The Third Rail of Recovery – Codependency

The Third Rail of Recovery - Codependency

As Larcine mentions over and over again in her talk, addiction is a family disease. Always. Every time.

The family disease of addiction stresses everyone exposed to the breaking point, impacts the stability of the home, the family’s unity, mental health, physical health, finances, and overall family dynamics. Think of it as an infection. You can catch the flu even when no symptoms are present, right? So too with the family disease of addiction.

Sometimes, the addict creating all this havoc was us. More often, we grew up in alcoholic households (even when the parent or older sibling had stopped drinking or using, had found recovery… Or had died.)

For those of us in recovery today for OUR addiction, it can be easy to forget that there is a second spectrum to treating the disease that has nothing to do with the way WE used drugs and alcohol and EVERYTHING to do with the way our alcoholic home life infected – and affected – our ability to live well TODAY.

This MAY be true even if WE NEVER SAW our PARENTS OR SIBLINGS USing drugs or alcohol.

at any time.


I didn’t see my dad drink until I was in my twenties. Nevertheless, we lived in a quiet state of constant upheaval, moving over 25 times before I entered high school, going from one city to another, searching for a job my dad could keep for longer than six months. Even though I never saw any evidence of his drinking, I grew up in a VERY alcoholic home.


Living with addiction can put family members under unusual stress. Normal routines are constantly being interrupted by unexpected or even frightening kinds of experiences that are part of living with alcohol and drug use. What is being said often doesn’t match up with what family members sense, feel beneath the surface or see right in front of their eyes. The alcohol or drug user as well as family members may bend, manipulate and deny reality in their attempt to maintain a family order that they experience as gradually slipping away. The entire system becomes absorbed by a problem that is slowly spinning out of control. Little things become big and big things get minimized as pain is denied and slips out sideways.

Without help, addiction disrupts family life and causes harmful effects that can last a lifetime, even if the REALITY of the disease was arrested at some point or hidden from the child.

While it may seem bizarre for a person attending AA or NA meetings to also go to  Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, it is important to make a distinction between MY ADDICTION and the way OTHER’S ADDICTION effects me. When a dear friend overdoses and dies, when a sponsee relapses and is arrested on yet another DUI, when my boyfriend or girlfriend or wife or husband gets drunk AGAIN and sleeps around, I am dealing with an issue  no longer addressed in the Big Book or Basic Text. I’m dealing with the effects or THEIR disease.

If I am regularly attending AA or NA meetings, there are people in my life, loved ones who “need” the program of recovery. To react to them with sanity and compassion, I need a new set of tools. These tools are available at a number of 12 step-based meetings, primarily AlAnon, NarAnon, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), and Codependent’s Anonymous (CoDa).

the benefits of THERAPY, a shameless plug

While these support services are important for making connections with others trying to navigate day-to-day life with addiction in the family, so is seeking  professional therapy. Individual therapy for each family member, not just the addict, is important for the mental health of both the addict’s spouse or partner and children, and meeting with a therapist as a family can help improve communication among family members, rebalance the family dynamic and give family members a safe environment to express their anger, fear and other concerns.

Not sure if any of this relates to you? Consider the following TWO lists.


  1. Normal is for OTHER people.

We guess at what normal behavior is. Because of our environment, we had no role models for normalcy; we acted how we saw other, “normal” people act. Or, going to the other extreme, we insisted that there was no such thing as “normal,” that everyone comes from fucked-up families, that everyone suffers in silence, that everyone is just as hurt and confused as we are. Either way, we continue this performance cycle in our adult lives.

2) My life is full of half-completed dreams.

We have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end; we procrastinate. Adult children of alcoholics have never been taught how to solve a problem in systematic, manageable amounts. It was always all or nothing.

3) I wouldn’t know the truth if it…

We lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth. Lies, specifically lies of denial, were used to benefit the alcoholics and para-alcoholics of our homes. We learned well.

4) I suck. You suck too, but not nearly as much as I do.

We judge ourselves without mercy. Since there is no way for us to meet the unattainable standards of perfection we have internalized from childhood, we are always falling short of the mark we have set for ourselves. If we are responsible for some positive outcome we dismiss it by saying, “Oh, that was easy,” and so on.

5) Fun is… I’m not sure.

We have difficulty having fun. For most of us having fun was a childhood fantasy. We were always imprisoned by the anger and hostility of living in an alcoholic home, even if physically removed from the alcoholic, the disease was already part of us and our family structure. As we matured, our definition of “fun” became creating or maintaining  chaos. The more stimulation, the better. Stability is boring. Crazy is AWESOME.

6) Super, super cereal.

We take ourselves very seriously. The normal spontaneity of childhood was squashed  by the pressure to be adult. Living with one or more addicts forced us to be on guard constantly. Seriousness was the only option.

7) Intimacy? What’s that?

We have difficulty with intimate relationships. For most of us the only reference of intimate relationships was that of our parents. Our inconsistent parent-child relationships caused us to feel an overwhelming fear of abandonment. We are left inexperienced and fearful of letting ourselves get close or vulnerable with anyone.

8) Reactionary living.

We overreact to change and struggle, manipulate, and attempt to control any situation over which we have no control. As young children, our lives were infected by the addict’s life and the constant change and chaos of that environment became normative. Now any change which we are unaware of or have no control over leaves us feeling desperate and vulnerable.

9) Constant, eternal, INFINITE approval-seeking.

We constantly seek approval and affirmation. The love we received as children was very erratic. Affirmations unrecieved during childhood were interpreted as indicators of our own inferiority. If someone likes, affirms, or accepts us… we typically judge them worthless.

10) Everybody’s got it better than me.

Because of our secretive childhood sufferings, we thought that things were always better in the “house next door.” NOBODY could possibly feel the same way as we did. Therefore, we felt unique, not a part of the group, and always looking in through an imaginary barrier.

11) We are super responsible or irresponsible as hell.

So much of our lives are all or nothing when trying to please our parents we did more and more and more; some of us realized early in our childhood, that there simply was no pleasing them, so we did nothing. We people please until we burn out for two basic reasons; one, because we don’t have a realistic sense of our own capabilities or, two because if we say NO, we’re afraid someone might find out how inadequate we feel and no longer like us.

12) Never give up, never surrender.

We are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved. Since starting a relationship is so difficult and frightening, when we do so we expect it to be permanent. This loyalty is usually caused by fear of abandonment. At home we always “hung in there” enabling the addict and denying the disease.

13) Don’t tell me what to do! (I don’t like to make plans. Or commitments. Or whatever.)

We are impulsive. As children our lives were impossible to predict and the chaotic nature of our homes  was denied or covered up by our parents. When we started acting our in impulsive decision making, we rarely suffered the consequences because our families enabled that weird “normal,” leaving us with no deterrent. We allow our impulsive behavior to continue in our adult lives.



  1. My relationships often involve people who need my help or are somehow dependent on me.
  1. When I can’t help someone, I feel guilty and responsible for their upset feelings.
  1. In the last year, significant others have resorted to arguing, begging or raising their voice to get me to stop trying to help them.
  1. I spend a lot of time thinking through or projecting outcomes, trying to figure out what I can do to get the outcome I want.
  1. It’s difficult for me to receive praise or thanks from others.
  1. I do not like to let myself get angry. When I do, I often lose control and feel ashamed.
  1. It’s difficult for me to say “No” or to ask for things that I need at home, at work, or with friends.
  2. I often over-commit my time and measure my self-esteem by how much someone depends on me
  3. It is hard for me have fun or relax; if I’m not productive, I feel worthless.
  1. It’s difficult to believe that someone could truly love me..
  1. I am afraid of being hurt or abandoned if I allow myself to be loved.
  1. I find it easy to criticize and blame others, although I don’t like to admit it.
  1. I seem to justify or make excuses for others’ actions when they have hurt me.
  1. When I know a relationship is about to end, I will stay in it until I can begin another relationship.
  1. It is easy to make me feel guilty because I take responsibility for others and blame myself for their upset.
  1. I am not sure what normal is.
  1. I often take a stand in a relationship and then go back on what I said if it causes tension.
  1. I am not aware of what I want. I ask others what they want.
  1. I tend to be sick a lot. I can’t seem to fight off infection, but it doesn’t stop me.
  1. There never seems to be enough time to do things I enjoy doing.

Count ’em up and write down your “score.”

If you answered “Yes” to more than 6 questions then codependency is clearly part of your relationships. You are known to be helpful, self-sacrificing, hard working, trustworthy and self-sufficient. What turns these strengths into codependency is when you “need to be needed” in order to feel that you have any value.

If you answered “Yes” to less than 6 questions you are a person who goes out of the way to be helpful but is not codependent because you do not feel driven to be needed and your value does not depend on the approval of significant others.

What is codependency?

Codependency is when someone (spouse, parent, sibling, coworker, or friend) allows another person’s behavior to control his/her thoughts, feelings, or actions. Codependents tend to live their lives in response or reaction to the other person’s behavior or attitudes, and measure their own worth by the value given to them by the other. The codependent person no longer has life of their own, and may find themselves unable to relate to others in a healthy way, but not know why.

Codependency can lead to various long-term problems, such as low self-esteem (sense of failure and inadequacy), depression (feeling hopeless and helpless), numbing of emotions, health problems (such as headaches, asthma, ulcers and high blood pressure), or persistent relationship difficulties.

There is hope and healing for codependents, however. Codependents can become actors, rather than reactors. It takes time, courage and determination to begin the recovery journey, but it’s worth it. You’ve started today by honestly asking the question, “Am I codependent?”

The next step is make an appointment with to a therapist familiar with codependency and recovery, and to seek the support of the appropriate 12 Step meeting.

Questionnaires and self-assessment tools adapted from Adult Children of Alcoholics, by Janet G. Woititz, Ed.D., 1987 and Co-Dependent No More, How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring For Yourself, 1986, Melodie Beattie.


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