in order to survive in a family that is experiencing great emotional pain and stress. It is a dependency on people - on their moods, behaviors, sickness or well-being, and their love. Codependents look strong but feel helpless." Taken from the following website: 

Simply stated, codependents are believed to be addicted to their addict /alcoholic loved ones. A codependents identity is wrapped around the behaviors and attitudes and feelings of their addicted loved one. They rely on their addicted loved one for purpose, relevance, and approval. A codependent does not have a sense of who they are. They have the ability to speak in generalities regarding who they think they are. That said, codependents can be mentally and emotionally paralyzed when asked to speak in specifics about who they think they really are. They usually don't know. It proves to be quite difficult for them to dig deep when it comes to personal conversations outside of what is going on with their addicted loved one. Codependents need to be asked two important questions to try and get them to identify who they are and to gauge how they see their self worth. They are as follows: "Where do you begin and where does the addict end?" And, "Tell me about who you are?" The profoundness of those questions usually leaves them speechless. The thought of having a separate identify from their addicted loved one can be downright terrifying for codependents. Therein lies the foundation for a codependents existence. The disease of addiction identifies who they. 

Where does Codependency come from? There is significant medical and psychological research to support a generational link to codependency within alcoholic and drug addicted family structures. Simply stated, one lives what one was taught and what was observed at home. Codependents are mentally and emotionally addicted to their addict /alcoholic loved ones. The addict is the codependents drug of choice!

What are symptoms of codependent relationship?

1. Having a difficult time making relationship decisions.

2. Difficulties or an inability to identifying personal feelings.

3. Poor communication in a relationship.

4. The approval of others is more meaningful than self approval. 

5. Low self-esteem and an inability to trust oneself. 

6. Obsessing over fears of abandonment and approval.

7. Remaining in unhealthy relationships even when you know they cause significant mental and emotional distress. 

8. Over dramatizing the responsibility you believe you have over the actions, feelings, thoughts of addicted loved ones. 

Medical and psychological complications of untreated codependency: 

Heart disease and depression. Codependents often experience depressive and anxiety related mood disorders. When submerged in ongoing depression and persistent anxiety, people do not take care of their physical well being. Poor dietary habits become the norm. Such habits will eventually take their toll on one's physical as well as mental well being. Poor dietary habits can lead to hypertension, Type II Diabetes, and high cholesterol. From a psychological perspective, the maintenance of family secrets and social isolation are common occurrences. They go hand in hand. In that depression is a progressive mood disorder, suicidal thoughts and attempts are not out of the realm of dysfunctional family dynamics. Children of untreated codependents and addicts learn from what mom and dad do and say. Their minds are like sponges. They hear and see everything that goes on in their home. Codependents are hyper focused on behaviors and mindsets of addicted loved ones that children are neglected and cast aside. They are able to pick up on whether or not a parent is emotionally and mentally available for them. Making sure they eat three meals a day and have clean clothes to wear does not make up for the need for consistent healthy emotional and mental nurturing. Finally, untreated codependency can be just as deadly, just as fatal as untreated addictive illnesses. An addict or alcoholic typically dies from the consequences of their using. Codependents typically die from their illnesses manifesting in health complications like heart attacks and diabetes. 

What's the solution?

Believe it or not, codependents are often sicker than their addicted loved ones. An addict/alcoholic is psychologically and physically driven to use mind altering substances. The dysfunction behind the use of mind altering substances if secondary to getting high or loaded. Codependents are constantly in the business of their addicted loved ones life. They are 100% mentally and emotionally invested in enabling and caretaking their sick family members. Control gives them purpose and relevance. There is a way out.

Humility and rigorous/painful/soul searching honesty!

Attend CoDa 12 Step meetings...fellowship with others who struggle living with an addicted/alcoholic loved one. Counseling services and treatment programs are available. All can prove to be lifesaving. However, nothing changes if nothing changes. Changes begin with humility and rigorous/painful/soul searching honesty.