I don’t remember hearing the word codependency back in the seventies, but the recovery group for children of alcoholics that I attended taught me what it was. For me, it meant that Mom needed a Twelve Step support group because she was so preoccupied with Dad’s drinking that she didn’t think about anything else. Or, as Melody Beattie explains it in her book Codependent No More, “A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”
One example of codependency that made a lot of sense to me was given to me during my substance abuse counselor training. The instructor first drew two circles next to one another on the blackboard to represent two people who were not dependent on one another. The second set of circles that he drew partially overlapped one another, representing two people who were interdependent, or dependent on one another in a mutual and healthy way. The third set of circles showed one inside the other, denoting how one person’s life can be consumed by the other. This is the nature of codependency, where a person is so preoccupied with the other that they are distracted from their own life. As the joke in recovery circles explains it: You know you’re codependent if, when you’re dying, someone else’s life flashes before your eyes!
In my friend Dr. Twerski’s groundbreaking book Addictive Thinking, he tells a story about a codependent husband who came to him for help. This man’s wife was an alcoholic who had relapsed. Prior to this relapse, she had gone through detox at a hospital and attended several AA meetings when she was released. But then she quit going, saying those meetings were not for her. She told her husband she was different from the other people and believed she had nothing in common with them.
Dr. Twerski told the husband that his wife’s resistance to AA was not unusual. After all, in AA, he said, she would learn that she could not drink again. Obviously, as her relapse showed, this was something that she did not want to hear.
Then Dr. Twerski asked the man how his Al-Anon program was going, and the man said, “I went to two meetings, but that program is not for me. I have nothing in common with the people there.”
The good doctor pointed out to the man how he was parroting his wife’s exact words, offering the same excuses for avoiding a recovery program that she had used.
As Dr. Twerski concluded, the anxiety about change can be so intense that people like those in this example contradict themselves without even realizing it.
This story points out how sometimes codependent people align themselves with their alcoholic in denying the need for help. But Dr. Twerski also tells this story because it is an example of something that alcoholics, ACoAs, and codependents have in common: the self-deception that is characteristic of addictive thinking. He says that in the same way that the alcoholic is obsessed with drinking and cannot resist the compulsion to do so, the codependent person is obsessed with how to control the alcoholic and cannot resist the compulsion to try everything possible to gain that control. He also says that the three most common elements in addictive thinking are denial, rationalization, and projection.
Notice how the husband in the previous story has a distorted sense of reality. He knows his wife is an alcoholic but rationalizes that Al-Anon cannot help him. He denies that he has something in common with the others in the group, which is obviously not true, but it is what he would like to believe. So he bends reality to meet his needs.
Bending reality is a skill many codependents have mastered. One of my relatives unknowingly married a man who was an alcoholic. They were both from a community where most of the marriages are arranged, and very little contact is allowed between the couple before the wedding. From their first day of married life, her husband sat on the kitchen floor and cried all day. She assumed it was because she was a terrible cook; it never occurred to her that his drinking might be the cause of his bizarre behavior. Rather than face the reality that her husband had a drinking problem, she just worked harder to become a better cook.
Learning from Our Family History
When we ACoAs look at the tapestry that is our family history, we discover that there’s so much more than meets the eye. While we cannot change that history, the good news is that we can obtain skills and learn new ways of behaving and thinking that can change things for the better when it comes to ourselves and our children and their children. And the tools we gain for healthy living can be used in many areas. Dr. Jan explained it this way:
As a matter of fact, what we are learning is that many of the things that work for Adult Children are really a model for many other kinds of dysfunctional families: people who live with other compulsions, people who live with certain kinds of mental illness, chronic illness, army brats, kids who’ve been in foster care or adopted, many who live in profoundly religious families, and children of Holocaust survivors, who have very much the same profile as the adult children of alcoholics. —Dr.Jan
Many of her clients also shared with her that their children tended toward hyperactivity, needed larger amounts of medication, had dramatic allergic reactions to foods and environmental triggers, and often were addicted to sugar. Understanding all the elements that are woven into the tapestry of my family helps when I fall back to wondering why I sometimes feel like such a basket case. I am the adult child of an alcoholic with my own addiction issues and life-threatening food allergies.
My father’s family perished in the Holocaust. (We don’t know if alcoholism ran in his family or not.) My mother was codependent. On her side of the family, there are sugar and alcohol addictions and depression. Her father grew up in an orphanage, and several family members were Holocaust survivors. My first husband was from a profoundly religious family, and the impact of that on our children and me could be a whole other book. And, of course, there are all the issues surrounding my own parenting and the impact all of this has had on my children, plus the body chemistry they have inherited from both sides of their family. I hope that when you look at all that is woven into your own family history, you will gain new insight and hope for the future.
Mom talked about how ACoAs have no database for how to solve everyday problems or relate to others because of the way we grew up. It’s not that our parents didn’t love us, it’s that they couldn’t teach us what they didn’t know. That’s why it’s so important to interrupt this cycle of codependency and addictive thinking and pass on the healthy things we’ve learned to our own children.
When one parent in a family is an alcoholic and the other is codependent on that alcoholic, the primary focus is not where it should be—on the health and well-being of the children. Children should get to be children and adults should get to be adults. The job of the parents is to take care of the children so the children do not have to take care of the parents. —Dr.Jan
In Unwelcome Inheritance, Lisa Sue Woititz combines her own insights with the unpublished contributions of her late mother, the early leader in the Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) movement, Dr. Janet Woititz, uncovering how multiple generations of people affected by addiction continue to enable their children’s substance abuse and how, without realizing it, they continue to model the addictive behaviors learned from their own parents. These ACOA pioneers then bring to light these hidden behavior patterns--including impulsivity, misplaced loyalty, people pleasing, insecure parenting styles, and multiple compulsive and addictive behaviors--so that you can take a clear look at how you got to this point. Additional points of inquiry, illustrated by stories from the trenches of the ACOA movement, help you explore what you can (and can’t) do to help your children, your children’s children, and yourself lead healthy, balanced lives.
Dr. Janet Woititz Ed.D., was the author of several books, including the seminal Adult Children of Alcoholics, and was an early leader in the movement that made "adult child" a household name. She passed away in 1994. Lisa Sue Woititz managed Dr. Woititz’s Institute for Counseling and Training for a number of years and has worked in the mental health, substance abuse, and criminal justice fields.