Codependence, also known as co-addiction, can wreck havoc on a person’s life. It is best explained through a hypothetical example:
Karen is a 30 year old woman who has struggled for years with addiction to crystal meth. She first tried it when she was 20. She began to use more and more frequently until she was crashing on “friends'” couches instead of having a home, lost her job, and sometimes went a few days without affording food. Throughout this period of time she stayed in contact with her mom.
Karen’s mom, Jane, was naturally worried sick about her daughter. Sometimes Karen would move back in with Jane. Jane always made Karen promise not to use anymore, but would never stick with her rules. She justified allowing Karen to use methamphetamine in the house because, ‘At least then I know where she is and I know she’s safe.’ She paid for seven rehabs for Karen. At some point Jane had to take a second mortgage on her home to try and pay for another rehab. Jane also would give Karen money when she saw that Karen was hungry. She paid for Karen’s cell phone bill, ‘so I don’t lose track of her.’ Essentially Jane’s addiction became trying to help Karen get healthy.
On the surface Jane sounds like a loving mom going to any length to help her daughter. Indeed Jane’s actions are motivated by a combination of love and fear. The problem though is that Jane is helping Karen continue to use drugs, and has completely destroyed her own financial future. Every time Jane gives Karen money, pays for her cell phone, or allows her to move home when she is not clean and sober, it frees up what little money Karen gets to buy more meth. Although Jane does not directly give Karen money to buy meth, she does indirectly. Also, Karen has not really shown any signs that she wants to get better. Despite this, Jane has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to try and fix this. Jane has paid for rehabs (these are typically quite expensive), cell phone, money for food, etc. Jane now has an extra large mortgage, which will financially burden her into retirement.
Like many people who struggle with co-addiction, Jane’s entire identity is wrapped up in trying to convince her daughter to get better. Karen’s addiction did not have to ruin Jane’s life too. While Karen’s addiction would have always been a source of pain and deep disappointment for Jane, both she and Karen would have been better off if Jane held firm and healthy boundaries.
As a therapist who focuses on treatment of addiction in families, helping to disentangle the web of codependency is one of the main things I do. And, actually, when the codependent family member or friend changes their behavior to a healthier position, oftentimes the addict decides to get better. If the story of Karen and Jane feels a little too close to home, firstly, my heart hurts for you. Secondly, the stronger you get, the more you are helping the addict you love to recover.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT