This guest post is by Radical Parenting Intern Editor, Mila Anhielo.
Codependency, by definition, is unhealthy love and a tendency to behave in overly passive or excessively caretaking ways that negatively impact one’s relationships and quality of life.
As strange as this may be, codependency began after one of my first memories. My story is not uncommon; in fact, codependency begins to course through the lives of young girls before our minds can fabricate conscious awareness of these situations. I was sitting on the stair case of a house I had only just moved into, I imagine now that my parents were still jet-lagged from the flight. I was six years old. After growing up in South America, my mother had made the decision to move to California, where I instantly felt out of place. I remember the feeling of not quite belonging, and being confused about why my surroundings were so uninviting. Right there on the stair case, I watched my immediate family and relatives huddle in mourning. My older brother had died in a car crash the night we arrived in the states. As soon as my mother’s words fell from her tongue, my younger cousin jabbed me in the stomach with his fist. I guess he was trying to make light of my reaction, which we both thought was funny. I didn’t know my older brother very well, I just knew he fathered my niece, and I had no idea this moment was going to change my life forever.
At the time, I was too young to know the pain of losing a son or having to be set back thousands of dollars for flights and funerals. I didn’t know the kind of trauma and financial strain my family was under, so I did what a lot of young women might do, I blamed myself. I couldn’t fathom why my father was a different person now. He was quiet, solemn, and often had a temper. When I modeled my lacey dresses and my stories, he would nod his head in uninterested apathy. He began filling his life with expensive watches and extravagant trips to Las Vegas, while my mother was left to tend to my feelings. Nothing was the same, I constantly longed for the attention of my father, and the more I longed, the more he pulled away. He would take me to his soccer games, where I was encouraged to kick the ball with other girls, and criticized for writing poetry on the stands instead. My mother was nagged at and patronized in front of me; I remember wishing she would leave him so we could run away together.
I began to rebel indefinitely at twelve years old. The kids at my middle school did not approve of my kooky outfits and self-righteous demeanor. I was kicked out of the chess club for goofing off during tournaments, I was nearly banned from the choir for dressing inappropriately, and was almost expelled for writing death threats to boys who made fun of me. I began experimenting with Marijuana and drinking at this less than ripe age. I would stay up late on the internet in chat rooms, learning to escape reality into a world of experimentation. I had no idea what the penalties for my actions would be, and honestly, I had no idea why I did these things in the first place. It seemed to just come out, the words, the actions, the blatant arrogance, and the hate for everyone around me. I wished so much that I could be skinnier, blonder, have higher cheek bones, better clothes, more money, the list went on. Most of all, I wanted to feel normal, in-place, loved, and understood. I wouldn’t admit it to anyone. To the world, I could care less what they thought. In my mind, I wanted so badly to be accepted by my father. If he loved me, I wouldn’t need anyone else. So the ploys to get attention continued, but I got no consolation from him, only more criticism.
My father wrote me a letter after my first arrest, at thirteen years old. I was excited; it seemed my efforts were going noticed. I was deeply disappointed with what I read. He wrote about how I was one of the biggest disappointments in his life, how I was a great kid until I turned twelve, how he couldn’t believe he had set such a bad example, he referred to me as a slap in the face. The letter was all about him, and how much he no longer cared what happened to me. Shortly after, he tried to commit suicide several times and also became violent toward my mother. I was crushed. The feelings of inadequacy were so much that I began to take my self-destruction further.
At fourteen years old, I began experimented with hard drugs. Since I was the only girl at my high-school who blatantly did drugs and didn’t make an effort to hide it, I felt like I could conquer the world. People were noticing me as the tortured artist and drug addict rather than a total geek. I felt like a star, as silly as it sounds. I started going to clubs, raves, and getting very wrapped up in the Los Angeles lifestyle of a 21 year old. This is no sob story, I had some good nights, I searched for truth, I made art, and I made a lot of friends, usually people older than me. However, there was a trend in my actions. No matter how good my streak, I kept ending up in a holding cell or Narcotics Anonymous meeting.
At fifteen years old, I discovered sex. I thought it would make me even more special: the tortured artist, drug addict, and sexual experimentalist. I lost my virginity in my childhood bedroom, to a nice boy around my age, and I told him it wasn’t my first time. I wanted so badly to have his approval, and I had no idea why. I wanted to get sex over with, I wanted to feel validated by my performance, and I wanted to fall in love.
Throughout these teenage years, I dated many people, looking for a different type of validation in each one. I jumped from one “serious” relationship to the next. A lot of them ended with my so-called heart break, and the boys telling me how I would never be satisfied, even with all the attention in the world. I met my now-baby’s father at seventeen. I wasn’t attracted to him, but he longed for me in a way no one else had. He made many charming attempts to get my attention, and only days after we had begun dating, he told me he loved me. Our relationship consisted of me compromising my morals and ideals in order to make him happy, backing down in arguments, and acting as a doormat. It seemed this was the only way I knew how to live.
A few months later, I was pregnant. Suddenly, I could no longer be a tortured artist and drug addict. I had to be a mother, without a choice. But I was happy! I was happy because I felt this child might be my last attempt to fill the holes where my father had not shown me love. That day at the hospital, when I was getting ready to have my first C-section, was the moment I realized I was codependent. Everything I had done since I was six years old, my art, my longings, my quirks, and my personality flaws, stemmed from codependency. Once I surrendered to this fact, I was on my way to complete reformation. It was time to start over.
Dealing with codependence is a process. It begins at an early age, sometimes at birth, if proper care isn’t given to a baby. There was a time when I began to recognize these issues, I held on at first, but found myself having to face them or die. I had to see that my constant feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy were not coincidence; they were caused by many instances. I decided to let go. I broke up with my baby’s father, and my focus on being a mother and a writer filled my life with joy. This time spent alone made me realize how special I really was, and how I didn’t need a man to validate me. Making that initial leap, lead me to find independence. I finally started to branch out in healthy ways, such as attending college and creating professional networks. I treated myself to therapy, and found this the most important tool in my recovery. It helped to step out of my misery and find ways to truly change for the better. I consider myself a different person now. I no longer compromise myself for the needs of others.
What are the steps I took to overcome the codependency that was stealing my life from me? I have compiled a list of ways that could be life-changing to anyone who has codependency issues.
1. Turn inward: Close your eyes. Listen to your heart, which might not be as loud as your head. Are you living your life for you or for someone else? Have your attempts to get attention sometimes led you to bad places? Are you scared to be alone? Do you put others’ happiness over your own? Do you feel guilty more often than not? This process takes time, and it is essential to be honest with yourself and gentle when you ask these questions. Meditate on them.
2. Admit it: Once I admitted to myself that I was a codependent, I was able to look for help with an honest and open attitude. Once I made a conscious choice to evolve, I was on my way. Every change takes some sort of surrender.
3. Have no fears: This might sound easier said than done, but you’ll need to take a leap at one point! If you feel you are relying on someone else for happiness, maybe it is time to let go and face that problem on your own, as scary as it may sound. Everything will work itself out.
4. Step outside of yourself: In this situation, getting out of your head might save you from a lot of anxiety. Service to others will take you from your unhealthy relationships and lead you to see things in a different perspective. For example, how might volunteering at a homeless shelter help you realize there are more important things than the fear of being alone?
5. Therapy: This is not as hard as it may seem. There are anonymous groups for Co-dependents that meet all over the U.S. When I found these, I was more than relieved! There are directories on the internet that will show you where these resources can be found. There are group therapy sessions and individual therapy sessions at low or free prices. You can find these by calling the CODA hotline or any suicide hotline. There is no reason to be ashamed of this, if one chooses to get help, they are choosing one way of life over another.
Be gentle with yourself or with your child when dealing with this sort of situation, and you can make a difference. Change is possible!