I am a recovering co-dependent caregiver who, for as long as I can remember, has practiced ‘savior behavior’ with the desire to fix, save, heal, cure and kiss all sorts of boo-boos and make them better.
I have long been a ‘safe place to land.’ I learned from masters since my parents always made it seem easy to do that. They experienced losses with the deaths of their fathers (my maternal grandfather died when my mom was 18 and my paternal grandfather died when my dad was 32 or 33, somewhere between their wedding and my birth) and just kept on keepin’ on.
My maternal grandmother, who I adored, died right after my fourth birthday, and although my mother grieved the loss for the rest of her life, she picked up and did what had to be done.
I had health problems throughout my childhood that resulted in the need for weekly doctor visits and sojourns in the bathroom with the shower billowing forth steam so I could breathe more easily. I often wonder how my parents maintained their sanity with the schedules they kept: working full time, running my sister and me to various activities, keeping up with the household responsibilities and a social life that included time with friends as well as volunteering in our community.
Add to that my father’s statements: “What hurts you hurts me,” “If that’s the worst thing that happens to you, you’ll be ok,” and my mother’s advice (I think it’s a line from Bambi): “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” and you have the perfect formula for a good little co-dependent. To their credit, they were saying these things to minimize pain, but they also squelched my ability to fully feel and had me whistling a happy tune when what I really felt like doing was throwing a full-blown temper tantrum.
They had wise counsel, as well. My father would say, “They put their pants on one leg at a time just like you do,” and “Your life is in the hands of any fool that makes you lose your temper.” My mother would cheer me on by telling me to “Walk in like you own the joint.”
Most people who exhibit co-dependent tendencies come from families that are fraught with addiction and abuse or neglect. I had none of that in my past, thank goodness. Years ago, a colleague asked me, “How did you get this way?” meaning, how did I become such a people-pleaser with a compelling desire not to make waves or rock the boat. I related the information in the previous paragraphs.
In 1993, I found myself (or rather, lost myself) in a precarious situation in which I had once again, become a door mat or as a current client refers to it, wall to wall carpet. My husband was furious and insisted that I take the advice of my mentor/therapist and enter a 5 1/2 day inpatient co-dependency program at a local drug and alcohol rehab.
I thought “How hard could it be?” After all, it was in a cottage setting, with an open door, good food and a casual environment.
I entered the program that day thinking I could finesse my way through it, since I had been a therapist for many years at that point who was well versed in addictions and recovery. Cue dramatic music. When you think you’ve got a handle on an addiction, you are in trouble.
On the second day there, a woman whose life appeared to be a mass of chaos, looked at me and said “You’re the sickest one here.” Huh? I did a cartoon character double take. “Yup, we all know we have problems and you think you’re here only because your husband and therapist told you to come. Get with the program, woman. You need this a much as we do.”
Fortunately there were still 3 1/2 days left. I’m not sure if it was that night or a few later, but a massive wind and rain storm came barreling through, knocking a huge tree into the house. We were evacuated to an inpatient locked unit that was empty at the time. The other women in the program were anxious and some were crying. I brought out my Girl Scout camp leader persona (or maybe I was channeling my mother) and began organizing things; helping them to pack, cheering them up, encouraging them. I was right back in the throes of it, taking care of them. We moved to the unit for the night and by the next day, we were back in familiar, cozy surroundings.
I completed the program and began to attend CODA (Co-dependents Anonymous Meetings) which I did for six years. At my meeting, a young man kept asking me to be his sponsor. I continuously told him that a man should be his sponsor, I didn’t have the time to take anyone on, since my husband was ill at the time and I was so new to recovery; I wasn’t able to be of service that way.
I guess I wasn’t firm or insistent enough, since he didn’t stop requesting. Fast forward to December 21st, 1998 and I had, less than an hour earlier, come home from the hospital where that morning, my husband breathed his last breath.
The phone rang and it was this young man who began sharing his woes and again asked about my being his sponsor. Numb, I said “Not only can I not be your sponsor, but I can’t even talk to you right now. My husband just died.”
His response was “But, but,” to which I answered, “I’m hanging up now. You need to find someone else on the phone list to call.”
With that, I clicked off. What a sense of exhilaration as I noticed no lightning flashes across the sky and the floor didn’t swallow me up, because I said ‘no’ to someone. I felt a sense of freedom in the midst of my grief.
More than 20 years later, I was relating this story for the first time to a friend and I told him that I had recognized that the time in the rehab when I hustled about helping others was a socially acceptable way of quelling my own fears. It didn’t feel cool to dissolve into tears or, heaven forbid, fall apart.
In the past few years, since my parents died, I have been shutting down that place in my heart that would want to be comforted instead of just comforting, to be held and not just the one doing the holding, to just cry it out until there are no more tears left and I need a good, long drink of water to replenish the fluid supply. Little by little, I have been doing that with trusted ones; sometimes wracking sobs spilling out.
Today, in a staff meeting at my job, I took down the walls and shared the experience with my co-workers. They all offered support and I felt validated in my emotional basket-case state. I also came to recognize that although I know a lot of people, I don’t allow many into the inner sanctum where the scared little kid resides.
I remind her that she is safe and loved and cherished and doesn’t need to do anything to earn it. I tell her that her feelings matter too and that she doesn’t have to be ‘on’ and dazzle anyone. She is allowed to have needs and desires and yes, fears. Allowing for full expression of her emotions, including anger, isn’t going to kill anyone and she isn’t going to be abandoned as a result.
Much of my work now is with folks in recovery from substance addiction, eating disorders, trauma and abuse. I have realized how much easier it is to be the professional, hiding behind the ‘alphabet soup letters’ after my name and the three decades of experience.
There are times when I am scared shitless that I will be found out. Impostor syndrome kicks in as I wonder if, despite my education and expertise, I really am not that good at what I do… just faking it well.
I have a glimpse of how monumental recovery is for my clients as they courageously face their demons each day, that are way more frightening than mine, since theirs have often cost them money, family, friends, jobs, license, freedom, health and dignity. Mine has cost me trust, integrity, sleep, self worth, intimacy; less tangible, but losses nonetheless.
It is as I honor and deeply grieve my own losses, that I heal.
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Ed: Sara Crolick