There’s this old Peter Gabriel song that really cracks me open, not only for its beauty and power but because it reminds me of a time in my life that was particularly dark and stormy. I remember listening to it on repeat in my old Honda Accord, driving home on Sunset still drunk on whiskey and coming down from methamphetamine. I had spent the night with an older man at his Hollywood home, a man I had met in outpatient rehab no less. Before I ended up at his place, I was in the valley with my friend Jackie, getting hopelessly hammered and making a complete fool of myself in front of her and her roommates. I was overmedicated with anti-depressants and overweight due to compulsive eating. I regularly drove drunk and often in blackouts. I sometimes cut my arms with razor blades. It was a desperate, depressing, frenzied moment in my life of alcoholism. I was nineteen and hopeless, and I wanted to die. Instead I drank, drugged, and slept with anyone who was willing. Anyway, the song came up on my playlist tonight, and it helped pull me out of the beating myself up spiral and self-judgement loop that crept up on me over the past few days. It reminded me of just how dark it can get for us, just how full of self-hate and despair we can feel, and that the solution is always, above all, compassion. Especially for ourselves. Because look how strong we are, how far we can come.
That was over ten years ago when I drove west on Sunset, and my life has changed dramatically since then, not only in terms of sobriety but also with my level of self-care and self-esteem. I am sober a few years and deeply grateful every day to be free from that hell. I no longer suffer from debilitating depression. I no longer hate myself and want to die. I am, however, still prone to codependence in all of its nasty forms and the character defects that go along with it; namely fear, guilt, judgement, people-pleasing, and self-doubt. I am still highly affected by other people’s behavior and can get very triggered. I often interpret another’s actions as somehow correlated to my actions and worth – for example, if a client expresses the slightest dissatisfaction or micromanages my work because of her own anxiety, I instantly assume it is because I am a failure, made huge, unforgivable mistakes, and will never get it right. I essentially come back to this very old and dark belief: I am in trouble,I am bad, I am worthless.
I am of the belief that codependents are particularly sensitive to those who mirror back to them their false belief system. It’s like how the highly sensitive fall under the spell of narcissists, or love addicts chase the love avoidant: codependents get sucked in by micro-managers who are perfectly comfortable with crossing boundaries and lacking in truly valuing another person’s worth. This has happened recently with a work situation, and even though my gut told me to walk away a couple of months ago for a myriad of reasons, my codependency had me stick it out. It took getting uncomfortable enough to finally make a decision to end the relationship. I’m glad for the process because it offered a valuable learning experience, and I now feel more confident going forward with business decisions. I am of the firm belief that we can really only learn by trial and error. In the midst of feeling fear, self-pity, and anger about the behavior of another, if you’re open to recovery, comes the reality that we are not helpless and can make a choice, even if it takes time. This experience was another reminder that it is my responsibility to stop putting up with inappropriate treatment or behavior, even if in the process my system is screaming in codependent panic. It’s frightening to shift the dynamic of old behaviors. When you’re a chronic people-pleaser, it is downright emotional to stop. Setting boundaries sounds great in theory; in practice, if you’re a real codependent, it can feel like death. It does actually end up being empowering and positive, but it doesn’t feel that way at first.
There is also the reality that I will never arrive at any kind of perfect and protected existence, free from those who challenge me; this recovery stuff is not meant to cure anything or render me an untouchable god – it simply offers support and a little more freedom, serenity, awareness, and authenticity. I still have to interact in the world and will inevitably come to face to face with more triggering realities. Even healthy clients and friends that I love sometimes bother me, and I am sure I sometimes bother them. I am powerless over other people’s behavior, period, but I am not helpless, and I can work with my reactions and choices, even if my thoughts and feelings sometimes take over and try to get the best of me. As the saying goes, “how you’re feeling is not always a reflection of how you’re doing.”
When I made the decision to let this client go and give notice, I felt empowered, but I also had waves of extreme anxiety and guilt. I had a bit of a meltdown that evening and needed to conjure up some self-care and fast. If this sounds like no big deal to you, then you are probably not codependent. If it’s no real emotional thing to quit a job, fire a client, tell a friend how she’s upset you, then you probably had healthier boundaries growing up and are not so fearful to take care of your needs and express yourself honestly and directly. Not so with the people-pleasing codependent. This stuff is downright terrifying and taxing to our internal systems. It inevitably brings cascades of unwarranted guilt and doubt and making the other person a Higher Being. Better than. Capable of harming us and/or ruining our lives. It is exaggerated, sometimes catastrophic thinking, but that truth doesn’t matter in the moment – it feels real and overpowering. I can’t tell you how many times I have wished to be one of those people who could truly not give a fuck and let go of the need to be nice. Because niceness, at the cost of your own sanity and health, is overrated and unnecessary. People are supposed to take care of themselves. I have jokingly told my friends I wish I could be a bit more of a sociopath in my work dealings. Obviously, I don’t really want that – I don’t want to be heartless and cutthroat, and I don’t think I ever could be – but I do wish to grow more in the direction of not beating myself to a bloody pulp over some imagined harm I have done to the other person by taking care of my needs.
So as I sat there in my bedroom writing and reading with this anxious pit in my stomach, the Peter Gabriel song came on, and a whoosh of self-compassion flooded me. I’m OK. I have come so far. I have known suffering and moved through it. I am allowed to be imperfect. I am allowed to be exactly who I am, whether people like it or not. I am doing a really good job. And it lifted. It occurred to me that at every step of this journey, through the ins and outs of getting triggered and setting boundaries and attempting vulnerability and intimacy and feeling angry and overwhelmed and working twelve steps and showing the fuck up to life, above all, compassion. It is not our faults that we are human and have this eight pound lump of matter in our heads that tells us all kinds of frightening tales (the majority of which aren’t real or happening.) And it is not even the lump of matter’s fault that it’s so hyper vigilant – it had to be a long ass time ago in order to encourage survival, and it doesn’t know that we are no longer being chased by snakes and tigers on a regular basis. And so, compassion, and then the eventual passing of feelings. I started to feel better. I got dressed and took myself out to an Al-Anon meeting, north on Sunset into Brentwood. And I listened to that song the whole way.