Codependency was a word that I never fully grasped; it was something I never fully understood and something that – even now – I struggle to spell!
And yet, I was it, I was it to the letter. If anyone wanted an example of what a co-dependant person looked like, they could just bring me forward, with my phone firmly planted within my hand and my attention off elsewhere, and show me off as a good and fine specimen of someone who has fallen into that trap…
I hadn’t become this way intentionally of course, I hadn’t even become this way consciously, but I had become it all the same. It had happened over years, namely with one person, but there are little glimpses and tell-tale signs with others too. However, with this one person it was powerful, it was overwhelming and it was becoming very, very damaging.
This was a person who I had never met and who I had no real intention of meeting. He was a man who I had met online years ago, our conversations had started out regarding a shared interest in mental health and we had formed a friendship of sorts. Sometimes it is easier to talk about the hard stuff with someone if you don’t have to look them in the eye… and so, we gradually opened up to each other. He told me things that he had (allegedly) not told anyone else and I listened and advised the best that I could. When I suffered dips in my mental health, I turned not only to my husband and closest friends, but also to him. He always replied, always acknowledged my feelings… and then always reciprocated with his own.
This isn’t a writing about how a friendship turned sour though, far from it. We don’t talk now, after a very difficult conversation we decided to have some time apart and whilst I admire him in many ways and still sometimes feel like I have lost a huge pillar of strength within my life, I also know that he has to address his own problems before we could ever hope to build a healthy relationship.
I also know that I need to address mine.
Because co-dependency doesn’t just spring up from nowhere. I became co-dependent because I had a need for something, something that was lacking and something that even now I struggle to identify. My over whelming desire within this friendship, was to fix; I wanted to make everything better, I could see the damage that was being done by my friends behaviours, but I could also see the things that would help him and I could see such potential – if only he would listen!
But he was listening, wasn’t he? We would have these long conversations; we would talk our way round the same situations day, after day, after day. He would ask me ‘What do I do?’ and I would reply with logic and compassion. I harnessed everything that I had learnt in therapy, everything that I had read about mental health and addiction. I would read articles online to try and improve my knowledge of the specific things he was struggling with. I would talk to my best friend – a qualified mental health nurse – and relay information, I would find song lyrics that resonated with his struggles and send him the music so he didn’t feel so alone. I would speak to him first thing in the morning and last thing at night, I would engage in behaviour that was damaging to my own mental health, in order to prevent him from either a) getting what he needed in that moment from someone who was potentially dangerous for his mental health or b) hurting someone else. But this was friendship, right? This was helping him, surely?
No, and no.
I remember very clearly the moment that it all clicked. It was on a day off, so I had been at home by myself all day and, yes, talking to him via text for a good part of it. I was feeling pretty tired – this was at the end of last year, so very much still combating my own medication withdrawal and Fibromyalgia symptoms. I ran a bath, loaded up Insight Timer and I saw a talk on the homepage by Michelle Chalfant about codependency…
I led in the bath and listened to her describe the behaviour I had been exhibiting, for years. Not just ‘oh, that kind of applies’ but every, single, item on that list I could identify and relate back to something I had done. I realised that I was not ok, if he was not ok – and he, was never ok.
It was like my empathy with this man had gone into overdrive, I wanted so desperately to make everything better for him that I had completely neglected myself in the process. He hadn’t specifically asked me to, he hadn’t directly put this stipulation on our friendship that I must behave in this way or he would leave – but I kind of felt that way all the same. I am learning the reasons now why I did that, I am working through my own feelings and my own motives for that behaviour – but it’s not easy.
We carried on talking for a while after that, but something had shifted. Truthfully, I was scared, I was scared to let him go because if I didn’t have him to ‘help’, then what would my purpose be? I was also very scared that actually, he wouldn’t care. That he would just say ‘ok then’ and go and I would end up with the weight of rejection upon my shoulders. I was also scared that all of this, all of these conversations, all of this kindness, this empathy, this care that I had willingly and freely given over months and years would be for nothing.
I was scared that it made me selfish.
Co-dependency is complex. My motives for my behaviour came from a number of different places – from the need to be heard, to my need for validation and also my natural desire to help and to empathise. The times that he would say ‘yes, this makes sense’ were the glimmers of light and the behaviour he continued to exhibit that went against that very same piece of advice, extinguished those sparks. But he would learn from that for next time, right? So I kept on, persevered and tried to be a good friend. In the end it just exacerbated those ingrained feelings and beliefs of being unheard, but to me, that was familiar and so it was ‘safe’. It was known behaviour so it was comforting even though it stung like ripping off a sticking plaster each and every time. I found that I couldn’t trust him, and yet I confided in him still. I found that I got angry with him, but it felt more like being angry at a child. I found that I was sinking into his problems whilst my own screamed at me from the surface…
Letting him go would also mean I didn’t have a distraction from my own problems anymore.
Eventually, it was my decision to end contact with him. It wasn’t pre-meditated, it wasn’t a thought out ‘I am going to have this conversation and it will be resolved by X, Y and Z’. It was a row – it was an insensitive comment made by him about my husband on a day when I was feeling depressed and in pain and having to brave it out at work. It was the argument that ensued and this voice that bubbled up inside me and screamed ‘this is not ok!’. I had been ignoring this voice, my own voice that said repeatedly, for months, ‘I am done…’ but I should have listened to her; my inner child may be small and gentle but I was doing her no favours by not hearing her – eventually she screamed, a scream of pain, a scream of frustration and a scream so powerful that my decision was made in that instant. I was done.
Afterwards, it felt worse than any romantic break up that I had ever endured. I spoke to friends about it; I spoke to my husband and my therapist about it. I meditated on it, I questioned what I had done, and I checked his social media profiles to see if he was ok… but I didn’t go back.
One thing I noticed in those first couple of weeks was how much time I had! I wasn’t tied to my phone anymore. I also noticed that my confidence improved – I wasn’t hiding behind someone else’s problems. Yeah, sure, this meant all of my problems came to the surface but I could own them now. I tried to turn some of that care and affection back onto myself – and some days I manage it, some days I don’t, but at least I am trying. It’s something that will take months, if not years because it isn’t straightforward and this type of behaviour has roots that are buried deep.
I still miss him. I still wonder how he is, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I am learning the importance of boundaries and the importance of true friendship. I am learning to listen to the voice of my inner child because she knew what was up before I had even registered it. I am learning to forgive – both him and myself and I am learning that we cannot, ever fix someone else.
We can love them, we can support them, we can validate their feelings and we can send them all the articles and song lyrics in the world.
But we cannot fix them, for that is a path they must walk alone.