Sunday, February 14, 2010

What We Talk About When We Talk About Codependency

If you read Raymond Carver, you know that I cribbed the title from his story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Raymond Carver knew alcoholism and he knew relationships, and he wrote about both with great clarity and heart. Most of all, he wrote about them simply. He didn't use jargon, or cite theories, he presented his characters as full blooded human beings, not as clusters of behaviors. I go back and reread his stories often to keep me "jargon honest."
There are recovery concepts that it's important for addicts and their families to learn because they help them to conceptualize their problems differently. Instead of "I don't know what happened.," the issue becomes "I shouldn't hang around with those guys anymore. I get in trouble every time I do." (People, places and things.)
Here are some examples:

  • Codependency: Valuable concept if it helps a couple to understand that there are areas where issues of responsibilities and boundaries blur, and genuine intimacy suffers as a result. Meaningless when used broadly: "Codependent relationship," tells absolutely nothing about the actual issues and problem areas, and in fact, leads to a lot of unnecessary anxiety. Every relationship has codependent aspects to it; no relationship is entirely free of codependence.
  • Nominalizing: This is when we make a thing out of a process or person. Shiela is a "Codependent". Harry is "resistant to Treatment." Susie is "The Lost Child." Somebody around here has to be "The Scapegoat." Is anyone an "Anything?" I don't think so. Jane stands up in a meeting and identifies as a "Alcoholic" or "Addict", she is stating something essential about herself to people empathic and understanding, not calling herself a name. I tell little Johnny that he is the "Family Scapegoat", I have done nothing remotely helpful at all.
  • Enabling: Shocker: enabling is not intrinsically bad. If  I enable my kid to go to college, or my wife to open a studio, or my dog to go to a groomer, or my DVR to catch LOST, have I done something wrong. No, and neither have you. Enabling is recovery shorthand for behaviors that either facilitate an active addiction by financially subsidizing it, or by interfering with the logical consequences of addiction. That is about the extent to which you can generalize about enabling. Anything beyond that isn't much more than a name to call someone. Instead of helping someone to empower themselves, it gives them something to feel a little guilty and ashamed about.
I hope this gives an idea of what I'm trying to say. If Billy's mother has been paying his rent and car payment while he rocks out on OxyContin, she needs help and support to learn that she can risk the anxiety inherent in the situation to withdraw support for Billy's addiction, while actively increasing pressure for him to get into recovery. In other words, she begins to understand how an addiction is enabled. By doing this, she can begin to check out her actions, in advance, with friends, a counselor, an Al-Anon or Nar-Anon sponsor, to determine if what she is doing enables active addiction or enables Billy to begin a process of recovery.
She doesn't need to hear jargon; she needs to feel empowered to use her own intelligence and her own judgment, and not feel guilty for doing it.
I like to think Raymond Carver would approve.


  1. Interesting Ken..

    I prefer this kind of writing from the trenches rather than the war room. Theorists and intellectuals often havent been there.



  2. I hear a lot of enabling stories in Al-Anon. It takes parents a long time to quit doing that. They need to read this blog.


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