Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Do you play? We're told that we should spend a little time each day, just playing, just enjoying ourselves. For many years, I didn't play. I didn't have time to play! I was too busy working, keeping up with all the things no one else would do. If I wasn't at work, I was mowing the lawn or washing dishes or working in the garden or cooking or cleaning. Even if I did sit down with the television on, I usually had a basket of laundry so I could improve the time by folding and hanging clothes. Sometimes - once every two or three weeks, I might take time to read a book or watch a movie. And I inevitably felt guilty for doing so, especially when the book was done or the lights were back on and I could see the messes around me or the overgrown grass or weedy flower beds.

I played when I was a kid. I jumped rope. I played with my dog. I played frisbee with my sisters and brother. I went fishing. I spent a lot of time prowling around the woods or fields on the farm. I played with stuffed toys and made doll clothes and endlessly drew and colored pictures. I wrote poetry and read books and built elaborate villages out of the stems of horse-weeds.

Now that I'm an adult, the very idea of playing makes me uncomfortable. But even in adulthood, before I had children, I didn't have this kind of problem. I spent time every Friday with friends engaging in RPGs or cards or Pictionary. We'd watch movies all night long and then sleep until noon the next day. I had no problem slowing down or even stopping what I was doing just to enjoy myself. But when I had kids, everything changed.

I had so many more responsibilities. People with codependency tend to focus totally on their responsibilities to the detriment of their own lives, and I am no exception. I focused on my daughter; everything else in my life suffered. I stopped writing. I stopped reading - well, unless Little Golden Books count. I stopped watching The X-Files. I stopped meeting with friends, stopped playing - unless I was playing with her, and the way I went about playing was an awful lot like work.

Long story short - I forgot how to play. Part of my recovery from codependency is relearning that skill. I confess that I'm not very good at it, especially if there's work to be done around the house. Instead of finding a way to relax and be playful, I'll sweep, vacuum, mop, do laundry, mow, weed, or generally work myself into exhaustion. And because there is ALWAYS work to be done around the house, I seldom manage to get out and play. This is where a partner would come in handy - someone who would engage me in something fun and assure me that there's no need to worry about the dishes or the laundry. Then again, it's also true that I should be able to validate my own decisions. So I should be able to engage myself in play, and assure myself that the dishes will still be there when I get back. And they certainly will.

So the problem becomes how to play. I really have forgotten. I mean, I know how to be silly and goofy. I know how to stop what I'm doing and read a few pages or watch Supernatural - I'm really good at watching Supernatural, especially when there's laundry to be folded. But I don't know how to just go out with no goal in mind other than enjoyment. I don't go to sports events or plays or concerts. I don't go out with friends - most of my friends go out with their husbands or wives. I can play with my kids and I do, but the goal is to find a way to relax and play as an adult. So I research ways to play, and suddenly play seems a lot like work.

Things have to change. I have to find a way back - or forward - into playfulness. I need to build something whimsical into my days, something that helps me relax and renew my energy. Something that helps me recharge. I get so bogged down in day-to-day responsibilities that even when I'm off work, I'm thinking about work - or when I'm at work, I'm thinking about the next paper I have to write for school or how much dog-hair has built up on the floor and the fact that the faucet in the bathroom still leaks and I need to repaint the garage door and did I mention that I haven't cleaned out the basement in almost a year?

I need to spend a weekend just doing something fun on my own. I know this. I also know I can't trick myself into thinking that fixing faucets and painting doors is fun - that's cheating. The problem is that a few years ago, I moved away from my hometown and left my friends two hours away. I have friends where I am now, but not the kind of friends who call you up and say, "hey, let's go have fun." My friends have lives and established relationships and their free-time is already filled. Another problem is that I am such an introvert that I tend not to build the kinds of friendships where you can just go hang out. I'm solitary by nature. That means I need to find a way to have fun without involving other people. Anyway, who in the world would want to hang out with someone who has to Google "how to have fun as an adult"? By the way, if you ever Google those words, make sure you turn on safe search, unless your idea of fun involves handcuffs. Just sayin'.

Yeah - having fun sounds like a lot of work, and I'm already tired. Maybe I should just make plans to fix the faucet and paint the garage door. At least then there'd be something to show for the weekend.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


"To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself." ~Thich Nhat Hanh

One of the things I discovered - or maybe rediscovered - about myself during my forty days of truth is that I'm codependent. The term was coined back in the days when clinicians and psychologists first realized that the families of alcoholics seemed to exhibit a set of behaviors that included a loss of identity, trying to control the alcoholic, taking on responsibility for his or her disease, and ignoring self-care. The behaviors were so common among the families of the alcoholics that codependency was finally recognized as a stand-alone medical condition. Codependency is widely seen in the general population, and though the families of alcoholics are at higher risk for developing this disorder, it is also prevalent in people who have never been associated or involved with the addicted.

The word itself is a little misleading. The codependent is not necessarily equally addicted to alcohol or other substances, though that can sometimes be true. The word "codependent" was developed to describe the way people often enabled their loved one's addiction by providing liquor or other substances, by covering for the alcoholic, and by generally making it easier for the alcoholic to keep drinking. Now we recognize that codependency is about much more than just enabling addiction. Codependency has been defined as the art of making the relationship you are in more important than you are. Codependency can affect any kind of relationship - romantic, parent/child, child/parent, siblings, even friendships. Codependents are caretakers; overly responsible folks who take on all the work of a relationship while allowing the other person to skate by on very little effort. We put up with egregious behaviors in the other person. We allow the other person to violate our boundaries again and again. We cover for the other person's addictions (if addictions exist) or we make excuses for their mistreatment of us. We do everything for the other person and almost never ask for anything. When we do ask for help and the other person doesn't help us, we accept it because we don't believe we deserve help. We usually suffer from low self-esteem and sometimes stay in detrimental or even abusive relationships because deep down, we believe we are not worth anything better. Codependents get lost in other peoples' needs. We forget who we are. We forget what we enjoy, what we want, what we've dreamed of doing with our lives. Instead, our lives become singly focused on the person we love - we think about and wrestle with the other person's problems to the exclusion of nearly everything else. We struggle with our loved-one's addictions, we cry, we pray, we research and read and put together action plans to help our addict recover, all the time ignoring the fact that we are dying from self-neglect. 

I hate codependency. I recognize that I don't have the power to change the people I care about who suffer from addictions. I believe that recovery only begins when an addict realizes that he or she is responsible for changing detrimental behaviors and for getting help with the disease of alcoholism or addiction - or codependency! Yes, codependency works like an addiction - it is an addiction to a pattern of behaviors and reactions. I know that the only person I can change is me. But codependency whispers to me that if I just try harder, if I just give a little more, the other person will recognize exactly what they stand to lose if they don't change. Codependency is the devil on my shoulder that gouges me with its pitchfork and insists I can take the pain of living with someone who is addicted, that I am not worth better treatment and that my boundaries are meaningless. Codependency is also the angel on my other shoulder who insists that it is always right to put myself last and the other person first. It sings that song of self-denial, of selfless love, of complete and total self-depletion. It insists that I don't have needs or wants that matter. Never mind that I've taken on all the responsibility of making the relationship work; never mind that I give more time and effort; never mind that I've overlooked hurtful treatment, being ignored, and have had my boundaries trampled again and again until I believe I never had any rights. Never mind that I am completely lost.

Many years ago, my (then) husband told me I was codependent and I needed to stop trying to control him. Well, I never felt like I tried to control him, so I didn't understand what he meant. I never told him what to do and I never expected him to do everything I wanted. But looking back, I can see how I tried to manipulate situations so that he'd want to do what I wanted. It almost never worked. I spent a long time trying to get him to engage with me in our marriage; trying to get him to want the kind of life I wanted. I did most of the cooking, most of the cleaning, all of the laundry; I mowed the yard and worked in the garden. I made excuses when he wouldn't come to family gatherings. I glossed over the problems caused by his drinking. I even called in to work for him when he wanted a free day - which happened a lot in our early years together. I tried to want what he wanted me to and like what he liked until I could see that the harder I tried, the faster he was slipping away from me. The real problem was that neither of us wanted what the other wanted!  But I couldn't see that. All I could see was that I had made a commitment and by God I was going to stay and we were going to work things out if it killed me. It nearly did; I lost myself so completely that I couldn't even remember what I had liked or wanted before that relationship. I began to understand during the last five years of my marriage what being codependent really meant, and I worked very hard to change my behaviors, but I never really understood the root of the problem. The behaviors were the symptoms, just like drinking is a symptom of alcoholism. I needed to heal the codependency and that takes a lot more than just stopping certain behaviors. When I got my divorce, I felt healthy - I felt that I had left codependency behind forever. Was I ever wrong!

What I didn't realize is how we tend to repeat our patterns. My codependency is deeply rooted in my past and is totally enmeshed with the low self-esteem that stems from the sexual assault I experienced as a young adolescent. We all have unfinished business - trying to make relationships work with emotionally unavailable men and/or men with addictions seems to be mine. I have a high tolerance for completely inappropriate behaviors from my partner. So here I am, looking backward and seeing how I lost myself in my last relationship and trying to figure out how I can keep this from ever happening again. Therapy, reading, recognizing the wrong behaviors at the outset, setting and sticking to my boundaries - all these things will help. In the end, it comes back to personal responsibility. The trick is to take responsibility for myself and for no one else. The other person's pain, anger, and confusion is his own. I did not drive his behaviors. I did not cause his problems. I can't solve them, as much as I wish I could, and I do wish I could. 

Codependents are wonderful people, really. We love so much and so deeply that we are willing to give ourselves away. We are hardwired with the idea that loving someone means sacrificing ourselves for him or her. We give too much and we reserve nothing for ourselves. We only want to be loved and acknowledged as good. We hope the other person will give back to us the way we give to them, but they never do - probably because we tend to choose people who are emotionally or psychologically unreachable. Maybe our problem is that we've never been able to love ourselves as much as we love others. I wish there was a switch I could flip that would turn on self-love. I wish there was an easy formula that I could use to assure self-care. But like every other worthwhile undertaking, beating codependency is going to be hard work. Defeating codependency will mean admitting that I'm not perfect and I can't fix everything. Rebuilding my self-esteem and replacing external referencing with my own internal authority and the knowledge that I am good enough is going to be the key to my recovery. It will mean letting go of a lot of behaviors I've relied on and even letting go of people I love. Letting go isn't easy but it is necessary. At this point in my life, I need to make the same kind of commitment to myself that I've so easily and willingly made to the men I've loved - I will give to myself; I will take care of myself; I will honor my boundaries and not expect too much of myself. I will be kind. I will be caring. I will support all my endeavors and I believe in my ability to accomplish great things. 

Recovery from codependency is a little like being in a relationship with yourself. You become the focus of your efforts, instead of giving everything away to someone else. This doesn't mean you stop caring for and about the people in your life. It just means you put as much work into caring for yourself. Jesus said that we should love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, but few of us realize that this implies we must also love ourselves. Maybe Alan Cohen said it better than I ever can: "Wouldn't it be powerful if you fell in love with yourself so deeply that you would do just about anything if you knew it would make you happy? This is precisely how much life loves you and wants you to nurture yourself. The deeper you love yourself, the more the universe will affirm your worth. Then you can enjoy a lifelong love affair that brings you the richest fulfillment from inside out." 

Friday, May 18, 2012

All That I Am

Sometimes things happen that leave us questioning who we are, where we are on our path, and everything we thought we wanted or were meant to do with our lives. I had a moment like that this week. Something happened that left me questioning whether I am meant to help survivors of sexual and domestic violence. It left me wondering whether I am strong enough.

For many years now I've felt that the purpose of surviving the things I've lived through was so I could help others who have suffered. Then something happened and I realized how vulnerable I still am and I wondered who I was to think I had anything worthwhile to offer. Who am I to say healing is possible when I am still so wounded and weak?

I felt like a complete hypocrite, like I had been lying to myself about all that I am, all that I ever was, and all I intended to be. Tuesday morning was a very low point and by noon I was ready to give up the idea of serving survivors, speaking again, or getting my masters' degree and becoming a therapist. I felt broken and I really considered giving it all up - the blog, the work, the dreams. All of it - all that I am.

Then something else happened. At that low ebb, I received affirmation from an unexpected source - a lovely gift from a beautiful friend. She made me a wall hanging that represented a woman breaking free from the prison of her own mind, and she wrote me a letter telling me how much she appreciated my work for survivors and telling me that I am strong.

I didn't feel strong. I felt shattered. But her words were uplifting and healing at a time when I needed it most. I was reminded that I am not alone and that I don't always have to be strong. There will be times when I am vulnerable; the key is to surround myself with people who will not take advantage of that, people who respect me and will honor my boundaries. It is okay for me to have moments of fear,  sadness, pain, or doubt. I can admit those emotions and move forward anyway. I don't have to be perfect.

How freeing it is to realize that and to feel - maybe for the first time - that all that I am is enough. Thanks, my friend; you know who you are. Your gift to me means more than I can express.