Codependency, Vulnerability, and Learning to Like Myself

In all of my years writing about myself online, it strikes me how little I’ve written about the backstory that explains who I am.

I’ve always been a sucker for candy.

Did you know that my mom has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

Her illness meant she couldn’t really drive and had to take a lot of naps and I remember the sickening guilt that would consume me when I would start to get rowdy and a sibling would hiss, “Shhhhhh, mom is trying to sleep!” But see, when she first started experiencing symptoms when I was about 5, it was a disease without a name. It wasn’t even recognized as an illness: Countless doctors told her she just needed to get more exercise or up her vitamin D intake or try out anti-depressants.

My dad didn’t believe in her illness. Neither did either of my grandmothers. I lived with the realities of her CFS while being told that she was just faking it. I didn’t know how to tell the adults around me that they were wrong, that something clearly was not right, that no one would ever fake something like this. But because I didn’t have the words, I just felt sickeningly guilty for not being able to protect her.

I spent my childhood being incredibly self-aware of how my actions impacted my mom. Am I making too much noise? Am I asking for too much? I can’t tell her that I’m mad at my sister, that would just stress her out. Better to just be quiet and retreat inside myself and try to stay small.

And what about my dad?

Have I ever written about him? If I have, I doubt it was in the context of the undiagnosed bipolar disorder that plagued him throughout my childhood. His volatile mood swings taught me to tiptoe around issues, to avoid rocking the boat at all costs, and that it was never worth bringing up my problems because talking about them would only make everything worse.

He loved all of his kids deeply, but I don’t think he knew how to be a dad to me and my 5 siblings when we were growing up. It breaks my heart  because I now realize that he was dealing with so much instability in his own life and mental health.  When he was in a good space, there was no one more fun to be around: Even the most mundane errands felt like an adventure and he has the most infectious laugh of anyone I’ve ever met. He’s the source of my sense of humor and taught me that life isn’t always easy, but there’s always humor to be found in it. But when he veered toward the extremes, either manic or depressive, I felt like all I could do was make myself invisible until the storm had passed.

And the divorce, oooooh boy, the divorce.

It took 7 years all told, is that normal? I don’t really talk about it much because it seems like such a cliche to be defined by your parents’ divorce, but the custody agreement was an absolute nightmare. Dad lived in NYC while we were raised in Maryland and because he worked in the film business, I could never be sure if I would see him again in 2 weeks or 6 months.

We spent weekends with him at my grandmother’s house: I loved Grammy deeply, but she was often cranky and critical from painful health issues. And so when there were problems, it was better to just stuff it all down, waaaaay down, and maybe make a  dumb joke to try to lighten the mood. Why ruin the precious little time that we were able to spend together? And why run the risk of upsetting dad when I might make him so mad that he would just never come back?

As I sat across from my therapist during my very first appointment in August, these are the stories that tumbled from me when she asked me about myself.

Her eyes widened a little as I went on, maybe because of the glib way in which I presented each heartbreak (hey, my gallows sense of humor is one of my most effective coping mechanisms!) or maybe because of the way I tried to make each thing sound Not That Bad, Really I’m Fine.

She asked me what motivated me to come see her.

“Well, I don’t really know. I don’t know how to explain it. I feel overwhelmed all the time, like my coping mechanisms don’t work anymore and like I can’t get a handle on the ground beneath my feet. It seems like I’ve lost touch with who I am and I’m just sort of walking around in a blind daze.”

She furrowed her brow.

“Have you ever heard of the term, ‘codependency‘?”

I was confused and a little bit offended. I hadn’t even really talked about my relationship with Conrad at all.

“Well sure, but I’ve always heard it used to describe an unhealthy relationship, like between two alcoholics who enable each other’s addictions. I don’t really see how it applies to my situation.”

I could feel myself hardening. She’d never understand me, just like no one’s ever understood me. Just more proof that I’m irredeemably fucked up and I’m better off keeping to myself.

“That’s one way the term is used, but I’m talking about codependent personality types. Codependent people often grew up in chaotic environments where they were responsible for managing the emotions of the adults around them. It can make them very good at caretaking, but because they fall into a pattern of constantly worrying about the needs of others, they often end up feeling lost and out of touch with their own feelings and desires. It’s really common among children whose parents lived with debilitating physical illness or unmanaged mental illness.”

I’ve never felt more seen by someone who’d only known me for 10 minutes.

I was suddenly given a completely new way to understand myself. As someone who takes pride in being self-aware, I was officially shook by the whole concept of codependency.

So this is why arguments feel so awful and I go to such extremes to avoid them. When  I find myself in an argument with someone I love, I do everything I can to smooth it over as quickly as possible. It’s only afterward (sometimes hours, sometimes days) that I start to  realize my own feelings about the situation. But by then the moment’s passed and it’s not worth bringing up again so I just stew in the resentment of being unheard.

So that’s why social interactions tend to be so tiring. I’m constantly evaluating my actions and anticipating what others might want from me and editing myself to meet their approval. It’s exhausting to  try to figure out which version of yourself you need to be in every situation.

So this is why I tend to go along with other people’s desires rather than asserting my own. Voicing my opinion just opens up room for conflict. Better to just go with the flow, adapt to change, and not want anything too desperately. (My inability to set career goals for myself now makes perfect sense.)

It also explains why I feel like I’ve lost touch with myself.

In truth, I probably never really knew myself as well as I thought. I’ve always defined myself in relationship with others, if not with a partner then with my siblings. This became really obvious after my first therapy session: As I journaled about the experience, I kept using the term “we”  instead of “I” when I talked about my childhood. Even when I’m writing for myself, I’m almost incapable of viewing my own experience as separate from my siblings.

What was lost can always be found.

The past couple of months have been a slow process of becoming reacquainted with who I am. Leaning into my own vulnerabilities and sitting with the discomfort that’s brought up. Learning that just because I’m self-aware doesn’t mean I know myself very well.

It’s been a painful process, realizing that I don’t really know who I am. But I’m I finally starting to feel like I’m on solid ground again.

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