One of my clients, who I had been seeing for a few years off and on, initiated therapy with me in the context of dealing with her daughter’s addiction. She asked me to be her “parent coach.” The term “coach” is an interesting one when you think about the monumental transformation required to shift one’s perspective on what it means to be a mother in relationship to a child struggling with a life-threatening illness.
As we worked together and the weeks turned into months and years, her obsession with her daughter’s addictive rollercoaster was constant. Her compulsions to help her daughter were reinforced when she was able to, temporarily, prevent potential disasters in her daughter’s life. She would present examples of her efforts preventing some catastrophe and show it to me to prove her point, “What if I wasn't there to save her?”
She seemed to enjoy our sessions and was dedicated to reading any book I might reference in session and was religious in her listening to Evoke Therapy Programs’ weekly podcasts. Very often, she came to her sessions with questions from her reading and listening and insisted she would make any effort to free herself from the suffering inherent as a mother of an addict.
I suggested she try attending Al-Anon and Codependents Anonymous (CODA) meetings in order to create a support system and consider getting a sponsor, as many consider this aspect of 12-step work most beneficial. After attending one session, she reported back to me that, “They just seem to be complaining and whining about their hopeless circumstances.”
“That is a good place to do it,” I told her. “If you leave your pain there, you will have less of it to leak onto your daughter. She isn’t equipped to hold your pain.”
After I suggested she attend Al-Anon or CODA, she shared this advice with her sister, who at the time was 19 years in recovery from alcoholism. Her sister responded, “You don't need to go to Al-Anon! You need to go to A.A. You are an addict! You are addicted to controlling your daughter.”
I told her that her sister didn't understand the purpose of Al-Anon and CODA meetings, and that many misunderstand the work in those rooms. I explained that these 12-step meetings were in fact established to help people that are addicted to controlling (they tell themselves it is helping) other people.
I found her sister’s understanding of recovery from codependency not that unique. Many people in long-term recovery from addiction have some misunderstanding of codependency. They reduce it to something like tough love. “Set better boundaries,” they say, “and watch how fast the addict sees the light.”
Codependency, a condition that many define by its close proximity to a family member struggling with addiction to substances or some process addiction is not exclusive to such people. It is a disorder independent of and predates the relationship with the addict they love.
People with children, spouses, or other loved ones don't have a unique form of the disorder, nor is their codependency necessarily more acute than those who don't have a loved one in close proximity struggling with addiction. I see many people with codependency who do not have close family members with addiction. Many therapists, maybe most therapists, have a potent strain of the disorder.
Codependency is a pop-psychology term for fractured-attachment or attachment trauma. It most closely approximates an anxious-attachment style. The codependent has no sense of individuation from others, but more important and central is they have little sense of themselves. There is a euphemism with codependents or anxiously attached individuals that they simply “love too much.” But this euphemism distorts the core issue and couldn't be more inaccurate.
Anxious attachment (or codependency) is not loving too much; it is not enough Self.
Codependency doesn't cause addiction. Recovery from codependency doesn't cure addiction in a child, spouse, or other family member. Recovery from codependency only helps the codependent to begin to relate to themselves and others in a fundamentally different way: they learn to maintain a sovereign sense of Self and what it means to love an Other.
Here is where codependency and addiction do come together.
Addicts are medicating the effects of codependency. Addiction, obsessive and compulsive self-medication, is the dance where one attempts to quiet the overwhelming fear, pain, and shame that results from being in a relationship with Others when one absorbs their anxieties and messages. Self-medication (in any form) isn’t caused by how others treat us, but self-medication is the solution for the addict to their dilemmas.
The codependent, like the substance addict, finds the solution to his problems outside of himself. For the addict, the substance, sex, gambling etc. serves to numb the feelings of distress or unwellness they feel. For the codependent, the problem is the suffering of the Other and the solution is to control the Other in order to feel some sense of internal safety.
I once had a great teacher, a self-identified obsessive compulsive. He would organize his desk with everything at right angles and during moments of heightened anxiety he would rearrange the objects on his desk with great care. He would often look up after such an exercise and say to me, “When everything feels so out of control on the inside, arranging the pencils and papers on my desk gives me the sense that I am in control of something.” I think many can relate to that feeling.
So, we treat family addiction not because if we fix the other family members the addict will be cured; we treat everyone in such families because everyone is suffering, and each is looking for a solution outside of themselves. Hence, they all suffer from the same core issue. The issue is lack of safety and security that results from secure attachment (connection). We help parents and spouses and siblings to recovery so they can be free of the purest addiction of all: the addiction of controlling the “out there” person in order to feel okay. This is why the serenity prayer is so relevant for addicts and codependents.
I have never met an addict who did not suffer from the attachment wounding synonymous with codependency. I often find it alarming how few addicts working a program of recovery from addiction are addressing their codependency or attachment trauma.
By now, most folks in the field of addiction are familiar with Johan Hari’s TED talk (and the concepts in it). His concluding statement, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection,” rings inherently true from most viewers and nearly everyone in the treatment field. No wonder the 12-step program works so well. It is community, but more than just a fellowship. It is a place where your beautiful, horrible, rotten, and wonderful self is welcome. That is the essence of secure attachment.
There are still some practices in the addiction treatment world where family members and loved ones surround addicts in circles or write them letters detailing the sadness, frustration, betrayal, and hurt resulting from loving and being in relationship to the addict. Yet this practice runs completely counter to the treatment of codependency. In codependency treatment the recovering person learns that their serenity is their own responsibility, not the addict’s. Laying feelings on the shoulders of the addict may serve some catharsis and even provide some temporary motivation of shame or guilt to shock the addict into recovery. But until everyone in the family takes responsibility for their own lives, there will be no real recovery. Besides, making an addict or a person struggling with mental illness responsible for your serenity is absurd—they are the least capable people in the world to ask to take care of your peace and well-being. They are simply horrible at it.
And, as mentioned before, that is exactly what they are medicating and escaping from. They are trying to erase the guilt and shame that come from hurting the people that love them the most. Parents’ anxiety, sadness and anger are debilitating on top of an addiction or a mental illness. It is a crushing weight. So, we would be wise not to hand our pain and wellbeing to them—both for our own good and for their benefit.
So, we codependents go to our meetings. We seek out recovery. The deeply painful feelings that come with loving an addict are real and profound. But we go to our meetings and hand them to the fellowship there. We go to therapy and give it to our therapist. We do all of this when we are with the addict that we love, we can be there for them instead of asking them to be there for us.
Addiction is not either/or. It is not all genetics, nor is it all environmental. Everyone comes with a level or predisposition dictated by their organicity and circumstances of life can activate the disease of addiction. Addicts often have significant genetic loading and activation is inevitable. This is true of diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and even personality traits. Those who want to paint the cause of addiction with one brush should be considered dinosaurs in the field.
Once I was giving a lecture on codependency and family addiction to a group of therapists. At some point during my lecture, an experienced therapist asked the question, “Brad. How can you suggest that we advise a mother to kick her heroin addicted child out of house when the consequences could be death?”
Realizing she had concluded something from my lecture I hadn’t intended, I replied, “I would never do that. I think many in the treatment field do imply that if family members take certain steps, usually in the form of tough boundaries, the addiction will cease. I could not bear the responsibility of another’s child. If the worst happened, I don't think the mother could forgive either of us. You see, divorcing your alcoholic spouse isn’t the answer. Kicking an opioid addicted young adult child isn’t the answer—neither is letting them live in the basement. The answer, the thing I would do with that mother, is to try to help her to heal her codependency and out of that, she would be better able to decide what to do.”
The healthy boundaries that come as we heal our attachment trauma and develop a deeper sense of ourselves are not necessarily stricter boundaries—they are better boundaries. This is because they arise out of a more whole and complete sense of self. So, we invite everyone in the family into treatment to treat their disease and to ease their suffering. And in the end, each will find the reward in the journey.
Lastly, to do this work we must look into our own attachment trauma and the misguided lessons of our childhood. We therapists, interventionists, treatment staff and caregivers must address our own codependency. For if we don't address and deal with that, we will simply be acting out our own wounds, our need to control our clients, in the same ways our parents did to us and their parents did to them. But if we do address our codependency, we may come to the same conclusion that Dr. Stone came to with his patients in the movie, The Three Christs.
“Though I had failed to cure my [schizophrenic] patients of their God-like delusions, they had cured me of mine.”
Dr Brad Reedy
Owner and Clinical Director, Evoke Therapy Programs
Dr. Brad Reedy is a Co-owner of Evoke Therapy Programs, an experiential program for adolescents, young-adults and families. He served on the Board of the Utah Department of...