The Addiction To Helping Addicts
– also called codependency –
Once a middle-aged woman came to me with a request to perform a wedding for her. It would be her third marriage. The first two marriages were disasters. Both husbands were alcoholics. What about the third husband-to-be? You guessed it. He also was an alcoholic. Apparently this woman had an addiction of her own, an addiction to helping addicts. Experts in the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse have come to realize that it is
impossible to treat effectively the person dependent upon the drug without involving persons close to him or her, especially the person who serve in what counselors call the role of the co-dependent. The co-dependent is that person, usually a very close member of the family such as a spouse or a parent, who is most concerned about and most deeply involved with the addict. Usually the co-dependent reacts in one of two ways to the addict. First, the co-dependent may excuse and cover up the irresponsible addictive behavior, for example by telling the addict’s employer that he or she is sick in order to cover for a severe hangover. Second, the co-dependent will try to reform or “save” the addict. This involves everything from encouragement to remain sober, to exhortation, and nagging to stop the alcohol or drug use.
One person is dependent upon a drug. His or her life revolves around the drug and the need to consume it. The co-dependent begins to focus his or her life totally upon the addict. The addict’s behavior becomes the purpose for living for the co-dependent. The co-dependent becomes dependent upon the addict for his or her purpose and function in life. The co-dependent becomes “addicted” to helping the addict.
As a counselor I have also noted this addictive behavior outside of relationships where one person is drug or alcohol dependent. Instead of consuming alcohol or some other drug in an irresponsible fashion the “addict” will manifest another problem behavior. He may have trouble keeping a job. Or she may be very irresponsible with the use of money. In these cases, even where there is no mind altering drug, the irresponsible or under-functioning person finds himself or herself in a relationship with someone, who becomes addicted to helping them with their problem.
Often the co-dependent will show up in the counselor’s office before the drug dependent or otherwise irresponsible “problem” person. And not without reason, for all co-dependents have a very unhappy and frustrating life. But their problem is not the irresponsible, “problem” person to whom they are hooked. Their problem, the problem which they need to address, is their inner compulsion to be helpful.
The co-dependent’s real need is not a sober or responsible family member but freedom from the compulsion to help an addict. That usually means coming to realize the inner dynamics of their behavior. Such “helpers” often use a relationship with a “weak,” “sick,” or “irresponsible” person to satisfy their own need to control an intimate relationship. The co-dependent needs to feel one-up, to feel that they are in charge. This over- responsible, controlling behavior often hides an inner child, who is lonely and desperately in need of attention and affirmation.
The co-dependent is seldom aware of and would feel extremely uncomfortable with this deep inner need to be taken care of. Thus, instead of developing a relationship with a person who is strong and responsible, the co-dependent’s own psychological neediness is obscured by finding someone greatly in need of help.The co-dependent is truly addicted to helping. The first step toward freedom is to acknowledge the compulsion to help. The second step is to make a decision to work on oneself instead of the addict or an otherwise irresponsible person, who has heretofore been the focus of concern.
Dr. Bob at Central Counseling has extensive experience in helping all kinds of addicts, both those addicted to drugs or alcohol and those who are addicted to helping them. Call (727) 362-8699 for help, help for yourself if you are co-dependent.