I had this great idea for a blog post, I thought. The five levels of codependency recovery. Then a quick google put me back in my place. Lots of people thought of this already: you can already recover/succumb in three stages or four stages or even eight stages.
But reading those processes it felt like there was something missing. Maybe it’s just me. But they always seem to tell a story of a person – a woman – whose only sign of codependency is the shit relationships she gets into. The rest of life seems to go OK, only if she could just stop attracting the wrong sort of bloke. And then the recovery process focuses very much on copping on to how shit your current or most recent relationship was and focusing on how to manage your reactions next time, with the single goal of getting into a healthy relationship.
I don’t mean that stuff. I think that’s only half the story. Less than half. There’s a ton of other relationships we have to negotiate in our lives, including our relationship with our kids, ourselves and the things we own and the things we do. And if you were traumatised early enough, I think all of these can be affected. (Anyone else out there still apologising to the furniture when you bump into it?)
So here’s my 5 stages of “lifetime”codependency as opposed to individual relationship codependency. I think they might be aspects actually, as I’m sure these run in parallel. Oh anyway. Here are five things about codependency.
1: Let me atone for the sin of being alive
At this stage you’re still living hour to hour in the trauma. Your default emotions are guilt and fear. The only thing that assuages that is being useful – in your work, with other goals, or by helping other people. You’re uncomfortable with accepting compliments or help, only comfortable when you know you’ve been more helpful to others than they have been to you. You’re probably most comfortable with a job where the tasks are very well defined and you’re able to exceed expectations a lot of the time. You find it damned near impossible to enjoy your free time unless you’re doing something demanding or useful. And it’s not a narcissistic thing – you don’t want to show off, you just need to know you’ve got a store of worthy acts in the bag to earn you your place on this earth.
2: I’m going to be a better person, but don’t anybody feel threatened by that
I’ve put this as 2 because it happened to me when I was quite young. It’s that first inkling that, while you of course had the perfect upbringing and your parents are utterly blameless and when you were punished you deserved it and it’s just a reflection of how bad you are that you sometimes questioned how harsh the punishments were (I AM BEING SARCASTIC HERE, YOUR PARENTS WERE AWFUL, NOBODY SHOULD TREAT A KID LIKE THAT), perhaps there is a nicer way to live your life. So maybe you got really into religion or spirituality or environmentalism, and you found a community of people who tried to use non-violent communication, or had “progressive”, “hippy” (=kind) ideas about how to raise children. Or maybe you were gaslighted (gaslit? That sounds like someone was setting fire to your coat) so you embrace truth and rational thought and you end up becoming a scientist or a statistician or some other job where you regularly get to go “actually if you look at the data, it’s a bit more complicated than that”. The key with all of this is that it becomes your “thing”, your foible, and so it allows you to choose your own values without challenging your parents’ way of life. Which is a lovely thing, or at least it would be if your parents weren’t abusive nutters and your values weren’t TOTALLY STANDARD don’t-be-an-arsehole things like telling the truth and letting your kids choose their own clothes and stuff like that.
3: I’m going to be a good girl even if nobody else is
I think this is a move forward. This is the point where you realise that your relationships may be asymmetric, that your parents have not been nice, but you’re still wedded to the idea of being a good person, so you continue to give all that one-way help and patience. I did this for years with my mother, turned the other cheek to the nasty comments and the occasional dramas, listened to the hour long rants about disappointing family members, did all her little and not so little favours, didn’t think too much about why I could never ask for her help with anything, why I would be unwilling to risk even admitting to her that I needed help with something. I said nothing when my stuff disappeared when we stayed at her house, only to magically turn up again a few months later when I’d done something that pleased her. And so on. “I don’t have control over her behaviour, only my own,” I’d say. “I choose to stay in contact with her and deal with her bullshit so that I don’t have to feel guilty when she’s dead.” But it’s not much of a choice, is it, when you’re doing it to avoid feeling a guilt that your rational brain believes you shouldn’t have to feel? You’re still enslaved at this point, the shackles of guilt are still on you.
4: If I am an arsehole then so be it
This is getting a bit more stagey again. This definitely follows after 3. It’s what happens when you’re still feeling the guilt and perhaps mentally assenting to the idea that you should be feeling guilt, but you’re not willing to do the things to assuage the guilt any more. This is when 20 years of dieting goes up the spout and you gain 2 stone and you’re having cocktails on a Tuesday night because why not? It’s when you go NC with your abusers – probably not in any sort of preplanned way, and probably because of a final big thing that happens but because of some back breaking straw. (This is why estranged parent forums are full of people going “I just can’t understand why he would be so petty as to estrange from us because we wrote his ex-wife’s name on the Christmas card by mistake” and you know they’re thinking “yeah because when he was a little kid and he got bullied at school I’d take him home and beat the crap out of him for not standing up for himself, and he didn’t estrange for that, why the hell is he so upset about the Christmas card?”)
I think in this phase you just can’t be fucked any more, and all the rules go out the window. I reckon if you make a big enough mess of this stage you can probably go back in at about stage 1 again for another go on the merry go round, only this time with self esteem even lower because look what happened when you broke the rules? The key to surviving this stage is to start sorting out the rules that keep you safe from the bullshit rules that keep you shackled to people who don’t deserve your time. This is difficult, because it’s the same people taught you all these rules. You know? My mother taught me that the world is a scary place and that I’m so pathetically unacceptable that only a saintly martyr such as herself would ever really care for me, but she also taught me how to use a pelican crossing. So you have to start examining the rules on their own merits, or else you’ll end up either back in codependent hell or flattened on a level crossing.
5: I’m not perfectly good, or perfectly bad – I’m just normal, and that’s OK
Last stage. Lasts a lifetime. You start identifying the rules of life that you need to live by, the ones that keep you safe and healthy and get you the things that make you happy, and you reject the rules that were about keeping you cowed and compliant and afraid of shame. You start defining what your responsibilities are, and what sits with other people. You stop managing the emotions of adults.
This doesn’t stop the fear or the guilt, athough it puts a good dent in it. You come to the rational conclusion that you are just an ordinary person – neither shameful and unacceptable as you’ve been taught, nor the saintly superhuman you tried to be to keep the guilty feelings at bay. Then with a bit of luck, and a lot of recovery work, your feelings eventually catch up with your thoughts and you can live your life for the first time as no more and no less than a normal adult person.
Any day now. I have high hopes.