What Codependency Is, and Why it Doesn’t Work


Codependency is something that’s often seen in relationships involving an addict. We’ll go to dictionary.com for the official definition:

co·de·pend·ent [koh-di-pen-duhnt]
1. of or pertaining to a relationship in which one person is physically or psychologically addicted, as to alcohol or gambling, and the other person is psychologically dependent on the first in an unhealthy way.

In July 2010 I left my wife for a woman with whom I’d been carrying on an affair for over a year. (Yes, I know what this says about me: it was yet another sign of just how sick I was back then, and was another way my addiction and mental illness were acting out.) Neither she nor I knew it was the time, but she was very, very codependent (in fact, neither of us knew the word “codependent” at the time). All I knew was that she was the person who had convinced me that I was indeed an alcoholic, and that I needed help; she drove me to my first AA meeting in this area, and helped me get into my first rehab. She was supportive, she was encouraging, and she told me all the time how proud she was of me for fighting this.

She also had tied her entire happiness into whether or not I stayed sober: she took every one of my relapses (and there were many) personally as a failure on her part. And the longer we stayed together, the more and more she tried to control me, to put measures into place that would make it more difficult for me to get a drink. She took over my bank account, she insisted on seeing receipts when I did something as simple as put gas in the car, and she would call me multiple times per day just so she could hear my voice (and hence figure out if I’d been drinking that day).

At one point, she bought a breathalyzer. Now, the purchase itself was actually a good idea, if for no reason than it put an end to any “You’ve been drinking/No I haven’t/Yes you have” arguments instantly. And if it had been used just for that purpose, it might have stayed as a good idea. But, it turned into part of a daily routine: I blew into it before I left in the morning, when I got home in the afternoon, if I went anywhere in the evening or on the weekend by myself (to the supermarket, to visit family, etc.)

One of the more ironic points here is that she was attending Al-Anon meetings at the time, about once or twice a week. (She also went to Adult Children of Alcoholics support groups – I know, it’s like a cliche come to life.) And Al-Anon has a saying which they call the Three C’s – “I Didn’t Cause It, I Can’t Control It, I Can’t Cure It”. She knew the first part. She seemed to understand the third part. But she really, REALLY didn’t get that middle part at all.

Now, here’s the really important concept about codependency and control: NONE OF THIS WORKS.

One thing that almost all addicts have in common is a near-genius level of resourcefulness when it comes to getting our drug of choice into us. I was “lucky” in that I had a career that made me easily hirable and paid me very well, and that booze is cheap (you can get a fifth of vodka for as little as $7). But, I was in rehab with people who had pill and heroin addictions, which could easily run them $80-100 a day. And these were people who almost never had a job – or if they did, they barely made over minimum wage. But one way or another, these guys would find a way to get that $80-100 every day, every week, no matter what. If they had to steal it, if they had to rob a drug dealer, if they had to take items from their family’s home and pawn them — whatever they had to do to “hustle” that money up, it would be done.

So, asking me for a receipt when I put gas in the car was going to stop me? Uhh – no. You go to the counter, pay for $50 worth of gas in cash, and ask for a receipt. Then, you put $30 in the car, walk back to the counter, say “Hey, I only needed $30 worth. Can I get my change?”

There was also a couple of months where she was working and I wasn’t. So, she’d call a couple times a day, but eventually decided that wasn’t enough. So, she had me make a short video on my iPhone, showing the current time, then showing me blowing into the breathalyzer, and then showing the “0.00”. Did that stop me? Uhh – no. As soon as she would leave the house, I’d make 4 or 5 videos, just changing the time on the clock on the oven before each one. Then, I had them ready to go no matter when she asked during the day – and I could get started on that pint of vodka hidden in the bathroom by 8:00 AM.

You cannot force an alcoholic to stop drinking, or a junkie to stop using. Many have tried, all have failed. And with the wrong addict (read: ME), it is simply taken as a challenge to overcome. If you have an addict in your life that you want to help, and you find this frustrating: good. It’s supposed to be.

If you are asking (as I was asked recently in comments): “What can family and friends do for you?”

There’s actually an extensive list of what family and friends can do “for” me.

They are almost all wrong.

They invariably end up enabling, or attempting to control, or establishing co-dependence, or emasculating the alcoholic.. There are only two suggestions that I would make for friends and family who are serious about wanting to “help”:

1) Attend Al-Anon meetings regularly, and participate. Talk to other people who have gone through what you are going through. Don’t expect a “secret answer” that will solve the problem – just listen, and share.

2) Set healthy boundaries, with clearly defined repercussions of breaking them, with the alcoholic, and hold to them unequivocally. No 2nd or 3rd or 4th chances. No “It’ll never happen again, I promise”. No “I’ll just have one drink, who will that hurt?” Cross the boundary? Suffer the consequences.

Please note: these aren’t steps that are meant to help the addict get clean. They are meant to help you deal with the situation life has handed to you.

Good luck. Stay strong. Keep faith.


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