“Have you ever considered that maybe you are codependent?”
Brett asked it in such a straightforward way, as if the word “codependent” should not feel like an accusation about my character. I’d only known him for a few weeks. I’d met him on a dating site, something I was ironically using as a distraction. He was windblown and handsome, like a Kennedy but less wealthy. He was also a recovering alcoholic and had the wisdom that comes from confronting your demons in a very intentional way.
“No,” I told him, “I don’t know what it is. I’ll look it up.”
I had only been single for a few months, and the pain from my previous relationship was still very real. I couldn’t even utter my ex-boyfriend’s name. I referred to him either as “My Psycho Ex” or “He Whose Name Shall Not Be Repeated.” The craziness of that situation had caused me to have fleeting thoughts of suicide. It was like being trapped in an asylum. Once I was finally able to extricate myself, all the madness of the life I had been living became clear.
I cried at least once every day while curled up on my couch, hugging a pillow, trying to muffle the sound from creating concern or confusion among the strangers living on all sides of me.
My apartment was empty, as usual, when I arrived home that night. The gleaming, immaculate condition of it was in stark contrast to the ugliness I felt inside. The stone countertops and open floorplan made the apartment feel cold at times like these. My desk sat in a window-lined nook at the back of the living room. Ambient light from the street gave the cherry surface a soft illumination.
Work had been my refuge since I left, a way to lose myself in something productive. This desk was where I sat to feel in control of my destiny.
I sat down now and jiggled the mouse, and my monitor flickered to life. I opened a new browser window and typed “characteristics of a codependent person” into the Google search box. The results materialized in bright contrast in front of me.
I followed a link to a website that had little pizazz – a mustard yellow background with simple black text. The site looked like a remnant from the previous decade, but I read every word.
At first I was mortified. How could this be? I am a resourceful and independent woman. But I could see that I had been attracted to my recent relationship because it took me from my home state, where I was terribly unhappy. Before that, I had traveled to Europe for three months with a backpack searching for whatever it was that would make me happy. I didn’t find it, and now I was hungry for new information that would help me avoid this kind of pain in the future. I knew I needed to do something differently, so I kept reading.
His lies, at first, seemed plausible. He spoke intelligently about business matters and important positions and people. But, little by little, I realized I was paying all the bills and had financed a sports car for him. I was making more money than I ever had, but I had nothing to show for it. Even our intimate interactions were tainted by his narcissism and delusions, and I found myself doing things that would otherwise have been unacceptable to me. It was quite like the old adage about boiling a frog. The frog could jump out of the pot at any time, but the water temperature increases so slowly that he never realizes he’s being cooked alive.
My eyes focused on the monitor. Instead of fighting the feelings these words were causing, I made a decision to accept them. I could see that they were true, and I didn’t want to be that frog again. At that moment, my status as a codependent became a fact. It was neither good nor bad. It just was.
As I continued to scroll down the page, I released an enormous sigh. The air in my lungs forced its way out through my nostrils like a deflating balloon, and I realized I had been holding my breath. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes, making it more difficult to read. I wiped them away with the back of my hand as they arrived at my chin. I was simultaneously heartbroken to see what kind of a person I had become and overjoyed that I could now deal with this issue that had plagued me for so long.
I like to think of myself as a “woman of action,” someone who finds solutions. I started by printing out all 10 pages of this description. My mind was still absorbing the details as the pages crawled out of the printer. I scooped them up, stapled them and pulled a pen out of the mug on my desk that said “genius.”
I slowly read through each entry and considered whether the behavior applied to me. Some were easy, others more difficult. Each behavior I felt I needed to improve upon got a checkmark.
That one didn’t seem so bad, but it was listed under “Denial.” It undoubtedly referred to the sense of martyrdom that my mother also possesses. Give more than you have to give, and then feel resentful because the other person can’t possibly return the intensity of your generosity. Check.
This one was easy. I knew I always ended up with too many projects to do. Check.
When I was done, I looked through the list again, trying to commit to memory each item I had marked. I then placed the list in a file holder on my desk.
Over the next two years I looked at the list often. My business success helped me to overcome many of my self-esteem issues; I had never before had a vocation that felt as challenging or fulfilling as this one. When I felt I had improved in an area, I crossed it off the list. When I had done this enough times, I realized that I was no longer the same person. I put the list away in a drawer, and I kept it as a reminder of how far I had come.
Nothing was the same in my life after that night. It felt like I had been hitting myself over the head with a hammer for a decade and then suddenly stopped. Everything I experienced thereafter was more vivid and more meaningful. I had been living inside a very dark box, and I’d finally taken the lid off.
Many people go through painful experiences like mine but don’t have a light shone on the things about themselves that they can’t see. But I did. And not a day goes by during which I do not feel gratitude.