It’s often said that alcoholics and addicts need an enabling system to continue unhealthy behavior.  Recently, I’ve been thinking thinking about how codependents need them to continue *their* unhealthy behavior.  Together, we make up two sides of the same coin. In the heat of it all, we blame the other when that token is fed into the slot machine of relapse and the cherries flash a jackpot of crisis, heartache and the cycle of lost chances.  Moreover, the codependent folks blame the addicted ones (who usually accept this blame) and nothing changes. Families harden with anger each time the pattern repeats.

codependent family systems

Occasionally people assume, likely because of my treatment and recovery advocacy, that I’m in substance abuse recovery and they ask me about my experiences.  I have mixed feelings about this as I’ve never struggled with substances and am not in a formal recovery program. On one hand, I’m proud to been seen as a healthy person who understands but on the other, I don’t want to disappoint my recovering allies or ‘tread on their territory’ by appearing to know more than I do.  I work really hard to understand others from the inside out – sort of a deep empathy attitude. I navigate this question with authenticity as best I can, sticking close to what the seeker is truly asking. Does this person really want to know my story? Does he or she want to know if I will get them/accept them/still love them after they tell me something?  Are they testing to see if I’m full of shit?


Us and Them

Creating a sense of ‘Us’ is a fundamental basis for belonging and acceptance in humans.  You can see it everywhere when you start looking. It is embedded in our political and religious debates, our belief systems, our friendships, and our affiliations and groups.  We long to find like minded others to join with and create groups – new families of choice. Whether it is one other person or a whole tribe, it is so very human to seek acceptance and love.  We’re inclined towards groups that already match our values in some way but this need is so great that we’re also willing to bend. Examples of this compromise include gang affiliation, cults, a church that preaches against your core values, elite clubs that covertly discriminate, exclusionary high school cliques, or a protest group with shady tactics – all versions of dysfunctional families.  In these examples, the desire for love is greater than honoring yourself and a better fitting tribe isn’t imaginable.  It’s the story we tell ourselves.

Even though we need the ‘Us’ part to feel belonging, we also need the ‘Them’ part.  ‘Them’ forms the boundary that holds ‘Us’ together. We’re similar to ‘Us’ and not like ‘Them’ and ‘They’ believe something different.  The problem arises when our group needs a big wall and a moat to maintain identity. I’ll use a simple analogy from high school to illustrate.  The ‘Us’ in this example is the weirdos at school – the nerds, geeks, strange rangers, etc. (not that I have ANY knowledge of this group….) We know we’re not like the ‘Them’ – the cool kids: popular, fashionable, easily sociable and likeable, and seemingly not anxious in a variety of situations. We could sink into depression (many of us do) and believe we’re deficient.  Instead we form our own ‘Us’ group: weirdos of different generations like alternative music, dress in unusual clothes, and reject dominate norms of beauty and culture. This is adaptive coping and we grow to love our weirdo selves. The moat forms when it is our group against theirs or even the world. In pain, our ‘Us’ group take in new information and starts to make up a new, usually skewed story about the motivations and intentions of the “Them” group.  Inevitably, this split occurs when there is less information about the other side as a fear and anxiety reaction and the war begins. We harden to the cause.

This example uses high school cliques but it is just as easily translated to today’s political debates, specific issues such as abortion or gun violence, and of course, addicts and codependents.  As you may know, I’m a clinical psychologist and I have a few soapboxes. One of them is staying in the difficult ‘grey area’ of issues. When we build the wall and moat around us, we lose ourselves.  I see this playing out with dichotomies: a fancy word for pairs of things. Dichotomies of ‘Us and Them’ happen everywhere and allows our brains not to think so hard. It’s easier think in black and white because it’s clear and simple.  I’m this and not that; I believe these things but it’s hard to deviate from the group and still be accepted so I’ll suppress these other things that don’t fit or challenge me.


The Addict and The Codependent

Remember that hardened family, living through relapses and crises with their drug addicted member?  As codependents, we build the wall and the moat to serve us. It protects us from pain and the chaotic, unstable trauma of addiction.  It also cuts us off from information and allows us to simplify: if only my husband stopped drinking, the family would be fine. Deceptively simple, as codependent family members, it keeps both us and our addicted loved one stuck.  Let’s think this all the way through. This ______ (fill in the blank family member) that struggles with alcoholism or addiction actually gets help and the addiction goes into remission. Can you picture what happens next?

All family systems are like rubber bands but some are more flexible, stretching to allow change in its members and some are more brittle, rigid or tight, requiring the status quo to stay intact (already, a dichotomy, right?).  If you and your family are on the more flexible side, you may already be taking a look at your part – what do you need to change in yourself to be the most sane and happy? What is the right, but hard, thing to do? If your family is brittle, you may fear everything falling apart with change.  If your family is rigid and tight, everyone will feel the pull to blame the addict for problems as change is too destabilizing. Dysfunctional families find a dysfunctional balance. When one member, any member, strives towards health, it affects everyone. It is risky to forge a new path towards change due to the threat on the ‘Us’ and whatever love and acceptance it has brought.  Will the others follow or will you be out on your own?


Tearing Down the Wall

When supervising new clinicians, a version of the us/them dichotomy that emerges occasionally is the client/therapist or the unhealthy/healthy.  We talk about the myth that someone or some position is inherently sick or well. As clinicians, it is tempting to separate ourselves from the ‘sick’ or ‘struggling’ client by proclaiming that we’ve done our work, been in therapy ourselves and are now healthy.  This myth of healthiness is actually unhealthy in that it forecloses on any future work in our path by fostering denial (i.e. “Surely, I’m not enabling my client when I don’t bring attention to a specific behavior.  Secretly I’m afraid they’ll get mad and leave if I do.) Additionally, it keeps our clients stuck because we need them to be stuck in order to maintain our perceived healthiness.  Imagine a scenario in which a client confronted their therapist for not confronting them when they were enabling someone?  Clinicians are not protected from the curse of the codependent family.

This same unhealthy/healthy dichotomy happens in relationships, families, treatment centers, and workplaces with addicts and codependents.  We are truly two sides of the same coin. We need each other to keep the dysfunctional cycle churning. Change is slow, difficult and risky and pain pushes us to do it in most cases.  

functional family system

So What About Me?

This brings us full circle to that original question I sometimes get – am I in substance abuse recovery?  In the most literal sense, I do not know what detoxing feels like or know the experience of walking up and into a drug dealer’s house.  I can’t tell you the specifics of what it was like for *me* to be homeless, sell my body, or be desperate enough to commit a crime to support my drug habit.  But I’ve got a piece of it and I’m in eternal draft mode. I know the feelings of pain, anxiety, fear, desperation, frustration, elation, exhilaration, and exhaustion.  I have experience with putting myself in others’ shoes, knowing them and knowing myself, and striving to understand with accuracy. I know that there really is no us and them – that it is constructed and maintaining it only hurts all of us.  And I am most certainly in recovery as a codependent. 

You see, essentially when we break it all down, us is them and them is us – I am you and you are me.  We are all a little codependent.  We all struggle with the same essential feelings in different packages. We have this powerful tool of empathy to unlock problems.  It takes longer and uses more effort but when you can use it, it gives you all the power in the world. Start with yourself and build the bridge of understanding within.  I live with the understanding that I’m an imperfect, struggling human among other imperfect, struggling humans. I mess up and repair where I can. My intentions are good and I do the right thing, even when it’s hard.  Don’t put it in my lap that I’m special because I’m a psychologist because if this is *your* life’s work, you can do it too.

If you or your family is struggling with codependency, alcoholism or addiction, Resolute Recovery can help. Contact us any time or check out our unique plans and workshops.  Our people are licensed and trained clinicians delivering custom designed, evidence based care.

Also published on Medium.