Sunday, May 12, 2013


It's Mother's Day in the United States. For many with the disease of Alcoholism, if we are fortunate to outlive our mothers, they have been the ones to post bail, take us to rehab, pick up our kids, mop up our literal and figurative messes, make our excuses or... just cry the tears moms cry over feeling utterly helpless in the face of the disease's carnage.

In some cases, these signs of caring go to the point of co-dependency. Part of chapter four in Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud: Relapse and the Symptoms of Sobriety delivers a succinct overview of co-dependent behavior from the point of view of both the co-dependent and the drinker. This excerpt makes an important distinction for both: One did not cause the other. They are two separate conditions.

Psychology professionals vastly smarter than I define co-dependence by its three stages of progression:
1. Normal problem solving skews . . . as a reaction to reduce the family crisis and ease the Alcoholic’s pain. This is sick thinking because it ignores the fact that a non-Alcoholic is powerless to control an Alcoholic’s disease. As the Alcoholic becomes increasingly preoccupied with getting, using and keeping booze, the co-dependent becomes more focused on him and begins to change her own behavior in response to the Alcoholic’s lifestyle. (I use “her” because co-dependents often are female, there are males, too. I know several, including myself.)
2. Self-defeating problem solving emerges . . . after the previous stage fails to achieve any progress the co-dependent tries harder. Here’s where a co-dependent becomes more obvious since they begin to take responsibility for the Alcoholic and does so at the cost of their own needs. They’re not as aware of how they feel but can go on and on about how the Alcoholic feels.
3. Chronic repetition takes over . . . regardless of the health of the Alcoholic (e.g. whether they are using, abstaining or in recovery) the co-dependent keeps tending to the Alcoholic because doing so has become her identity. A co-dependent doubts anyone would want them around otherwise, so she makes herself indispensable to the drinker. She’ll struggle when you get well because by stopping drinking you’ve removed from her the single way she made herself indispensable. Minding the Alcoholic has become the meaning of her existence and she needs the Alcoholic to be sick for her to feel well.

That last sentence is a huge source of guilt and conflict, and an ironic one at that, because you can feel guilty for getting better if it seems to be making her worse. You see her struggle with co-dependence even after you’ve had some measure of sobriety. She doesn’t seem to function well or at all without the drinking you. The quality of her life depends upon how much you need her and you feel guilt over that.

There’s no denying that co-dependents feel pain. Sometimes it’s even physical, usually gastrointestinal problems. Guilt is misplaced if you believe you’re to blame. The condition of co-dependence was there before you were sick.

An Alcoholic isn’t sicker than the co-dependent. You are both struggling with similar issues in dissimilar ways. In some ways, the co-dependent is trying to deal with your issues for you. Or attempting to. Dr. Charles Whitfield suggests the hallmark of co-dependency is a problem with boundaries and not knowing where she ends and you begin. “Co-dependents cannot develop without distortions in personal boundaries.” (Co-Dependence: Healing the Human Condition, Health Communications, Deerfield Beach, FL 1991) He didn’t say co-dependents cannot develop without an Alcoholic.

Every Alcoholic’s road back to health begins with an aha! moment when he realizes, “I have an alcohol problem.” A co-dependent needs to have her own aha! moment to realize she has a disorder. Her self-identifying is part of her process of healing and discovering she’s not sick like you or sick from you. You’re not the right person to give her the a-ha moment. Her own lemons; her own lemonade. You cannot rescue her just like NO ONE could rescue you. You can help her. You can’t be her. Show you care . . . which you can do without guilting yourself all the way to a relapse.

The best tribute you can pay to her is to pay attention to your sobriety and its Symptoms.
– from Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud: Relapse and the Symptoms of Sobriety, pgs. 46-47

One of the responsibilities in recovery is making amends to those you've injured. The injury of co-dependence is a very real, often untreated, lifelong one. It is not in the 12-steps or any other program that you have to cure this injury, only acknowledge it. Guilt over co-dependents' struggles can trigger a lapse. And it could also swing the pendulum back in the other direction because often times recovered Alcoholics turn into co-dependents themselves, trying to fix co-dependence they didn't create. Honor mom, know she and others suffered, and that co-dependence (if an issue) is curable.