Healthy VS. Unhealthy Dependency in Recovery

Linda Wilk, MA, QMHP

One of the hardest things to accept in one’s addiction is the feeling of dependency and all the ways it touches one’s life. The person in early recovery at a treatment center has difficulty facing the many dimensions of this characteristic.

Our culture breeds a craving for independence.  It is as if the words, “I can do this myself” are coded in our genetic makeup. Workplaces talk all about teamwork, but there is always a competitiveness bred into that teamwork that is measuring who will leap into the lead.  Who is the smartest, brightest or quickest at whatever the task is?  No matter what the team project is, we are all aware of how we are being measured against each other and thinking, “Mom always liked you first!”  Real team cooperation is rare.

So we shrink at the idea of asking for help, and we hate the weak part of ourselves that craves a little help with the daily living of our life, that is lonely for companionship and wishes that we didn’t have to go it alone in so much of our lives – our shadow self that seems flimsy and sensitive and fearful that we won’t be able to do it. Dependency?  Not me!

Many comments are heard about this in early recovery at Bridging the Gaps.  Many wishes to be stronger: “I just need more WILLPOWER.  I thought surely I must not be as smart or sharp as others when I was young, because no matter how strongly I tried to apply myself, things didn’t turn out my way.”  People say that as their dependency on alcohol grew stronger, what they felt was a way out at first, but eventually their drug of choice made them weaker and weaker.  They became more and more isolated in an attempt to hide that sense of weakness.  As addictive dependency grew, they felt more and more that to depend on anyone else to conquer this thing would just be to admit how weak they really were.  “Just thinking about this would make me feel humiliated and ashamed.”

To trust others and receive help from them was way beyond anything imaginable.  To quote one client: “I had not trusted anyone or anything beyond myself in years, and I was not about to start now.” 

Heard in a meeting:

Someone talked to me about the RELATIONSHIP I had formed with my drug of choice, alcohol.  I never really looked at it this way.  I really had been in love with that bottle.  No person stood a chance.  I romanced the bottle.  Any other relationships were about securing money to get back to my love, my alcohol.  Until the day of that talk, I never really thought about Jack Daniels as my love, but he was.  I would live or die for him.  I hadn’t had any other serious relationship but him for about 8 years before I quit him either.

Without that awareness, I never could have left him.  Because I had to form new relationships, break that false trust I had in him.  He was an abusive boyfriend.  He would make promises to me he couldn’t keep.  He would beat me up, make me do things I didn’t want to do, then leave me places I couldn’t even remember going.  I was unable to have a relationship with my family, my friends, anyone at my job, my school – anyone – because I had to have him, every day, or I felt I was going to die.

Once I broke that dependence, I was lost.  I didn’t know what to do without Jack.  Luckily, I had met some folks who recommended I go to 12 step meetings.  They were like a substitute addiction for a time.  Whenever I felt like picking up Jack, I went to a meeting and talked with the people there.  They understood.  Surprisingly, the feeling of wanting to see Jack would go away, if only for a while.  I didn’t have to go through the pain and the punishment of seeing him.  These people were a lot nicer than him and they made me feel good.  I didn’t feel like I was being dependent, I just felt like I was having a good time with friends.

They had some good suggestions, too.  Because they could relate to me and had been through some of the things I had been through, they could advise me on how to live my life differently; how not to make the same mistakes I made in my addictive days.  Even in recovery, I almost fell back into it as I started to date.  I learned about something called CODEPENDENCY – that I can be addictively involved with another human being.  There is a difference between healthy dependency or interdependency and unhealthy dependency. Luckily, I learned that the 12 steps could be applied to relationships as well.

It’s the same no matter what the drug of choice.  Addiction became the sole love and barred people from anything but unhealthy dependencies no matter how they thought we loved home or family. By the time most entered treatment, their closest people had abandoned them, knowing they couldn’t compete.

It takes time, patience and good counseling to rebuild communication skills and family structure.  The 12 step programs help members to take stock of what they have lost, what they are working toward, and what values they want in moving forward in healthy relationships.

Only in healthy interdependency, do people learn that it is a good thing to work as a team to support each other.  Everyone wins when this is the case.  It’s a terrific feeling when helping one another to be successful and giving up the idea that there can only be one winner in a game.  When meeting one’s own needs first, then learning to support others as well, everyone feels great!   Getting better at asking for help and better at complimenting people on their gifts instead of just envying them is rewarding work.  Imagine going up to people who have a skill you wish you had and saying, “Hey could you teach me that?”

What a way to connect with others!  You will never be at a loss of things to talk to people about.  People love to talk about themselves, and you may learn that you love learning new things.  Life is never boring, when you stop judging others, and started listening and looking for where you can be of service to each other. It turns out that depending on others in a healthy way can open doors to building a network of recovery friends, a toolbox of treasured skills, and a lifetime of clean time and sobriety!

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