“The new Tesla goes from 0 to 100 in 2.5 seconds. The only thing faster than that is a co-dependent who goes from 0 to “dead-in-a-ditch” in one second flat!”
Felix Vikhman (paraphrase)
Addiction impacts every member of a household, from the oldest members of the family to infants, toddlers and teens. When someone in your home has a drug, alcohol or process addiction, every generation feels the consequences, and everyone needs help dealing with these devastating effects. I am achingly reminded of this every Tuesday evening where I have been sitting in as a co-facilitator of the JACS Concerned Persons Group, a weekly meeting of those who are concerned about the addiction of a loved one. The emotion that is common to the members of most addict’s families is anxiety.
“Anxiety can be defined as the response of an organism to a threat, real or imagined. It is a process that, in some form, is present in all living things.”
Kerr, Bowen 1988
Anxiety is an organism’s response to a real or imagined threat. All living things experience anxiety in some form. In Family Systems Theory, anxiety is used interchangeably with the term emotional reactivity. Both terms indicate an increase in physical manifestations, such as heart rate and blood pressure changes, gaze aversion, fight or flight responses, and heightened alertness or fear sensations.
One of the least helpful responses to anxiety in a family is enmeshment. Enmeshment describes a relationship between two or more people in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear. This often happens on an emotional level in which two people “feel” each other’s emotions, or when one person becomes emotionally escalated and the other family member does as well. An example of this might be when a teenager gets anxious and depressed and their parent, in turn, gets anxious and depressed. When they are enmeshed, the parent does not separate their own emotional experience from that of their child, even though they both may state that they have clear personal boundaries with each other.
Another name for enmeshment is codependency.
Codependency is an unhealthy form of love. It is where “my need to take care of you” compromises or harms my quality of life. Although it’s usually seen in romantic partnerships, it does also occur in any relationship, including friends, peers, and especially families.
Characteristics of codependency include:
- I feel good about myself when you like and approve of me.
- Your problems and concerns disturb my peace of mind.
- A lot of my mental energy is focused on helping and rescuing you (either solving your problems or relieving your pain).
- A lot of my mental energy is diverted into protecting you.
- I spend a lot of time and energy trying to get you to do it my way (ie. being manipulative).
- My self-esteem is boosted by solving your problems, or helping to relieve your pain.
- I set aside my own interests, hobbies, and goals as I’d rather spend my time doing what interests you.
- I feel how you look, how you behave, and what you achieve (or do not achieve) reflects on me – and is a judgment of me.
- I’ve lost touch with my independent feelings as I’m totally consumed with how you feel, and how your feelings are changing.
- I don’t really know what I want any more – as I’m so wrapped up in you, and what you want.
- I live in a constant state of anxiety.
Codependents always “go to 11!”
Though a certain level of anxiety may mobilize necessary responses for human survival, some reactions to threat may not be adaptive, or become maladaptive over time. According to Family Systems Theory, there are two overarching types of anxiety: Acute and Chronic.
That uneasy feeling you get when a car whizzes by and narrowly avoids hitting you is an example of acute anxiety. It’s the acute anxiety that prompted you to jump back out of harm’s way. It’s a good kind of anxiety; a naturally occurring alarm in your body that lets you know you are in danger. When the stressor ends (the car speeds off and you realize you’re safe) so does the acute anxiety.
Unlike the causes of acute anxiety, chronic anxiety is primarily generated within relationships. According to Kerr and Bowen, “Acute anxiety is fed by fear of what is; chronic anxiety is fed by fear of what might be.” Worry, which is almost always about what might be, can be one clue to how much chronic anxiety a person is dealing with.
Chronic anxiety is the state a co-dependent inhabits. Anxiety affects all of us. It is a very uncomfortable experience that all of us desperately try to avoid, and while we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us. Being enmeshed with an addict means that we are on the perpetual rollercoaster of “what if “ and “what might be.”
Here are some tools that can help you manage anxiety:
- We welcome good moods naturally. Bad moods are harder. Bad moods are teachers and we have to learn to welcome them so we can learn from them.
- In order to welcome a mood, you have to separate the mood from the story of the mood.
- If you feel anxious wonder “how can I welcome anxiety?”
- The unwelcoming attitude is thinking, “I am anxious because…”
- The welcoming attitude is thinking… “I am fine, wonderful, perfect, but I am feeling anxious now.”
- When you recognize that your anxiety is not going to carry you away, you can lean into it.
- If you meditate, then meditate with it. If you don’t meditate, you can still sit and feel where the anxiety rests in your body. You can focus on that place and breathe. If you find yourself thinking about why you are anxious, then recognize your thoughts and return your focus to your feeling of anxiety. You can also do this lying down, or in a bath, or in the car. You will feel your anxiety recede, and you will be left with the understanding that you are fine.
- Remember, things don’t happen to you, they happen for you. Ask yourself, “how is this helping me?”
When the anxiety comes back, as it always does, welcome it, and learn from it again.
“Everything under heaven is a sacred vessel and cannot be controlled. Trying to control leads to ruin. Trying to grasp, we lose. Allow your life to unfold naturally. Know that it too is a vessel of perfection. Just as you breathe in and breathe out, there is a time for being ahead and a time for being behind; a time for being in motion and a time for being at rest; a time for being vigorous and a time for being exhausted; a time for being safe and a time for being in danger.”