Before scrolling down to this post, please note: a new draft up at my other blog, La Parola Vivace, where my poems are far easier to post and read: Annunciation. This is a poem I wrote over the weekend in response to a challenge. Do stop and leave a comment! There is other recent work below that post. Thanks! J the Bloggess)
In a dysfunctional family system the parents and children cling to each other like drowning sailors, bound to each other through guilt and shame. A codependent couple holds each other together. If one leaves or dies the other might not make it.
This was the case with my parents, two worthy people who found each other in the midst of World War II. The cultural climate of fear and uncertainty, the forced separations of war would have made it much easier to hold on desperately, both unaware of and in denial about the true nature of a given relationship.
Last night I renewed my research into this illness, looking at it all through the dynamics passed to me and to my brother. My mother was enmeshed with her father until she was in her mid-twenties. I was enmeshed with mine until his death, supplanting him from time to time with men who themselves either had the cardinal co-dependent trait of needing to be needed, or who themselves had been enmeshed with their mothers.
Enmeshment is a powerful word. When I visualize it I see two octopuses–octopii?– with their tentacles intertwined. I once attempted to deliver triplet pygmy goats; when I reached in I encountered a tangle of legs, no idea of which legs belonged to which head and body. Thankfully a neighbor came to the rescue in that instance and in short order there were three tiny white jackrabbits bolting around their mother in our shed.
Wikipedia has an interesting discussion of co-dependency, although the article asserts that it is not an illness. I disagree! I believe there is absolutely a discernible pathology underlying the behavior of a co-dependent person.
I watched my parents go down hill expressly because of their need for each other. Their marriage began as the union between two talented and brilliant people, and it ended with my mother dying of a heart attack in a beauty shop a year after my father died. Over the years my mother went from being strong and whole, attempting to outgrow the dynamics of her own childhood, to melting into the armchair in their study where after his retirement my father made her his project and mission.
This all went beyond marital devotion to a terrible and terrifying extreme; I would come home from Minnesota where I was teaching to find them drowning in dust and disarray, neither one able to break free or take control. It is absolutely possible to rely on externals– a person, drugs, alcohol, even a given place, for one’s security– I know this, as it’s happened to me too many times to count.
Codependency stunts growth; a child enmeshed with a parent cannot grow, and remains a child. If that parent dies or leaves or is taken away, there is a grown child trying to make it in a world for adults.
We who suffer with this illness need to connect in healthy ways to those in our communities so that our needs for closeness are spread around and we are not dependent on any one person to bail us out of sadness, loneliness, or bearing up under the hard things.
It’s also a really good idea to get in touch with our true needs, and take the time to get to know people before jump-starting an intimacy. The minute two people fall into bed, the whole relationship is colored by sex. Sex can feel like love, when it’s really need and an unspoken contract: I’ll trim your horns if you’ll protect me.
I believe that healing is possible. May those of us who suffer with the aforementioned take heart, rely upon our creative work to reinforce our independence, and support one another’s recovery!