(Graphic: A weekend in the sun…the hard way.)
An old 12-step adage says no matter how willingly you’re off the wagon, sometimes recovery comes and finds you. One day you’re sitting there in your living room wrapped around your addiction of choice when you hear a knock at the door. You peer through the peephole and there’s no one there. But you could have sworn…
Pastry Chef Chris has a saying for how I behave when I turn away from my codependence recovery. “We can’t talk to you when Tasmanian Michael comes to town,” he told me recently. “We want to tell you how you’re acting, but you won’t listen. You just spin faster and faster and we all have to step back. No on can ever get through to you until Tasmanian Michael goes to Bermuda.”
I’d love to pretend Tasmanian Michael doesn’t exist, but I’ve woken up one too many times to find his bags gone, a fifty missing from my wallet for cabfare to O’Hare, and a line of friends banging on my front door ready to wring my neck. “What did I do?” is seldom a good question to ask of others at times likes these. It just tends to make them raise the torches and pitchforks a little higher. You’d think I’d have learned by now.
Trouble is, for codependents, you rarely know the damage you’re doing to the people you care about most until it’s already done. And usually irreparable. That seemed to be the case when my boyfriend of two years, Devyn, told me if I didn’t leave his apartment he’d have me removed physically as we broke up the hard way in 2007.
In hindsight, it was the best thing anyone ever did for me. Sometimes a painful dose of reality is all that can snap us back into it.
“No one enters these rooms from a happy place.”
Last weekend, my program friend Russian Roulette laid it all out for me. “No one enters these rooms from a happy place, Michael,” she told me over a mouth-blisteringly hot eggplant parmigiana sandwich in Lakeview. “But it’s always good to be back.”
Before you enter recovery, you wonder why your life seems to be a series of such not happy places. The day, shortly after Devyn left, when I came across the list of codependent tendencies on the Internet, I sat on the floor and cried. In that blunt list of behaviors I browsed on a laptop screen, I saw my life reflected back to me.
- I minimize, alter or deny how I truly feel.
- I perceive myself as completely unselfish and dedicated to the well being of others.
- I judge everything I think, say or do harshly, as never “good enough.” I do not perceive myself as a lovable or worthwhile person.
- I value others’ opinions and feelings more than my own and am afraid to express differing opinions and feelings of my own.
- I put aside my own interests and hobbies in order to do what others want.
- I accept sex when I want love.
- I believe most other people are incapable of taking care of themselves.
- I attempt to convince others of what they “should” think and how they “truly” feel.
I control. I try to control anyone who gets close to me so I won’t be hurt again, like I was as a child. It wasn’t until I was 24 that my homebound mother finally told me the man in the black-and-white portrait who died before I had a chance to know him wasn’t my father after all. My brother, John, and sister, Patricia, both a generation older, knew him as their father before he died from alcoholism. Six years before I was born.
By the time my mother found love again, she wasn’t ready to re-marry. My real father wasn’t ready to wait around for her to change her mind. And, as they entered their twenties, my brother and sister were already advanced-stage alcoholics and drug addicts.
No one is born codependent. I was born like all children, with a need––and a right––to be loved by the adults in my life. How else can children learn to love themselves? What becomes of those children when the adults in their lives ignore their innocent needs for emotional, psychological, physical well-being?
Sitting at the dinner table at six years old, I remember asking my mother why John’s girlfriend, Mary, was sleeping in her mashed potatoes. In grade school, I was used to my sister sleeping it off on the kitchen floor. In junior high school, when Patricia stabbed Mary with a steakknife and brought the bloody object to my nephew, Little John, born with fetal alcohol syndrome eight years before, screaming, “Look! I just killed your mother!”, I wasn’t even surprised.
When I finally moved away from home to Brooklyn at the age of 25, I felt a sense of liberation. I was finally free of the madness. I remember telling friends, “I feel lucky I made it out without becoming an alcoholic myself.” I was proud of that fact.
Little did I know.
“They say you called 911…”
These past few years in Chicago, I’ve often turned to my hip-suburban-chick friend, Val, to help me gain perspective on my life. We’re like two peas in a lonely pod. After each one of my Windy City boyfriends has walked on, she’s told me, “I wish I could tell you how not to close off your heart after this, but I don’t have an answer to that, myself, anymore.”
During my eight years in Brooklyn, I hadn’t yet put the pieces together. Every boyfriend I had ever known had left me, never the other way around. It was always their fault. They didn’t fulfill my emotional needs, they didn’t love me enough, they didn’t care what I wanted. It hurt less to let everyone else take the blame. Though it sure made it hard to understand why my friends were always urging me think about things a little more deeply.
When I entered recovery after Devyn’s departure, I thought I had it made. Not happily made––no one wants to think they’ll need to attend support meetings for the rest of their life. No one wants to think they’re that broken. But made enough to find some serenity in my life.
Whether you’re addicted to control or Ketel One, thinking easy happiness is just around the corner is a great strategy for falling off the wagon. Meeting the unconditionally warm-hearted Pastry Chef Chris sure seemed like I didn’t have a care in the world.
When he broke up with me last May, he told me, “I can’t be with you, but I’m going to be there for you. If you need someone to talk to after your meetings, I will be there.”
Roulette is right on the money about how we find our way back to recovery. I cried my way back to the rooms, but in gratitude this time. For the first time, the one I had hurt most of all––other than myself––remained in my life. I had to be getting somewhere.
I hoped so. Codependence is a cyclical beast. Not only does it keep bringing you around to the same place of emotional devastation in your life, but each time the damage is a little bit greater.
If you’re not careful, eventually you just don’t have the heart to get on that carousel anymore. I imagine that’s what John C. was thinking last year the evening he didn’t show up for our recovery meeting. He had talked me down from many personal ledges in the off-and-on-again year I had spent in the program.
They say he called 911 so his family wouldn’t have to find him with the gun still in his hand. I don’t know whether Colleen called 911 too, a month later. In shock, I had already run as fast as I could away from the rooms. And away from myself.
“Do you feel lucky, punk? Well do you?”
But as codependents, round and round we go. Oh, the joy of meeting the delightful, dancing Sonny.
I bet you can fill in the next part of the story.
In heartache, I always seem to arrive back where I started: sitting in a 12-step meeting next to a recently released rehabber. Who smells. Wondering what on earth I have in common with the troubled souls surrounding me. At least, until they start sharing their stories. And with every description of the heartbreak they’ve created in their lives, I hear them telling me my life story.
Last week, as I heard others detailing pain that could easily be my own, I was moved a little deeper. I cannot explain why, but I knew it was time, finally, to continue the work I began two years and three heartaches ago.
I took the weekend, sat down, and worked Step Four. I wrote down an inventory of my copendent behaviors. I wrote in detail, putting down all the ways I could see them in myself and all the ways I had hurt the people in my life. I didn’t pull any punches. I wrote for three days. I made sure to detail my strengths and positive behaviors, too, so that I ended up with a fair appraisal of the man I guess I’ve never really known. Thirty-five pages later, for the first time in my life, I could finally see the balance of who I am.
There was no denying my patterns of control. There it was before me, over and over, cutting across every love, platonic, and work relationship I’ve ever experienced.
There was a sickening realization, too. As denial slipped away, so did the fiction that my copendent behaviors only come out when I’m stressed or unhappy. Or ever switch off at all.
My inventory was clear. I have only one way of interfacing with other human beings–the way I learned in childhood. The way that may progressively kill me.
“I accept your apology.”
The last thing I wanted to do was hold that awful realization inside me, alone. Step Five is what it is for a reason:
“[We] admitted to God, ourselves, and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
Telling God was easy, the Universe and I have been on good terms for a long time. Telling myself was a lot harder. I had no idea how I was going to tell another person.
Out of nowhere, I emailed Devyn and told him I was in recovery. That evening, for the first time in two years, I saw his name appear on my caller I.D. Two hours later, we both finally had closure, and forgiveness. And he told me to stick with it.
On Wednesday morning, I sobbed for an hour before I left the house to meet with a minister whom I know and trust. I was better composed as I sat before him for an hour and read him my inventory. Every tendency. Every hurt. Every discovery in it.
Unlike some other 12-steppers, I did not feel “bulletproof” when I was finished. Mostly, I was left with a punishing sense of, “What now?” Keep it up? Work the steps? Let go and let God?
If there’s anything I hate about recovery it’s all the aphorisms that are bound up with it. That morning after Step Five, I didn’t want to hear another pithy saying. All I wanted was some iota of hope for the future.
“You have to believe we are magic.”
Sitting in a secluded corner of the Lurie Garden at Millennium Park, I thought about the work before me. I watched the field of flowers in front of me fade into the soft shadows of sunset and asked God to lead me forward.
Even for all the damage I’ve wrought in my life, I happen to love the life I lead. I love my friends. I love those with whom I work. I love my opportunities. I love my viewers. Is it possible I am not merely the sum of my codependent behaviors? Can I finally come to love me, too? Can I finally learn to stop leaning on my past and grow up?
I sat quietly and shared it all with God. I did not expect an answer.
As I got up to leave, someting strange in the Shoulder Hedge caught my attention. Ever since Millennium Park opened, this border row of trees surrounding the Lurie Garden has been criss-crossed with a system of metal trusses. They were there to give support to the newly planted, young saplings, so that they would have a chance to survive the harsh Chicago weather and grow.
It took me awhile to comprehend what I was seeing. My eyes passed across the whole Shoulder Hedge, from end to end. I didn’t know whether to smile or cry.
The supports were gone. Not one was left. I suppose the trees didn’t need them anymore. They had finally grown mature enough to stand on their own.
I couldn’t help but think of the sage words shared by an unexpectedly wise woman from another time:
“You have to believe we are magic, nothin’ can stand in our way.”
I don’t know what the future holds, but from where I stand, maybe I have a shot at home free after all.
I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...
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