One amazing insight I had while I read Melody Beattie’s new Codependent No More Workbook—a sequel to her 1986 bestseller, Codependent No More, reissued this month by Hazelden’s press—is this: I drank and took drugs to cope with my “feelings” about the unbearable shit I tolerated as the child of an alcoholic family.
Otherwise, I might have killed myself. So, in sense, drugs and alcohol saved me.
Yeah, feelings: read frenzied rage, crippling fear. Flaming. Paralyzing.
I wasn’t abandoned, kidnapped or raped. What happened to me was, as just one example, my mother made me into her therapist and Best Friend. She griped about her unhappiness with her husband (my father) and their nonexistent, or often subpar, sex life. I thought it was my job to listen to it. It made her feel better. … And then, he would come home and start drinking. And she would look at me, knowingly. And I had to keep her secrets.
The whole drama gave me migraines and insomnia and crushing anxiety. Eventually a desire to instantaneously vaporize. I mean there were many moments when all I wanted to do was to stuff my bra with a bomb and set it off. It gave me no hope about the future. That sounds simple and maybe stupid, but think about it. Sixteen years old and NO HOPE.
The next year, I started drinking.
Fortunately, Melody Beattie is back to tell us that those of us who have lived with other people’s addictions are not nuts if we felt like killing ourselves, and then used drugs to manage those “feelings.”
If You Came From Parents Who Were Addicts, How Do You Recover?
Beattie articulates a problem I think faced by many who are trying to recover from both addiction and the consequences of growing up in addictive families. We found out we couldn’t trust our parents—who were the be-all, end-all to us as kids—so how can we trust God/HP/whatever? What kind of “HP” would give us childhoods like that? … She says (or, rather, she quotes others saying) this mistrust can lead those of us who practice both kinds of program to misinterpret what AA says about self-will. When I first started going to meetings for my addiction, I heard this a lot: “Whatever YOU want to do?—probably GOD doesn’t want you to do it. You should do the opposite.” Well, wtf?—I WANTED to be a good mother for my kid and partner for my husband. I WANTED to start supporting myself financially and find work that made me happy.
“AA looked at self-will with disdain and disapproval,” Beattie quotes one person saying, in her chapter on Step 3. “Al-Anon taught me it was essential to trust myself. … Usually what felt right and good to me would be God’s plans for me, not some disobedient flurry of self-will run riot and acting out. What I had a passion to do would be my higher purpose.”
“But how do I know if what I’m doing is my will or God’s will for me?” Beattie herself asks. “Hush,” she answers. “Don’t worry about that now.”
The bottom line for Beattie’s workbook: Here is how to cooperate and communicate with the God of your understanding. Beattie, who has climbed the Chinese mountain-stairs leading to the temples at the top, uses the metaphor of mountain-climbing a lot: climb it one step at a time, and take lots of breaks.
The book is divided into chapters that address the steps of AA and Co-Dependents Anonymous (CODA). They’re chock-full of “activities” and rewritten versions of prayers found in AA’s Big Book. In fact, Beattie has done so much work for the reader that I wonder if someone involved in the writing of this book wasn’t acting out a few codependent compulsions. For example she has a two-page Julia-Cameron-style Step 3 contract that we sign and date. The chapter on Steps 4/5 contains five full pages listing “possible emotions, beliefs, and behaviors,” apparently to help codependent people see themselves more clearly (since we’re so used to looking at other people’s problems). The chapter on Steps 6/7 contains Beattie’s own version of AA’s Seventh Step Prayer—except Beattie’s takes up a page and a half, too long to commit it to memory.
I found myself wanting to see some worksheets or questionnaires designed to get people to think in terms of their own experience and language—as well as some more about sponsorship, which has been helpful to many people. Rather than giving a person fish, it is said, it’s more helpful to teach her to catch them. Beattie does some of both. Her goodwill mission behind all this is clear: Not enough attention has been paid to the recovery of people related to addicts and alcoholics, and she wants to share the paths she’s beaten in the past 30 years through some of life’s more harrowing circumstances. She LOVES the steps because they’ve saved her life more than once. She is here to tell you:
Working the Steps won’t turn you into a robot, an empty shell, or a clone.
“Or a pod-person,” I thought to myself, using the term of a friend of mine who has had an approach-aversion relationship with the steps and the idea of HP for about two years. I’d like to ask her more questions about higher power.
And Beattie intimately understands the weird contortions of over-thinking we addicts-and-children-of-alcoholics (so-called “double winners”) put ourselves through in trying to identify—and trust—the “intuitive thought” provided by HP that the Big Book talks about. For me, one of the most resonant stories she quotes is that of Annie E., a woman who, after her divorce, almost abandoned the business she had energetically built in order to take a 9-to-5 job that would provide health insurance for her kids. “That meant a huge loss,” Annie E. says. “I’d worked so hard. But I had to do what I had to do to take care of my children.”
But then (because Annie E. has been praying and meditating, and working the steps), she has the intuitive thought that, if she prays (i.e., just asks) for guidance, and tries to listen, she’ll find a path through the thorns that were blocking her vision. It’s not just AA, CODA, Al-Anon and other “programs” that teach this; it’s also Buddhism, various meditative and therapeutic practices, and most of the major spiritual traditions of the world. “Why did I think God’s will meant that I couldn’t do what I loved doing?” Annie E. asks. “I realized it was because I believed I was supposed to suffer.” [bells going off in my mind here] She keeps her business, makes enough dough to insure her kids and send them to college, and takes care of herself financially and emotionally.
My Al-Anon sponsor always told me, “This is not a Pollyannish program.” Meaning, I had to Bring It. She’d also ask: “What are you doing to take care of yourself today?”
That’s Beattie’s primary message to those of us who have lived with other people’s addictions: You don’t need someone else to take care of you. You can take care of yourself. And: you can be happy doing it.