What Is Codependents Anonymous?
Codependents Anonymous is a self-help program for people who relate to others dysfunctionally and want to learn a healthier way. It is a 12-step program based on principles that originated through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which provide participants with a roadmap for emotional and spiritual transformation. People at all stages of recovery may attend the group; those with more recovery time tend to reach out to support and mentor those who are new to the program.
It is not uncommon for people who attend Codependents Anonymous to have a person they love struggling with an addiction, since addiction can significantly impact those around them. Some people seek the program because their significant other has recently chosen sobriety and they want to facilitate that recovery journey or be on a similar path themselves; others attend it because they’ve grown up in their own traumatic household or because they realize that their painful relationships with others and their substance abuse issues are linked.
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If any of these scenarios ring true for you, Codependents Anonymous could be right for you. If you are recovering from substance dependence and you have a history of unhealthy, dysfunctional relationships, it is important to work on both issues. True recovery involves more than putting down a drink or quitting drugs; it also involves awareness, growth, healing, and transition. If you struggle with maintaining a healthy relationship or carry emotionally painful messages from the past that impact your self-worth, Codependents Anonymous could be helpful.
The program provides a safe place to talk about your struggles among people who have walked in your shoes. Second, it is a program of anonymity: what is said in the meeting is not discussed outside of the meeting. Knowing that others have had similar experiences and made strides in their recovery can be comforting and encouraging, and the members will share how they achieved these changes.
You’ll be encouraged to listen to other participants as they recount their journey and to find one person whose recovery story resonates with yours, so you can eventually choose the right person to approach to be your sponsor. This is someone who can mentor you and provide direction during difficult times, acting as a steady hand during the rough waters of recovery.1 It should be noted that 12-step groups are not behavioral health or mental health treatment programs, but are rather a group of kindred spirits who come together to help one another.
How Can it Help?
To understand how Codependents Anonymous can help, a deeper understanding of the term codependence is helpful. The term began to draw national attention in the 1980s when the mental health community—particularly those working in addictions—began to realize that the disease of alcoholism impacted friends and family in powerful ways. Therapists in addiction treatment also noticed that sometimes the family was as sick as or sicker than the identified patient. It was this understanding that spurred insight regarding the need to educate and treat those closest to the addicted person.
In a family with a member who suffers from substance abuse, when the addicted person is upset, all the other members are likewise upset. If you think of a family system as being like a decorative mobile hanging over a child’s crib, it is easier to understand how the disease of addiction impacts the entire family. Mobiles hang from the ceiling with each item connected by a wire to the base. It is impossible to disturb one part of the mobile without setting all the other parts in motion. Similarly, in a family with a member who suffers from substance abuse, when the addicted person is upset, all the other members are likewise upset. Also, like the mobile, the affected members are usually tightly bound to the source of their disturbance, regardless of how upsetting it is. Some may even wish to leave, but feel compelled not to.
These are some of the dynamics and personality features that drive people to stay in such painful relationships:2
- They have control issues that spill over into other relationships. The life of the codependent feels out of control, and they may attempt to solve problems by making demands, yelling, screaming, threatening, or pouring alcohol down the drain, for example.
- They may be overly passive, constantly fearful that assertiveness will rock the boat and cause the dysfunctional person to leave.
- They become hyper-vigilant, constantly on high alert and waiting for the next trauma to happen.
- They remain loyal to people who have done little or nothing to earn their loyalty.
The Codependents Anonymous website adds other characteristics, including:2
- A pattern of denial about the person’s addiction or the severity of the problem.
- A pattern of denial about their own participation as an enabler or rescuer.
- A need to rescue, enable, or take care of another person who would be better served by facing their own consequences.
- Suppression of emotions to avoid feeling vulnerable.
- Feelings of worthlessness and a sense of being unlovable.
If you have a spouse who abuse substances or who engages in some form of addictive behavior, you may be at risk of experiencing codependence. Likewise, if you are an adult child of an alcoholic, you may have codependent characteristics. If you grew up in any type of family situation in which one or more parent had a disorder that impaired their ability to be a responsible, nurturing adult, you may be at risk of being codependent.
Substance abuse need not be present to experience codependence. A parent who is unable to provide necessary care to maintain your health and safety puts you at risk. Families in which an adult exhibits some of the following behaviors create increased risk for codependency:2
- Drug or alcohol addiction
- Severe and persistent mental illness
- Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse of children or spouse
- Behavioral addictions, such as to gambling, food, or sex
- Negligence of basic needs, such as safety, housing, and food
Growing up with this kind of parenting puts you at risk, not only for codependence, but for harboring feelings of guilt, depression, shame, and unworthiness, all of which can impact your mental health. In a dysfunctional family, you often learn to stifle your emotions and come to believe that your problems are unimportant compared to that of the dysfunctional family member. You may have been forced to step into the role of a parent at an early age, and in doing so, the idea that you should be seen and not heard and only please others may have become engrained and followed you ever since.
It is not uncommon when you leave the dysfunctional nest to seek a partner who is emotionally impaired. In your first intimate relationship, for instance, you might choose someone who mirrors your dysfunctional parent on some level. Whether the significant other struggles with addiction, behavioral health problems, or domestic violence, you agree to stick with them. In time, you experience the same feelings of abandonment, mistrust, hurt, shame, and guilt that you felt in your family of origin. Then, in your efforts to make things work, you become angry, controlling, or manipulative. At the same time, you may fall into patterns of minimizing your partner’s behavior. You may even enable them to behave negatively by failing to establish healthy boundaries. This can take many forms, such as allowing yourself or your children to be physically abused, or constantly overlooking other negative behaviors such as infidelity, illegal activity, overspending, lying, or job loss.
If drug or alcohol abuse is occurring in a relationship, as a codependent, you may feel a need to be consistently hyper-vigilant. If drug or alcohol abuse is occurring in a relationship, as a codependent, you may feel a need to be consistently hyper-vigilant. Because the substance abuser is out of control, you feel compelled to be overly controlling, which can lead you to become angry and demanding. Yet when the addicted person crashes and burns once again, you may switch to the role of enabler, gathering money to bail out the partner and nursing them back to health.
You may also adopt a rescuer role. If you fear your partner will lose a job, you may call the boss and provide a believable lie, all the while feeling frustrated, fearful, and helpless. The joy of rescuing someone has diminished and transformed into an underlying current of anger and grief.
If the person with the addiction decides to seek help, once again the family system experiences a jolt to its equilibrium. If you as the codependent (or rescuer/enabler) does not join the substance abuser in a quest for health and wholeness, chaos can ensue. People with codependency get their needs met though helping, rescuing, enabling, and feeling needed by the person they love and want to help.
Once sober, there is limited need for these “services.” The recovering person now takes responsibility for their actions and learns to live responsibly. As a result, you may now feel useless, angry, and even disappointed—you no longer know what do to or how to react. You must now walk side-by-side with the recovering person, not dragging them along or pushing from behind, and this is a new and scary role.
The Role of 12-Step Groups in Recovery
Both the codependent and the recovering person are going through major life transitions. Twelve-step groups help you find your way as you travel the path of recovery, providing support, knowledge, and strength to get you through the transformation. They can keep you centered and focused on things that are important and teach you how to avoid codependent thoughts or behaviors.
The need to control and direct others diminishes as you come to accept that the only person you can change is you. You learn how to use the 12 steps to grow spiritually and to accept yourself, and as this happens, you experience a new sense of confidence and a greater understanding of what recovery is really about.
If you have completed treatment for an addiction or for depression related to codependence, part of your aftercare may include attending a 12-step group, where the support becomes invaluable during the crucial time. The 12 steps teach you acceptance, help you become a more spiritual person, and provide a simple step-by-step program that enables you to overcome obstacles to sobriety and learn how to be successful. If you are new to recovery, it is suggested that you combine counseling with a behavioral health professional along with 12-step group attendance. Doing so can be highly beneficial and is often the key to a sustained recovery.