Let’s talk about relationships. Human beings are pack animals. We have been since the beginning of our evolution. We thrive by being in a community, we actually can’t survive unless we are in one! It was the key to our survival as a species, without strong relationships with others, we would have died out long ago. The same is true today. We need relationships (and strong, intimate ones at that) in order to grow and thrive and even to survive. Even though we don’t need to pack in order to hunt food anymore, we need others to help us navigate the often treacherous waters of life.
Given that we are inherently “codependent” on each other in order to survive, we have to ask why some providers in the substance use treatment world think of it as a disease?!? Why have they taken the most powerful tool that can influence change, the power of strong and intimate relationships, and villainized them so much?
I was recently listening to a podcast for people in recovery, wanting to keep up with the information that is out there in the world, and the discussion shook me deep down to my soul. The guest stated that codependency is by far the largest addiction in the world. As if that was not bad enough, the hosts couldn’t agree more. They went on to misuse a statistic, stating that for every substance user, there were five people impacted by their use and that each one of them was a codependent person who, as one host put it, “were hangers on” trying to help the addict. Like trying to help someone they cared about was a bad thing!
The suggestions here are clear. People who abuse substances are a doomed class of people who need to be left alone and any attempts by caring significant others to help them are fool’s errands. The desire to help is a sign of a mental illness akin to substance use, the disease of codependency. Embedded in this story is the belief that there is some benefit to the significant other in keeping the substance user using. It blames those who try to maintain connection to someone who is struggling with causing or worsening their struggles.
How did we even get to this point? How did we take a concept that is not a clinical diagnosis (codependency is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM, which is the diagnostic “bible” for all mental health issues) and make it, as the guest said, the largest addiction in the world? Author Maia Szalavitz, who wrote about the history of codependency in her article about why it is an outdated and harmful concept, points out that it was an idea that gained steam in the 1980’s and simply hasn’t gone away. It plays right into the concept that substance users are different from the rest of us, and that any connection we keep to them is clearly a sign that we are part of the problem. It’s a throwback to the old days where substance use disorders are a moral failing.
Codependency is an idea that is both outdated and not based in any science. It has been expanded to mean so many things, that it has can be applied to anything, and at the same time, has lost all its meaning. It’s also dangerous! If being codependent means maintaining a relationship with someone who is struggling and working to try and help them change, then becoming not codependent means leaving that person to struggle on their own. This leads to the rock-bottom myth (that people need to hit rock-bottom in order to change). This myth is not only false, but also dangerous.