“But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”
- Elizabeth Gilbert, on fear
While just last month I wrote to you following the largest blizzard in over one hundred years (in April, mind you), this month I write from the air-conditioned comfort of my living room as the temperature outside tips 90 degrees (in May, mind you) and it’s humid AF. Please note, I am not complaining. I signed up for this. Wisconsin is a wild one and I sure do love her.
This is a big weekend for us. It’s one year since our friends and family staged a courageous intervention for both my husband and me (because partners need saving, too). And while the events of that weekend one year ago lit a spark that fueled a revolution – recovery has saved my life, no question about it – it’s also bittersweet and painful and I’m not really ready to celebrate just yet. Someday, maybe. But one year into recovery – one year into this new “after life” where real living is actually possible – my tender soul is still knitting itself back together. I’m only now starting to feel like I can breathe again.
Reminders of the past remain. There are places in our house where I rarely, ever go. I’ve been conditioned to avoid them. The places where I used to discover all the things. They were innocuous places, safe places. Cabinets. Drawers. Nalgene bottles. Basement closets. But nothing is safe in the wartime of active alcoholism – your home is an active minefield.
In recovery, the war may be over but the minefield remains. You never know when you might find the thing that will mean it’s happening again – that life as you know it is over, again – or the things that are simply remnants of the old ways. Evidence of what happened but not signs for the future. Over time, one by one, the old mines are discovered and discarded until you think you may have gotten them all.
I found one a few weeks ago and fear hit me like a punch in the gut. My breath was taken and my heart raced and my insides ran ice cold. I had happened upon something that didn’t look good, but also wasn’t a “for sure” sign that anything was wrong. And so there I was, externally frozen in fear and yet churning internally – every scenario under the sun flashing before my eyes – with a choice to make regarding my next steps:
Would they come from a place of fear or a place of freedom, openness, and love?
Now, let’s pause and back up for a minute. It occurred to me recently that I haven’t really defined codependency here in these letters. To be fair, it can mean a lot of things. Codependency probably has as many definitions as there are people who experience it, because it so artfully tailors itself to the individual, feeding on our insecurities, our histories, and our fears. And while I’m hesitant to make broad statements that may or may not be helpful or even true for others, I think this is as good a time as any to share what codependency has come to mean for me (and how I see it most often expressed in others):
Codependency is the compulsion to control other people because you feel controlled by – dependent on – other people.
When we believe our happiness, our well-being, is dependent upon the actions/behaviors of another person – when we feel the fear-driven need to exert control over situations and over other people -- when we think we actually have the power to control what other people do or say (in the name of “helping”) -- because deep down we do not believe we will be okay unless we control all those things… that is codependency.
We do not trust other people and, ultimately, we do not trust ourselves.
This usually develops in response to a systemic, threatening circumstance – living with a partner or child with active alcoholism or drug addiction, being close to a loved one with a chronic illness, etc. Codependency grows out of our need to protect ourselves – to survive – in response to this person and situation, because we’re afraid. We feel threatened. The kicker is that we aren’t always conscious of this stuff. Codependency develops in us while we think we’re doing the right things to protect ourselves and the people we love.
Living with active alcoholism for the past several years I had every reason to be afraid. But I wasn’t just afraid of the obvious things – codependency was magnifying my deep-seeded, number one fear that I was not, in fact, lovable. Remember from my September letter that I used to wrap my self-worth up in the esteem of others? Codependency feasts on that shit. I was terrified that my lovability was determined by my ability to make other people happy, and in the most important relationships in my life I was failing epically. Because I believed the lie that another person’s struggle was my responsibility. That I was somehow the cause and yet should also be the cure.
Until one day I realized – no, decided – that that was bullshit. That someone else was their own person on their own journey and I was not responsible for one iota of that. I would not let external circumstances control me anymore. I decided I would be fine no matter what. In that moment I felt fear loosen its grip on me. It was just a smidge, a slight undoing, but I ran with it. That was the start of my recovery.
I think there’s an assumption that recovery is a moment, a thing that happens and then things are better. That since the “other person” has stopped the “problem behavior” it’s smooth sailing for the partner (or parent, or child) from here on out. In reality, the cessation of the problem behavior simply makes space for the really hard part to start: the undoing, the falling, the letting go, the healing, and the rebuilding. Of all of us. Namely, me.
A few weeks into recovery – mine and my husband’s – I was still a hot mess. I was not doing well. I was still terrified. I approached my husband with suspicion and assumed deceit at every turn. He was doing better, but I was getting worse. One day he ever so gently told me I had a choice to make: I could choose to act out of love and trust as we gradually rebuilt our life together, or I could continue to act out of my pain and fear and all but ensure we would never grow back together.
I found myself faced with that choice again when I discovered that old land mine.
Actually, I’m faced with that choice every single day, countless times a day.
Because every moment is an opportunity for me to choose to act out of love or out of fear. As a codependent, I must make the choice daily – constantly – to choose courage, compassion, and connection instead of fear, judgement, and isolation.
This month’s opening quote is from a letter author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote to her own fear. Before I knew of her letter I had written my own, and they are eerily similar. In both our letters we thank fear for its service – for its unbridled dedication to our survival – but we also put it in its proper place: the backseat. Where it can have a voice but not a vote, as Liz says, and where it is completely prevented from being able to steer the car or step on the brakes (or the gas).
I want to clarify something before I wrap up: it’s okay to feel afraid. Sometimes there really is a threat we need to deal with. But when you’re living in active codependency remember that everything is a threat – you’re closed off in your fight for survival and your ability to discern what is real and what is not is completely compromised. And so for me, living in recovery means I am continually holding up what my fear is telling me with what other reasonable, rational things I am seeing. Which brings us to that old land mine.
I found something that terrified me at first. Fear threw up all the flags and wanted me to run (or fight) for my life. But love – my open heart and mind – said, Wait. What is the context? What are the other signs and indicators going off around us? And so I calmly approached my husband with great fear and trembling (yes, still afraid and shaking like crazy but trusting my “I will be okay no matter what-ness”) and asked him about it and his answer made sense and that was (almost) that. I say almost because it always takes some time to overcome an episode like that. I was recovering for days.
But I could do that and we could move forward together because there were and are a thousand other signs indicating that things are okay. That we’re still on the right path. Had I reacted out of panic it would have created more distance -- more walls -- between us.
Now, navigating recovery together is unique to each couple choosing to do such a thing and our experience here may not be yours at all. If there were other red flags or if things weren’t sitting well – my gut would know. It has taken months and will continue to take years, but my stress response panic system is finally recalibrating.
Is it scary? Hell yes.
And it’s so much better this way.
Until next time, friend.