This essay was first published in Reverie in 2011. It seems relevant to share again because people have been coming to me asking about how to release fear, anxiety, and conditions learned from childhood.
When I first met my now former neighbor in 2009 she seemed nice and unassuming. After getting settled into my upstate New York apartment, she started to reveal who she really was. She told me about her different problems with addiction and I could see how her anxiety controlled her. She told me that she liked how independent I was and was adopting me as her big sister to help her get to a more positive place.
In this relationship, I was helpful but grew tired of always being the one to pour the strength into her. I became belligerent with her because I didn’t feel that it was my responsibility to rescue her from her misery. It had been years since I felt that kind of anger.
That experience made me reflect on the many times before when friends, family and potential romantic partners like her asked me directly to take care of them, to make things right.
In some ways I did help but always grew tired of doing so. Some hashed out when I didn’t give them what they wanted. The thing that I realized about these relationships is that they have always been with people who had experienced some kind of addiction.
Soon after the incident with my neighbor I spoke to a long-time friend and we walked about my problem from a spiritual perspective. I learned that we attract people based on where we are in our development. We get caught up in a cycle, meeting the same type of people because we haven’t worked through our own issues. To understand addiction better, I realized that these were co-dependent relationships. I could spot someone needing help and I rushed in. I knew that I had to heal myself in order to end this cycle.
In the book Love Is a Choice, Robert Hemfelt explains that a co-dependent relationship is where one person depends on another person or thing. The other person, the enabler, in the relationship accepts as much of the guild and responsibility of the co-dependent person. The enabler makes excuses and maintains lies so that the co-dependent can continue with their behavior. I’ve been an enabler. Specifically, I rescue people that are hurting.
When I looked back to where it began I could see that I’ve been trying to rescue my mom. Her unhappiness has been marred by her own pill and alcohol addiction, which was hidden from me until I was in high school. As I’d learn years later, my mother had also hidden my grandfather’s alcoholism from me as well. My mom was caught in her own cycle. Since I’d been a child, she’d wanted me to make her life right. It took me years to see it. Finally, almost 13 years ago, I stopped taking responsibility for her, but my cycle with other hurting souls continued. Since I could not make it right with other hurting souls continued. Since I could not make it right with her, I’ve tried blindly with everyone else. Predictably, it’s been exhausting.
Now that I have a better understanding of co-dependency and been healing myself, my relationships have changed. I don’t avoid people experiencing co-dependency, but I’ve been more comfortable in saying “no” to rescuing them. I limit how I socialize with them to maintain a boundary between enabling and helping. It gives me more room to put my own priorities first, to grow in a different direction.
Rather than be happy for my newfound happiness, my former friends have labeled me as anti-social. I understand their reaction, but I do not succumb to their yearning. They do not recognize that I cannot have the same relationship with them as I did before I understand why I was hurting. Our relationship “worked” because we were reflective of each other.
Maintaining these boundaries is not easy. Out of loneliness I was initially tempted into previous patterns. Remembering the pain and having a better understanding of the dynamics of past relationships helped me turn inward. Being alone allowed me to reflect on parts of my life that I ignored. I’ve also re-evaluated my values and what I want in terms of a friendship. In this process, I stopped putting being an artist on the back burner. As a result, I started meeting people who are loving and creative. I ask more questions of men who want my attention. My life feels completely different.
I sometimes find myself reflecting on the differences between now and when I was in an unhealthy place. It has been a time for me to work through other unresolved issues in a healthier way. Interestingly enough, I’ve been able to address my past and channel my emotions into creative endeavors. It’s been amazing to see that a tiny tantrum with my neighbor helped me to see that I hadn’t completely taken care of my issue with being an enabler. I’m better for it.