Time to Walk Away: My Definition of Codependency

by Rodion Kutsaev, from Unsplash
by Rodion Kutsaev, from Unsplash

My mother was too young when she got married. A sergeant in the Marine Corps, far from home, lonely, and twenty-three years old. She was twenty-four when she had me, her first child. Twenty-six when she had her second child. And divorced at Twenty-seven.

I’m thirty now, and cannot imagine having been married – let alone, married, divorced, and the single mother of two young children – by the age of twenty-seven.

But my mother was lonely, and my father was charming in his own way, and he was too young as well – only twenty, in fact. When my brother turned twenty-one, I pointed out that that was the age our dad became a father. “No way in hell,” my brother said. My thoughts precisely.

My parents hate each other, I think. They are certainly incapable of speaking well of each other. Accusations fly on both sides, and I never know who to believe. Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. I imagine the truth lies somewhere in between. They are certainly both very flawed people, whose flaws simply did not mesh well. They just didn’t fit. My dad is a functioning alcoholic, and never the most attentive of people – I cannot tell you how many birthdays he has forgotten, promises he has broken, and so forth. My mother was short-tempered and quick to feel injured or betrayed. They were both too controlling. They simply did not belong together the way some people belong together.

My dad remarried when I was eight, and has been happily married with two new children ever since, so he certainly capable of being a husband. Just not with my mother. My mother has never remarried. She has had a handful of bitterly failed romances since her divorce. She has never been really happy, I fear. And I fear she is simply incapable of living with or without other people for too long. I fear also that I will end up like her. Actually, I fear I have ended up with the worst qualities of both of my parents. But it is my mother who has been my biggest influence, as she raised us alone, with little more than the occasional nod or acknowledgement from my father, and so her life and her choices and her mannerisms have affected me the most.

Some memories of my relationship with my mother burn the strongest. Sadly, most are not pleasant. It is a curse of having depression that no matter how hard I try, the bad memories stay the longest and the loudest years, even decades later. Perhaps that is not my mother’s fault, and it should not color my relationship with her now, but there is only so much I can do to stop myself from feeling the way I feel.

I remember clearly my fifth grade graduation – a silly ceremony, of course, but it meant a lot to me at the time. My father failed to appear to the ceremony, though we all lived in the same city at the time, so I was already feeling sad and abandoned. After the ceremony, all my friends’ parents appeared with flowers and cards for their children. My mother appeared with my little brother in tow, weary and taxed and ready to “just get out of here now.” When we got home, I ate dinner at the coffee table in the living room, with the tv off and the lights dim, because my mother and brother were fighting again – screaming and slamming doors and throwing things they my brother was only seven years old at the time. Several months later, I found an unsigned graduation card in my mother’s desk and asked her if it was for me, and she had simply forgotten to bring it that night. She said no, it was for my cousin who was graduating from high school. Years later, I tried to discuss that night with her. She swears it never happened. I’m remembering wrong. I dreamt it. And how dare I say such horrible things about her when she worked so hard to be a good mother.

I don’t know. I don’t know if I dreamt it. I don’t know if I made it up in my head somehow because I wanted to make my mother the bad guy for some reason. But this is how I remember it. And I remember it clearly. And it has colored my feelings about my mother all my life.

I remember also finding her a sobbing mess on the floor of the kitchen when I was in seventh grade. Her up-and-down relationship with a fellow Marine had blown up in her face spectacularly. When I say she was a mess, I mean this sincerely. I have never yet seen someone melt down the way she did then. (I have no doubt there have been worse, but not within my personal experience.) She screamed and cried, sprawled on the cool surface of the linoleum, tears streaked down her face, her long dark hair plastered to her forehead and cheeks and neck, a fork – I think – still in her hand because she had been preparing dinner. I was twelve years old, but I stood there and hugged her and comforted her and assured her it was all right and he didn’t deserve her anyway.

It was from that moment on, I believe, I became less the child and more the parent.

That isn’t to say my mother didn’t take care of me. Of course she did. She provided for me and my brother. She worked so hard. She supported us in our education and our hobbies. She took my brother to baseball games and me to the ballet. She paid for piano lessons and drum lessons. She made meals and did dishes and laundry. All while working grueling hours as a Marine, and later, when I started high school, as a computer programmer in the private sector.

But emotionally, and sometimes functionally, I was the adult. I never came to her with my problems. To this day, she still does not know about half the things I went through as a teenager. She barely has an understanding of my depression, and she has never (and will never) know about my suicidal tendencies, despite knowing that I am on anti-depressants. I have comforted her through bad break-ups, and being laid off three times, and contentious/stormy relationship with my brother. I have reminded her to pay bills, and from the age of twelve often pretended to be her to call to have utilities turned back on when she forgot. By the time I started high school, I had taken to filling out checks for her and just handing them to her to be signed. When I was fifteen, I took over as the main housecleaner. By the time I was eighteen, I was cooking 90% of the meals in the house.

Because of my depression and anxiety issues though – my inability to drive being the main functional problem – my mother still considers herself the main caretaker to this day. I do everything except drive and pay the bulk of the rent (I pay other bills, but my mother has a better paying job now than I do as a poor adjunct professor), and that is enough of an excuse for my mother to believe she is keeping me afloat, taking care of me, helping the poor little girl who cannot function by herself get by in this cruel world. Never mind how often she borrows money from me, never mind that I do nearly all the household chores, never mind that she has flat-out told me she doesn’t know what she would do if I ever moved out.

And moving out is on my mind all the time. But I fear I can’t. My brother has already moved out, and that has made my mother an emotional, angry, abandoned mess again. For years I have learned that every tiny disagreement, every tiny moment of pulling away to spend time with friends or my father, every tiny moment of tension, is viewed as a moment of immense betrayal and abandonment. And my mother feels entirely betrayed and abandoned by my brother, who has been pulling away emotionally for years and has now moved in with his girlfriend. If I left… I fear to imagine it.

I do not believe my mother would kill herself or anything quite so dramatic. To her, suicide and other coping mechanisms like alcohol are the ultimate sign of weakness, cowardice, and moral decay. But she would make me feel my betrayal every second of every day. She would disown me in one breath and beg me for attention and time in the next. And frankly, I fear should would not be able to take care of herself in the most basic ways if I was gone.

I first heard the word codependency in high school. It was used as a disparaging joke. I don’t remember what exactly the joke was, but I remember looking the word up, and thinking “well, that kind of sounds like me, but not really. We’re not that serious.” A few years later, the concept of codependency had fallen out of favor, considered debunked, or inaccurate, or something. But just recently, my dissertation director recommended I read up on it. She sees it in me and she’s worried, I think. I was surprisingly, weirdly, happy she used to the word. I happy someone else sees it, and I don’t have to shout it from the roof tops and offer all kinds of proof before someone agrees with me. So, this is my acceptance and acknowledgment of the worry. She is right to be worried.

Every word of this fills me with guilt though. I constantly wonder if my image of my mother is too skewed by my own feelings of betrayal and abandonment to be true, or accurate. Can I possibly be fair to her? She has been an amazing mother in so many ways. Nearly all our lives, she raised me and my brother alone. And we never went hungry, we never went unclothed, we had fun, we had hobbies, we had good educations. Neither of us ended up on drugs or in jail, and we both have fulfilling (if not financially successful) careers. She loved us. Unconditionally. Even despite her constant feelings of being abandoned or betrayed. Even despite the constant fighting with my brother (who, I’ll be honest, has given plenty of cause for fighting in various ways).

She has lived through so much. An abusive father, and a mother who loved unevenly. One alcoholic brother. An alcoholic cheating husband. A short marriage and ugly divorce. The sexism and hardship that comes from being a woman in the Marine Corps. A miscarriage. Being a single mother on a very tight budget. Several volatile relationships. Being laid off three times in fifteen years.

She is strong, and brave, and intelligent, and compassionate, and fierce.

And I love her. Dearly.

Another clear early memory is a tradition we had when I was young. From the ages of about four of five, until I was ten or eleven, Friday nights were special. My mother would come home from work, exhausted, but happy to see us. We would push all the furniture in the living room against walls and into corners, we would put on music – mostly 70s and 80s rock, which my mother adored, and which is the staple of my childhood and current music tastes – and we would dance. We would dance around like idiots, giggling and goofy and happy. After a couple hours of that, we would spread a quilt out on the floor, and order pizza, and watch Disney movies into the early morning hours. After Friday we did this. When we were on a tight budget, and couldn’t afford theme parks or restaurants, we had this, and it was glorious.

I love my mother, dearly.

But she has sucked my dry in so many ways. Emotionally, mentally, physically, financially. I have given every ounce of myself to keep her happy and healthy. I have rarely said no. I have almost always thought of her needs first. I have learned to smile and nod when she says horrible things, or does things I disagree with. I have learned not to have an opinion – about what to eat for dinner, what to watch on tv, where to go to school, etc – until I have heard her say “I don’t care, it’s up to you” (and even then I now find it difficult to make decisions). I try my best to keep track of the things that will spark her temper – though some days there is just no knowing. If we are both upset, her sadness trumps my own. If I am angry, I am not allowed to show it, but if she is angry, I just have to understand she might say things she doesn’t really mean. I am terrified of the day she learns I’m bisexual. I am terrified of what she’ll say or do if I finally decide to move out. I am horrified to think of how she’ll behave if I’m ever in a serious relationship and move in with someone like my brother did.

I love my mother dearly. But I don’t know how much I have left. It might be time to walk away.

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