A few months ago, a close friend and I were reexamining our relationship in light of her addiction to alcohol and drugs when she decided to join a 12-step group. For nearly two decades we had been friends, and the boundaries were often blurred between us. That built a lifelong bond between us and simultaneously enmeshed us in each other's struggles -- and we wondered how healthy or dysfunctional our friendship had become as a result.
In my role of caring friend -- always serving as a sounding board for her sometimes daily vents -- sometimes quite literally talking her off the ledge -- had I taken on her pain? After throwing her lifeline after lifeline, was I left depleated, burdened and even resentful? And if I was, was this somhow an unhealthy thing for a sister-friend to be doing?
Was I, as they say in 12-step circles, codependent?
Not sure of the answer myself, I began to look into some of the writings on the topic and learned what characteristics deem one codependent.
From the Nat'l Mental Health Assoc.:
* An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others.
• A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to "love" people they can pity and rescue.
• A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time.
• A tendency to become hurt when people don't recognize their efforts.
• An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship; to avoid the feeling of abandonment.
• An extreme need for approval and recognition.
• A sense of guilt when asserting themselves.
• A compelling need to control others.
• Lack of trust in self and/or others.
• Fear of being abandoned or alone.
• Difficulty identifying feelings.
• Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change.
• Problems with intimacy/boundaries.
• Chronic anger.
• Poor communications.
• Difficulty making decisions.
After reading the list, I was sure that she was right -- and that I had, indeed, become co-dependent. For years I had been her touchstone, often supressing my judgements and opinions to cater to her fragile state, putting my own needs in the friendship aside, and sometimes feeling angry and resentful about it, but also a sense of importance because I was so needed in her life.
We decided to get some breathing space and try to change these unhealthy patterns in our friendship, and I embarked on further reading, confident that this unhealty pattern could be broken. But as I read further, there was something just not sitting well with me. As a cradle-Catholic, I had always been taught that we were called to help each other out, bear each other's burdens, sacrafice ourselves for our friends, as Christ modeled for us.
I was stunned by the question that erupted: "Was Christ codependent?"
I wrestled with this question for several weeks, and one day at mass, my pastor read this poem which reasked the questions that swirled around me.
A Prayer to the Pain of Jesus
When crutches were thrown away
did Jesus limp
after the running cripples?
Did his eyes dim
when Bartimaeus saw?
Did life ebb in him
when it flowed in Lazarus?
When lepers leapt in new flesh,
did scales appear
on the back of his hand?
The gospels say
Jesus felt power go out from him
but neglect to say
whether at that moment
pain came in.
Did the Son of God
take on ungrown legs and dead eyes
in the terrifying knowledge
that pain does not go away
only moves on?
John Shea The Hour of the Unexpected Allen Tex.: Thomas More, 1992
While I realize that codependecy as an issue in relationships that struggle with addiction is certainly a real issue, I was preplexed by what I read and saw about codependency that didn't jibe with what I had been raised to believe. I found website after website that proclaimed that the cure for codependency was to divest oneself from the needs of other people and instead become "selfish." Even some well-meaning sites tried to explain the difference between codependence and genuine caring for another person -- positing that only if you give "from a full cup," and are ultimately fulfilled by the giving, is is genuine caring. To give from "an empty cup," or to sacrafice your own needs and desires, would be codependent.
Surely Jesus' death on the cross could be considered "sacraficing your own needs." What then, was I to make of this paradox? Was I to strive to obey the gospel message urging us to love others as we love ourselves, or should I take the advice of the books I was reading and "stop taking care of other people and feeling responsible for helping others solve their problems?"
I'm not sure how the answer finally came to me; I know I asked dozens of people their opinion on the question, I prayed for an answer, I read the gospel, and I continued reading 12-step and self-help literature, as well as an interesting article that seemed to dispel the notion of codependecny being a valid disorder at all. In the end, I decided it all boiled down to a simple question of motivations. If in helping others, you are motivated by a sincere and genuine love for their good, regardless of the personal sacrafice, that can't be a bad or unhealthy thing. Codependency wasn't to be cured by becoming a self-interested narcissist, never putting aside a need or a desire for other people, though this idea is certainly supported by our culture that values the "rugged individual" above all else. But as a Catholic with a penchant for mysticism, I believe that it is an illusion that we are separate, and that truly we are all part of one Body.
My friend and I are talking again, and I'm certain that I was never motivated by anything but unconditional love for her, but as an imperfect person, personal sacrafice is something that we all struggle with and feel conflicted about. Trying to follow the Gospel can lead us to dark places that we don't always want to go, in search of greater light. And I have found, wheter my cup is empty or overflowing, there is nothing more spiritually gratifying than pouring it out in service to others.