Codependency Virtue/Vices

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

Today I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving and gratitude and creating the life I want to live. This month has been hard. My Kindergartener got sick and was home from school almost a whole week. Then I crashed on my bike and sustained some injuries. Then I got sick and was in bed for several days with fever, chills, a wicked sore throat, and the usual yuck of fall illnesses. Finally, I strained my ankle at the trampoline park. With all of this I have had a resurgence of depression symptoms including some pretty intense episodes of suicidal ideation. My counselor contracted pneumonia and has not been available. Naturally I was very unhappy when family-of-origin drama began.

At the beginning of this year I did a cut off with my parents. I have avoided writing on my blog about this for a couple of reasons. First, it is extremely painful and for those who have experienced it, you understand just how painful and why I wouldn’t want to post about it. Another reason is that I’ve been afraid of the backlash I might get from well meaning family members with little to no mental health experience. I thought that perhaps if I veiled some of my expressions in poetry that I might avoid some of the latter. Unfortunately, I have still managed to garner the backlash I tried to prevent.

As I have reflected on my blog’s purpose, I realize that I have been holding back useful information from my intended readers. My intended readers are those who have some experience with mental health or at least some desire to learn more, help loved ones, and build a more nurturing environment for our minds. My intended readers are familiar with phrases like “family of origin,” “childhood trauma,” “suicidal ideation,” and “recovery journey.” My intended readers understand that the world of mental health is complicated and that it is best to withhold judgement of those who suffer and their loved ones who suffer with them. My intended readers deserve more vulnerable and direct communications than my poetry posts this year.

This is not the first cutoff I have done with my parents, but this is the longest one. I tried to resume some limited contact with my mom around mother’s day, but we are back to no contact until after the holidays. Family of origin drama is just too much for me right now. I have to be there for my children for the next six weeks.

It’s hard to cope with the reality that you experienced serious trauma as a child. It is almost unbearable when those you love who hurt you so badly deny and minimize your experience, make excuses for themselves, and then shame you for the pain. I have been accused of being ungrateful, unforgiving, and cruel. Those minimizations and accusations hurt more than the original offense. I am comforted to think that the Savior knows the pain I feel. Perhaps he alone will ever truly understand. He whose piercing gaze fell upon the leper and resisted looking away will not fail to see me in my broken state. Like them, I cry out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

This post is for those who, like me, who find that in their recovery journey, that they must limit contact with people they love. Love is not a purchased commodity. Those we love have not earned our love. In order for love to be real it must be freely given with no expectation of reciprocation. Sometimes we have built empathetic connections of love with people who continually hurt us and keep us from building a healthy and happy life. They sabotage our efforts, contradict our therapists, and pressure us to continue harmful behaviors. These relationships are unlikely to change unless the empathetic connection changes. Sometimes the relationship can’t continue without great harm to recovery.

Cut offs are so hard. We love the person. We want them to understand. We want them to see that they are hurting us and for it to matter to them. We want the unconditional love from them that we have been giving. Some people are just unable to give that kind of love. It’s okay to let go. Sometimes it’s important to let go. This is hard for people raised in codependency.

My family of origin has a lot of problems with codependency. I was raised to believe that I needed to be unselfish to be good. That belief system has driven me repeatedly into burnout. I am finally making some progress in rooting out those codependent virtue/vices and replacing them with healthier values.

Virtue/Vice One: I need to put others first. Selfish women don’t deserve love. I was taught that women feel fulfilled in the home taking care of their family. I was taught that good wives and mothers put their husband and children’s needs first, often go without and make sacrifices for their family. I thought that when I skipped meals, showers, personal growth opportunities, and social activities that I was being a good person. Over time, resent built up and motivation evaporated. I thought that my sacrifices would make me feel fulfilled and that my efforts would be reciprocated and rewarded. Instead it seemed that everyone became accustomed to my behavior and even felt entitled to it. The love I craved felt insufficient and it was. I wasn’t behaving virtuously, I was being codependent. I was expecting my husband and children’s love to sustain me and make up for my neglect of myself. It left everyone frustrated and resentful.

Now I understand that putting others first doesn’t make me a good person, it makes me a resentful person. I understand that I don’t have to earn love. My husband and children love me because they are empathetic and loving people. I love them because I am an empathetic and loving person. I don’t earn their love with my unselfish behavior. I model healthy self care for them and teach them to do the same. They aren’t responsible for my happiness and I am not responsible for theirs.

Codependency keeps us in unhealthy relationships for too long. It is a habit of thinking that shifts responsibility. “I am responsible for everything,” says one codependent person. “You are responsible for everything,” says the other. Because neither of those statements is true, no progress is made. Codependency is like a tug of war, two people waste time and energy pulling against one another and getting nowhere. It isn’t going to be enough to stop pulling. Its okay to put the rope down and walk away.

Virtue/Vice Two: It is unkind to distance myself from people who hurt me. Christ commanded me to love everyone which means I need to put my mental health at risk rather than set healthy boundaries. This is a classic codependent virtue/vice. Keeping toxic relationships and people in your life is not healthy. Proper self care requires you to keep yourself safe from harm. Sacrificing your safety to enable someone’s toxic behavior is not a virtue, its a codependent vice.

Virtue/Vice Three: Doing family cut-offs is cruel. Family relationships need to be preserved no matter how detrimental they are to your mental health. For many years I have kept family relationships in my life that have hurt my recovery. Some family members have repeatedly reinforced toxic narratives, minimized abusive behavior, and blamed victims. Because I believed in the sanctity of eternal families, I kept trying to change toxic family members.

The truth is, eternal families are healthy families. Each individual is accountable for their own behavior within the family system. Not every individual has equal power within the family system. The parents have the bulk of the power and the responsibility for the overall health of the system. Children within the system, even adult children, have little power to change the system. Eventually healthy adult children will outgrow an unhealthy family system. That’s not cruelty, that’s life. If you want an eternal family, you need a healthy family. If your family isn’t healthy, it won’t last anyway.

Habits of codependence are reinforced with practice. It takes two to tango in the dance of codependence and the steps are unconscious. I’ve had to surround myself with people who have healthy boundaries in order to begin to see my own codependent habits.

Unfortunately, that has restricted my circle of friends to a very small group. Churches sometimes teach codependence as a virtue. Women at church are especially proud of their codependence. It is the whited sepulchre of mental health sins. On the outside they are virtuous servants of mankind while inwardly they are seething with the sickly rot of resentment. From such stay far away!

When it comes to relationships, I’ve prioritized quality over quantity. I have also prioritized relationships I feel I have some power to influence. I’m not investing in relationships with people who are rigid, defensive, and self-righteous. The truth is, there are not a lot of mentally healthy people in this world. There are enough mentally healthy people, but you have to look for them. You might find them in unexpected places.

The holidays are a strange mix of emotions for me. Being in recovery isn’t easy, but I have enough faith to believe it will be worth it. My best to all of you who find yourselves in a complicated place this season. You aren’t alone. As I celebrate the birth of the Savior, my model of mental health and altruistic virtue, this month, I hope I can better emulate Him. I hope my words bring you light and hope and not despair.

Dumbledore and the Power to Hold Back

Photo by Sean Thomas on Unsplash

Layne is an insatiable reader.  He reads so much and so fast, that we are spending large amounts of money trying to keep him supplied with reading material.  As we try to get a library card, we convinced him to read the Harry Potter series.  We already have the books, and even though he has watched the movies, they are still worth a read.  He has grudgingly obliged.  I have spent many hours in the past week reading the books aloud to him.  His brothers often listen in, and it has been a fun pass-time as we endure the dead of Texas summer heat.

I have lost count of the number of times I have read the Harry Potter books.  I have read them aloud to classes and students and my own children.  I have cried and laughed through the adventures of Harry, Ron, and Hermione with children who likely now have children of their own.  This reading has drawn my attention to Dumbledore.  As I’ve gotten older and hopefully wiser but definitely more omniscient about the Harry Potter story, I find myself gravitating toward the all-knowing, all-powerful, master of magic that is the headmaster of Hogwarts.  Did he know Harry would save the Sorcerer’s Stone?  Is that why he left the school just as Quirrell was to attempt to steal it?  Did he know that he would have to leave to allow Voldemort to think that he had a chance to succeed and that Harry would be there to prevent catastrophe at great risk to his own life and considerable damage to his health?  Did he know about the chamber of secrets and the basilisk that roamed the castle?  Did he know about Ginny and the diary?  Did he allow Harry to confront the Basilisk alone even though there was almost no chance he could triumph?

Did he know of the innocence of Sirius Black?  Did he deduce that it wasn’t Black but Pettigrew who was guilty of betraying the Potters to Voldemort?  Did he know when he instructed Hermione to use the time turner that they would have to face countless dementors and a rabid werewolf?  There is a good chance that the answer to these questions and countless others is yes.  It is no wonder that Dumbledore allows Harry to destroy his office in a fit of rage at the end of the Order of the Phoenix.  Dumbledore knows that Harry has suffered, in part, because Dumbledore has been pulling the strings in the background.  He has chosen to act, and not to act, for his own purposes.  He has used Harry and his friends to act, knowing enough about their temperament, character, motivations, and skill, to burden them with impossible tasks and dangers.  As Hermione said, “If Dumbledore knew, he was being extremely reckless!”

In order to judge Dumbledore, I have to understand him.  I don’t, so I withhold judgement.  Some online fans of the series have excoriated Dumbledore as a master manipulator of questionable motives.  That is one way to look at him.  I can’t help but see parallels between Dumbledore and the Master I serve.  At risk of seeming blasphemous, I will make a comparison of the fictional gay headmaster of a wizarding school and the Savior of mankind.  Prepare to be offended.

Dumbledore is extraordinarily powerful, and yet he seldom uses his awesome powers.  Through the entire series, he seldom uses his magic to interfere at Hogwarts.  He allows student misbehavior including bullying and rule breaking.  He doesn’t seem to care when he finds Harry in front of the Mirror of Erised with his invisibility cloak.  In fact, he sent him the cloak likely expecting that Harry would use it and find the mirror!  Peeves the Poltergiest roams chaotically, Snape abuses Neville Longbottom regularly, and incompetent or inexperienced teachers like Quirrell, Lockhart, and Hagrid are commonplace.  He could take action to change or stop these things for the health and safety of the students, but he doesn’t.  Why?

I suspect he holds back for the same reason God often doesn’t act as often as we want him to.  He is all powerful, but God understands that there is perfection in imperfection.  Only as we allow imperfect things, can we allow perfection to develop.  It’s a strange paradox.  It seems that the powerful ought to use their power to shape the world according to their own design, but it can be a tremendous act of humility to have the power to do something, and choose not to use that power; to allow the world to create its own design.   The humility that says, “I don’t know best.  I don’t want to mess up what needs to happen by forcing my will upon the world.  I will allow people to act and not use my power to effect the outcome.”  To make that choice is to accept the consequences of not acting.  The reality that comes to pass may not be perfection.  It may cause suffering to the innocent.  A boy neglected and abused by his aunt and uncle, an innocent man tortured by evil dementors in a prison for years, and other injustices and traumas.  To not act is an action.  To hold power back has consequences.  To be given great power and influence means that our mistakes, both to act and to hold back, will be “huger,” as Dumbledore so memorably points out.  

When I’m not reading Harry Potter to my kids, I have been processing some of my recent trauma.  By trauma, I am talking about small “t” trauma.  I haven’t witnessed any deaths or been the target of a violent crime.  Thankfully.  The small “t” trauma has been the political, social, and family upheaval of the last seven months.  I’ve found my mind wandering into painful places only to jump away like a hand from a hot stove.  Those concentrated emotions need to be processed and felt as much as I want to avoid and suppress them.

So I spent several hours this morning journaling and processing the situation with my parents. I got to a place where the pain is less distracting and overwhelming. Like nursing a sore muscle or an overstretched ligament, gentle attention can soothe and dissipate the pain. It’s okay to know what I know, don’t know what I don’t know, and live with the reality of my choices to act and not act. God will judge me. I am accountable to him alone and not those who judge without understanding. That is both a relief, and an awe inspiring duty.

I found this very informative study about the effects of family estrangement. I haven’t read the whole thing, and it might be quite triggering for some, but if you are struggling with the loss of family members in your life due to estrangement, it might give you some insight. It’s called, Hidden Voices; Family Estrangement in Adulthood.

Whatever your circumstances are, my friend, I hope the chaos and trauma of this moment is made a little better by reading what I have to say. I hope that the spirit of our Savior will rest upon you and those you love. I pray that, as my Lord seems to me to stay his hand, that eventually I will see the genius of his design. It may be that he is allowing us to face extraordinary challenges because he has faith in us and our ability to overcome. I know that in the shadow of his wisdom, I am as clueless as a newborn baby. Like a child, I will trust in Him who is Mighty to Save. Like Harry trusted Dumbledore, I will follow the plan no matter what the cost or sacrifice. I trust that someday, I will look back and see the wisdom and the love that I can’t see in this moment. That is faith.