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A Long Look At Codependency

Almost 30 years ago, author Melody Beattie suggested a controversial idea. She said that some people around addicts and alcoholics actually supported their destructive behaviors without realizing it. She called them “codependent.”

Beattie’s book Codependent No More resonated strongly with the then-new self-help movement, going on to sell more than eight million copies. It permanently etched the terms “codependent” and “codependency” in the American consciousness.

In the treatment professions, we saw a variety of responses to the concept. Some family, friends and employers of addicts denied that codependency existed at all. Spouses continued to “help,” calling in sick for the person, bailing him or her out of jail, making excuses, justifying, minimizing and defending.

Others went to the opposite extreme, diagnosing themselves as codependent and refusing to give any help at all to the person with alcoholism or addiction (which we now call substance use disorders). In order not to be what they thought of as codependent, they became resentful and punitive instead.

Thankfully, still others took a more productive, middle road. They began to see how they were contributing to the substance use disorder and started to make their own changes. They came to understand the illness as a disease that requires support from others to continue. And they learned how to provide assistance for positive change without “aiding and abetting” the addictive behaviors that are so destructive to everyone involved.

Today, almost 30 years later, many families, friends and employers face the same difficult choices. When you’re not the one with the disorder, it can be very hard to admit having any role at all – much less that you’re getting something out of it yourself. It can be challenging to accept that your own thinking has become distorted over time.

On the other hand, it’s as easy as it ever was to place all the blame on the person with the illness and “cut them loose” as if it were a moral issue or failure of will. Of course, it’s not – it just seems like it from within the distorted system.

Luckily, the last 30 years have seen a tremendous increase in what we know about codependency – and how to address it successfully. It’s a major step forward that it’s no longer widely debated as to whether it exists or not. That makes codependency much harder to deny.

Additionally, hundreds of thousands of people have found healing in 12-step programs like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon and others that specialize in helping families, friends and employers of people with substance use disorder. These programs work. Professional counseling has proved to be a great help as well.

The bottom line is this. We now know beyond any reasonable doubt that substance use disorders cannot continue without the support of others. These illnesses just can’t exist in a vacuum. For the disease to progress, people all around the person with the illness have to look the other way, go into their own denial, or support the behaviors outright.

Yes, it is frightening to look at our own role in someone else’s disease. Yes, they may find someone else to take our place if we are unwilling to support their destructive behavior any longer. But healing demands that we take that risk.


Written by Jerry Gjesvold, former Serenity Lane Employer Services Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer.

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