On Codependency and Childhood Trauma

I’ve been on medical leave for the past few months attempting to deal with my mental health. You read that right. Months. Months of intensive therapy and trying to find the right cocktail of medications to control the debilitating anxiety (then depression, then anxiety, then depression again) that has me benched from the workforce.

Since beggars can’t be choosers, and I’m desperate for relief at this point, I’ve also been trying to learn from others. And that means (you guessed it!) support groups.

Most recently I tried out a group for people who have identified themselves as codependent.

Before you start rolling your eyes, let me say that I have always felt that my family were codependents, not me. Never me. I grew up with my mother and my sister, who were constantly at each others throats, crying and screaming, then apologizing and embracing. My mother dealt with mental illness and was a single parent, so my environment as a child was one of unpredictability and often fear.

Until recently, I thought my childhood had little to no effect on me in the present. That was, until this year in therapy, when I realized that seeing your mom try to kill herself is not a normal childhood experience, and the fact that I felt like it wasn’t out of the ordinary pointed to the reality that I was–and am–traumatized.

I told this story to a friend who I trust and who knows recovery better than I do–he’s a recovering alcoholic himself and an adult child of a dysfunctional family–and he recommended looking to codependency resources.

So today I started reading Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. I’m five chapters in, and at this point I think it’s safe to say I’m probably codependent.

To define codependency, Beattie quotes another author: “an emotional, psychological, and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules–rules which prevent the open expression of feeling as well as the direct discussion of personal and interpersonal problems.”

She later writes that codependency is often triggered by “the unwritten, silent rules that usually develop in the immediate family and set the pace for relationships. These rules prohibit discussion about problems; open expression of feelings; direct, honest communication; realistic expectations, such as being human, vulnerable, or imperfect; selfishness; trust in other people and one’s self; playing and having fun; and rocking the delicately balanced family canoe through growth or change…”

Man oh man. Bullseye.

I spent so many years as a child walking on eggshells and trying to keep the peace between my mother and my sister. I tried to control the situation by attempting perfection. When that failed, I resorted to force. I recall hitting my mother to protect my sister. On several occasions, I tried to run away from home.

As an adult, codependency has manifested itself in a complete lack of autonomy and personal identity. (I’ve planned my life around my boyfriend for the past eight years, even though he never asked me to, and I resent him for it anyway.)

I’ve also parented both my parents–my mom tried to kill herself AGAIN three years ago, and my dad is a relapsed alcoholic–and lived in constant fear of and for my sister, who is now the worst kind of drug addict.

I’ve tried to control my surroundings to overcompensate for feeling out of control when it comes to my family and my personal and professional direction in life, even though I gave up the latter voluntarily in favor of taking the path of least resistance.

Now I feel as if I’ve woken up, looked around and failed to understand how I got here and why. How did I end up in this job I don’t like in this city I always swore I’d leave with this man who is (thankfully) amazing but who I’ve given the reins of my life?

I don’t have any answers. If I did, maybe I’d feel less lost.

Can you relate?

–Difficult Grl

On the Stigma of Mental Illness and Being Anonymous

In my first post as Difficult Grl, I’d like to address the elephant in the room. I’m writing this anonymously.

Why? Because being open about my mental illness would change how people perceive me. I mean, maybe it wouldn’t. But I don’t really want to take the risk of finding out.

The reality is, we still live in a world where depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders are seen at best as a lack of mental fortitude and at worst as a whole lot of crazy. Which is completely ridiculous, if you ask me, since one in five people in this country live with a mental illness. God, we are repressed.

The even bigger tragedy: when we feel like we’re hiding a big secret from the rest of the world, the feelings and behaviors associated with poor mental health–isolating ourselves from others, feeling an increased sense of loneliness, feeling helpless to change our lives for the better–are amplified.

In other words, my depression and anxiety are made worse by being unable to talk about my depression and anxiety.

Also off limits: all of the things from my past that have made me the way I am and all the things I’m doing now to try to get over it.

Now isn’t that a shit sandwich. And enough to make me feel like no one knows me at all.

When you’re keeping such a big secret, it can feel impossible to ask for help. Here are just a few things I’ve wanted to ask my Facebook friends in the past week:

  • What is Adderall supposed to feel like?
  • Do you know a local counselor who knows something about dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)?
  • Where can I get my prescriptions filled cheaply without health insurance?
  • Do you know any organizations looking for someone like me? My current job is bad for my mental health.
  • Why is it so hard to exercise on antidepressants?

But did I ask real people any of these questions? Of course not. I asked Google instead. Because most people don’t know I’m depressed and anxious.

My boss didn’t–until a few months ago when I had to take medical leave to seek treatment. (Thankfully he responded by telling me that he himself has dealt with depression and anxiety. But my shame and humiliation were not dampened very much by that disclosure. Thanks, jerk brain.)

If only we lived in a world where 20 percent of people could be honest about themselves without having to fear the reactions of the other 80 percent.

If only people with mental illness were treated like people with diabetes: as having a medical condition caused by a combination of biology and environment that should be treated with medication and lifestyle changes.

Until we get there, I probably won’t talk openly about my mental illness with anyone other than family, close friends, and my peer supports.

I do want to talk about it anonymously with other people who struggle with their mental health. That’s why I started this blog.

Is your mental illness a secret? If you do talk openly about it, what has your experience been like? I want to know.

— Difficult Grl

P.S. If you have answers to any of the questions on my list, I would selfishly love you to share that, too.