When Family Members Are Strangers
A few weeks ago in the non-12-step family meeting that I attend, we were doing an activity where we crack open a fortune cookie and talk about what our fortune means to us. The facilitator and another woman had a fortune that said, "An hour with family is better than 10 hours with strangers." When I heard that, I thought that the meaning of that fortune was pretty self-explanatory, but the woman had an interesting twist on it.
She stated that when she spends an hour in meetings with people who can empathize and relate to what she is going through, she is with family and when she is at events with her family of origin she is with strangers because they judge her, demean her, and do not understand her. Her interpretation of her fortune made a light bulb go off in my head.
The People Who Hurt Me the Most
Throughout my adolescence, I used to think I had to be loyal to my extended family because they were "family." I felt like I had to fix my addicted cousin and have him in my life because he was my "cousin." I felt as those genes and titles were contracts of ownership. As I have been burned by one "family" member after another and discovered that many of them were narcissists. sociopaths, and/or simply did not care if I was at the top of my class or riding kangaroos in Australia, I realized that genes and titles were as meaningless as dirt on the ground. My family and I have even had friends who were like family because of the many years they were our friends, and this past year, we were burned by them as well. We learned it is not always people who change, it is just a matter before they show their true colors. Sociopaths are the best at hiding their true colors until you cross them (I'll get into that when I write my post on co-occurring disorders).
That meeting forced me to confront a truth about my addicted cousin: he is a stranger to me. Stranger danger! In fact, he is not even my first cousin; he is my second cousin. The only thing that we share is a deceased great-grandmother from Italy. I did not even know that he existed until I was 10 years-old. When I looked up the definition of "distant cousin," it said that it is someone who "the relationship is too complicated to pinpoint" or "a cousin that is not involved in one's life" (that is when I came to the conclusion that Ancestry DNA tests to find 15th cousins are a huge waste of money and time). Both of those definitions hold true to my relationship with my addicted cousin. There is a joke in the recovery programs that says, "If you're a good codependent, you can tell someone what the addict's favorite food is, but you need to think about it when someone asks you what your favorite food is." I'm severely codependent to my cousin, but I do not even know what his favorite food is. Heck, I cannot even tell you something as basic as his favorite color. I assume it is blue or green because he is a guy and likes the Philadelphia Eagles (and I only know he likes the Eagles because I saw a picture of him and his new girlfriend at a game on Facebook lol). Now I think "Stranger Danger" written across his forehead and I read an anger letter that I wrote to him in the "Negative Notebook" I have for counseling whenever the obsessive thoughts pop into my mind. I learned in my last counseling session that the reason I became addicted to him was because I was using him and his addiction to compensate for the control that I could not have over my alcoholic father. Therefore, I only used him as a scratching post to exfoliate my pain, not because I wanted to help him because I am a super altruistic person.
The Real Definition of Family
I have realized that the people who are truly family are the people who:
For me, those people are my parents, dog (yes, pets are the best family), the people who I am close to in the recovery community (e.g. my sponsor and those in my homegroup who always root for me to do well), and my grandmother, who past away almost 4 years ago. Even though I do not know most of the person in the meetings that I go to, I learn more healthy tools from them than my family of origin.
I have a lot of regrets that my life had become so unmanageable the past eight and a half years over a stranger, who is only my second cousin in name-only and would not care if I lived or died, but I did the best with the tools I had. I have to be gentle and forgiving with myself. I did not choose to become codependent. I did not wake up and say, "Today's a great day to stalk my cousin's Facebook to see what he is doing with his drug lifestyle , drive by his and his drug friends' house, and become educated on addiction to fix him." How I cope with those regrets is I do my best to live here now , work my recovery programs and apply what I am learning in counseling to the best of my ability, and ruminate on the fact that Tennessee Williams' quote, "If you took my demons, you'd take away my angels" is true about my life. Professionals and literature on codependency have said that codependents are the most intelligent, caring, successful, loyal, and hardworking people. The key is we have to learn to be loyal to those who deserve it and not care for others to numb our pain and to the point our lives become unmanageable.
I am a firm believer that "respect is for those who deserve it, not those who demand it." I am not saying to be mean and vindictive towards your estranged family; you can just detach from them as you see fit. For me, that was cutting them off completely. For some people, it can just be not talking about certain subjects with them.
I have learned that every time a group of humans are together, regardless if the reason for the unity is recovery, religion, to work, or to learn, there will be some level of dysfunction. My counselor said in his lectures that "No human connection is perfect." Sometimes, we even end up hurting the people who are our true family. While there is no such thing as a perfect, pain-free relationship, the people who you consider family should be people who benefit you more than hurt you. The greatest thing I have learned is that "two halves should not come together to make a whole in a relationship." When that happens, the relationship becomes enmeshed (codependent). A relationship should me made up of two people who have their own sense of identity and are there to supplement each other (think of two hearts next to each other with some space in the middle for each to breathe). I have learned that communication, trust, and acceptance are key to healthy relationships. People who you can do that with no matter what are your true family.
I It Did Not Happen Overnight
When I was in elementary school, I heard on an identity theft commercial that Facebook users are more likely to be victims of identity theft. I swore that I would never get a Facebook. Right before the end of my 4th grade year, a friend of mine invited me over to her house, and she introduced me to the infamous Facebook. Instead of spending time playing outside, watching movies, or playing board games, I spent the time watching her play Farmville, Petville, and several other old school Facebook games that were popular at the time. I soon discovered that many other kids at school also had Facebook accounts. Eventually, I gave into social pressure and got a Facebook account.
Over the years, Facebook and other social media became more than just a pastime; they became a way of life. When I was in 7th grade, my peers and I came back to school after Christmas break with brand new smartphones. By the time I got into high school, it became impossible for teachers to make students keep their phones off and out of sight during class. People have always said that my generation's problem is cell phone addiction. The truth is it is not the cell phones, internet, or even social media that we are addicted to; we are addicted to each other. Talk about a codependent society (you can read my post here on how social media hurts children from addiction-stricken and dysfunctional families).
After several social media problems that arose over the years that were related to the addiction in my family, I always said that I would not be on any social media if I were not a published author and an addiction recovery advocate. After being ticked off by seeing an intimate picture of my estranged addicted cousin and his new girlfriend on Facebook and a social media-related incident arose in my household, I hit my rock bottom when it came to social media. I realized that social media is merely not necessary and does a lot more harm than good in this world (well, at least in my world). Even though I could not completely go off the grid due to the nature of my work, I could significantly cut down my time on social media and limit my uses of it. The vast majority of my social media access was done from my iPhone apps. I deleted all of the social media apps from my phone, except Pinterest because that is a healthy social media that is about focusing on yourself rather than others. I decided to only use social media for promoting my book and blog and sharing positivity and good news about major life events. While the first several days felt awkward, I soon realized the benefits that came from cutting down my social media use. It was not a decision that was made overnight. I mustered up the courage to do it from much time doing Al-Anon and codependency recovery work.
The Benefits of Deleting My Social Media Apps
Making the Days Count
Last week on September 24th, I turned 19 years-old. While it was the first boring birthday in a while after Sweet Sixteen," I Can Get my License" Seventeen, and "I Am Finally Legal" Eighteen, I still felt it was important. For the past almost nine years, I feel like I have been living on a Before 2010, After 2010 timeline. Being 19 means I will have survived 9 years After 2010 this upcoming January. Almost a decade has gone by since the year my child self has died and who I am now started to develop. They say that "Time can heal anything." My life story can debunk that saying right then and there. An addictions counselor that facilitates a support group that I attend says, "It is not about counting the days; it is about making the days count." For the past nine years, I have not been making the days count in my recovery. I have only been counting the days, expecting to wake up and have the pain magically not hurt anymore. My hopes for the 19th year of my life is through working my programs, searching for answers and applying what I will learn in counseling, and getting more involved in the recovery community, I will make this year count by finally repairing the broken pieces.
A Poem By Me: "Through the Eyes of Codependency: The Addiction Nobody Thinks Of":
They see someone who just does not get it, I still don’t quite get it.
They see a naiive little girl who won’t let go; I want to let go, but I always get pulled back like the waves who only get to touch the edge of the sand.
They see indecisiveness that comes from youth; I haven’t done the necessary identity searching.
They see maturity and intelligence; I did what I had to do to navigate my way.
They see occasional childishness; I learned that I am developmentally arrested.
They see a neurotic female; I feel based on how he is doing.
They see a budding control freak; I just want everyone to be okay and the world to be a safe, peaceful, and just place.
They see a millennial who spends too much time on social media; I’m on the outside looking in on my own family.
They see a drama queen; I need the sky to be falling to feel normal.
They see denial, fantasy, and empty dreams; I’m stuck in an illusion.
They see a spoiled princess who could handle not getting her way; I’m grieving for whom and what I lost.
They see a stalker; I’m trying to know what I’m dealing with so I can help them.
They see boredom and lack of purpose; I feel like I need a fix no matter what.
They see a hypocrite who can only talk a good talk; I’m only human and doing the best that I can with what I can do so far, not what I know or what I can speak about.
They see a moral issue and/or excuse for bad behavior; I am suffering from the addiction that nobody thinks of.
They see an example of the mental health crisis; I know it is a response to a trauma.
They see a codependent; I just see me.
The Life that I Never Imagined is the Life that I Have Now
I was 10 years-old when I first met my addicted cousin Matthew and his girlfriend Alaina (not their real names). I knew that my cousin Matthew suffered from drug addiction and sold drugs to support his habit. At that time, I thought that people who suffered from drug addiction were bad, dangerous, and violent people who belonged to gangs and that drug addicts' girlfriends were strippers and/or prostitutes that dressed in black provocative clothing. As it turns out, my cousin Matthew was superficially nice to me and just looked like the quiet kid next door (though I learned later in life that he was a narcissist). His girlfriend was pretty, wore designer-named clothing, and was attending the community college for nursing even though she used drugs right along with him (looking back, I think she had a co-occurring mental disorder as well). I saw right away that their relationship was unhealthy. Their mother told me that they were going to get married and get their own apartment when they graduated from college, but I never believed that. I always swore that I would never be addicted to drugs like them or a drug addict's girlfriend like her.
Flash forward almost 9 years later...
I am a codependent. Every friendship I had was with someone who was not healthy and did not take their weight in the friendship, so those friendships failed every time. Though I have never been in a romantic relationship due to my focus on school and lack of desire for a relationship and future family, I find bad boys who remind me of my cousin attractive. I will even been transparent and confess that I am romantically attracted to my cousin (mental health professionals told me that is to be expected given the circumstances) and working on changing that.
Now that I am educated about addiction and codependency and have started working on my recovery, I now know that my cousin and his girlfriend were not only addicted to drugs. They were addicted to each other. They were on and off for four years in spite of abuse, control, and cheating issues coming from both parties. It was mostly my cousin's girlfriend who wanted to get back together with him. Even though she had many defects of character and made Joan Crawford look like June Clever when it came to treating children right, she wanted to save my cousin from himself while becoming addicted to drugs and being walked all over in the process.
My cousin and his girlfriend's relationship was not my first exposure to a tumultuous relationship. I came from an alcoholic home and I witnessed other unhealthy relationships in my extended family. My caring personality that stems from being a female and decent person, child of alcohol issues, the fact that I never saw what a healthy romantic relationship, and the wrong tools that our codependent society gave me predisposed me to becoming a codependent. Logically I know what is healthy and not healthy, but my emotions get in the way. The reason I became codependent to my cousin and his family was because I felt a drive to fix them. Before 2010, I thought that we lived in a black and white world where good people did not drink until they were 21, do drugs, or have sex before they were married. I thought that if people were family, they would love and care about you and always be there for you. If anyone did any of what I mentioned above, they were the minority of people who were bad. Going to my cousin's house made me see that the world did not operate that way at all and that evil was more prevalent than I thought. Thankfully, I have grown up and now know that most of the world does not work that way and am thankful that it does not. I could not believe that I had "bad people" in my family, so I had to fix them. As a child of an alcoholic, I also had a lust for chaos and need to control whatever I could. Like any disease, codependency is progressive. It progressed to the point that I could not stop; hence, it took me 9 years to seek the appropriate help.
I used to think that I had to become an addictions counselor and become the next Kristina Wandzilak to Candy Finnegan to give my story a silver lining. The reality is that I already have the silver lining in my story. I have written and published 5 books, started a blog to help others like me, graduated high school with honors and am starting college in January to become a high school English teacher to make the same impact teachers have made on my life, and -best of all- am learning tools to deal with life and relationships that most people never learn in my recovery programs. I would never wish the disease of addiction on any family, but it has been an amazing adventure despite the many storms and bumps in the road. Nobody likes pain, but pain is inevitable for change and growth to happen. I have learned that everybody walks their path and writes their own story. I cannot control another person; I can only control my path and my story. The accomplishment and virtues all come from the worst things that have happened to me and the worst choices that I have made.
The most important lesson that I have learned is just like addiction, codependency does not discriminate, I used to think that because I lived in a two-parent household, was an honor's student who never even got a detention during my 13 years of school, and was educated about addiction and recovery that I would never end up like my cousin's girlfriend ( a codependent). Your nationality, socioeconomic status, religion, education level, grade point average, and family background do not matter. If you end up letting anything (e.g. person, substance, institution, habit, etc.) make your life unmanageable, codependency will come and find you and you will not realize it until the damage has been done. My mother used to always tell me that "Knowledge is power." I used to roll my eyes when she would say that, but now I believe it more than ever. Becoming educated about addiction, the effects of it, and mental health will give you the power to prevent falling into the trap of insanity. It is much easier to prevent a problem than to fix a problem.
Bria Riley is a published author, recovering codependent and adult child of an alcoholic, who is active in several recovery programs. She knows the turmoil and heartbreak of growing up in an addiction-stricken family and wants to help others who have also been affected by addiction through her writing.