What is co-dependency? What can you do to help yourself if you know you are co-dependent?
People in dysfunctional families often assume roles for personal survival. Even “normal” families can produce a co-dependent personality, but, within a setting “controlled” by an alcoholic or addict, the stereotypical roles that develop can be predicted with about 100% accuracy.
The fact that alcoholism/addiction follows a predictable course, usually ending in death if no intervention or help-seeking occurs, qualifies the pattern of addiction as a disease. The alcoholic begins with a craving and tolerance for a substance, and non-use causes withdrawal, but chronic use leads to a breakdown in the body with physical, mental and emotional problems. Some try to correlate alcoholism to genetics and brain pleasure-centers, but, obviously, one cannot develop the “disease” if one never takes a drink. Chronic alcoholism creates physical, psychological, and addictive symptoms, which can be treated.
We have probably all seen, met, worked with, dated, socialized with, or lived with a person who was addicted to (or dependent on) alcohol. The numbers are great, with 53% of adults in the U.S. claiming to have one or more close relatives with a drinking problem. (alcoholism-statistics.com)
A chronic alcoholic will eventually find himself unable to function properly – at home, at work, and in social relationships. Those around him, out of fear or embarrassment, will try to “cover up” for him. This is where role-playing begins, with someone enabling his actions to continue.
If he had no support, he would run out of money for alcohol, he would be too unwell to buy it for himself, or he would be forced into treatment for progressively-worsening symptoms. He would probably lose his job. His “secret,” which has become the family’s secret, would be out. They would feel public shame, etc., so they continue to “cover” for him.
The stage is set. The unwitting family assumes “roles” of survival within the dysfunctional system. Someone must play the Enabler, who takes control and protects the alcoholic from the consequences of his behavior. Then, one of the children often takes over as the responsible, face-saving leader, the “model” child, who appears organized as though he has it together. This is the family “hero.”
Another will try to focus the attention somewhere else. This one will act out inappropriately and accept blame for the family’s problems. He is the “scapegoat.”
Another disappears into the woodwork and tries to remain unnoticed. This is the “lost child.”
Another will use humor and act clownish. He will try to defuse tense situations. This is the family “mascot.”
“Labels” help in diagnosis and treatment. If you go to a doctor for a fever, it could be part of a diagnosis for a dozen possibilities, but, without other symptoms or further tests, you wouldn’t know what you were treating.
Obviously, all of these family roles are dysfunctional because they all depend on keeping the family’s secrets, not acting genuine or speaking out of true feelings. They are all co-dependent on the central actor, and until someone stops the role-playing, which usually requires great insight or outside intervention, the roles continue throughout life. Many role-play into adulthood; the players often marry an alcoholic (or chemically-addicted person) because they are so familiar with the drama they have learned to play.
There is a lot of helpful information available to someone with addiction or co-dependency problems – if one looks for it. Most are in denial and do not understand themselves. Eventually a family crisis occurs: The alcoholic gets into trouble with the law; the scapegoat may begin to mis-use alcohol or drugs; one member may suffer severe anxiety or depression or attempt suicide and seek help.
A good therapist will understand the interactive roles and suggest family therapy because the “play” has now gone beyond the central actor. The whole family has become dysfunctional and enabling and, often, the alcoholic refuses help because the system has worked well for him, up until now.
If you are already aware of these “labels” and lists of characteristics, you may have already heard of Al-Anon, Co-Dependents Anonymous, and Families Anonymous, which are freely available 12-Step programs for the spouses and children of alcoholics/addicts. Even if the main actor doesn’t seek help, the surrounding players may recognize they aren’t functioning normally.
All become co-dependent to exist as-usual. Co-dependents learn to base their self-esteem on what others think of them; they are people-pleasers. They are used to “fixing” things. But, they have trouble trusting themselves; they fear rejection and abandonment; they do not “know” what they really feel or what they want. They need to feel like they have control over a situation; even to the degree of having control over how the significant-others around them dress or act. (Lavick)
The whole system is artificial and broken. When a co-dependent realizes this, (s)he might gain insight into his/her maladaptive behavior and not have a clue about how or what to change.
It is best if the whole family gets treatment, but an individual can work with a therapist who specializes in co-dependency or work in groups of recovering individuals through role-playing, psychodrama, and behavioral-modification therapies. One also learns to re-think roles and situations in a new light of understanding.
Assigning individuals keywords to use as “actors” in a group where a professional therapist is present, can be absolutely liberating to co-dependents. They find out they are not alone; they can step back and watch groups re-enact familiar family dynamics and perhaps see their own roles objectively for the first time; and they can discover how to express themselves in new ways.
As they gain insight, they can learn to imitate a healthy role in a normal family system. They must learn to vocalize their emotions; they must identify what they are experiencing and feeling at all times. They can practice being “real” in a very accepting group that will reinforce better responses to trigger-situations.
By watching others, they are not so caught up in the drama themselves; they can see what other choices they have, and they can learn more-appropriate responses.
A healthy family system allows for openness and honesty; each person is entitled to express his true feelings; communication is open; rules are flexible; and everyone has good self-worth. (hopelinks.net)
Actually, in a family centered around an alcoholic, it is not the alcoholic’s behavior that is the biggest problem; it is the fact of the family’s denial and living in a self-made system of lies, cover-ups, and alibis that must be changed. In an unhealthy environment, the individual cannot discuss problems outside the family and cannot express their true thoughts or feelings.
In recovery, you must discover your personal strengths and weaknesses; you must make decisions about what you like and dislike. Don’t force yourself to participate in activities that you don’t want to; that was part of the addiction you are breaking away from. (hopelinks)
As all interventionists know, “Secrets keep families sick.” Once you break open the vault, the whole family could heal on some level. If you are part of such a family, seek help. Call one of the 12-step groups for direction and support. Find a therapist that will work with you or the whole family. If you can break away from an unhealthy or un-cooperative family while you are re-discovering yourself, do it.
Your personal survival and happiness will depend on becoming free and whole again.
www.hopelinks.net. “Family Roles in Addiction and Codependency.” Retrieved 5-5-10.
Vicki Lavick, M.D. Ed. Assistant Clinical Coordinator of Outpatient services with Proctor Hospital’s Addiction Recovery Center, Peoria, IL. “Characteristics of Co-Dependency” and “Who Is Co-Dependent?” Http://addictionrecov.org/paradigm/P_PR_S98/Lavick.html. Retrieved 5-5-10.
Statistics from Alcoholism Statistics, Alcoholism, Alcohol Addiction, Alcohol Abuse. Http://alcoholism-statistics.com/families.php. Retrieved 5-11-10.
“Behavioral Roles of Children of Alcoholics.” Http://www.hsc.wvu.edu/som/cmed/alcohol/alcoholism/beh-role-ch.htm Retrieved 5-5-10.