The idea of being separated from him made me nauseous. I must have been 18. Even though we spent every single night in the same bed, I hadn’t yet moved in. On my 19th birthday, he got so drunk, he came out of my bedroom wearing just a thong. The house was full of people. He stood in the kitchen and poured milk and then honey and then mustard on his head. He was always drunk and I was always with him if I wasn’t in school or at work. He would walk me to class sometimes with his friends, wearing their leather jackets, sipping beers out of brown paper bags in the middle of the afternoon. I did everything for him. I cooked. I sewed his clothes. I cut his hair. I kissed his feet every morning when I left for school while he snoozed. I tried not to talk too much. I still talked more than almost anyone else. The point is I tried. I thought he was so much smarter than me. He thought so too.
Back then, he sometimes worked as a bouncer at a dive bar nearby. I still remember the way the door sounded as it clicked open when he came home in the early morning. Every time, I felt relieved he’d come home at all. I knew he cheated on me when he went on tour or when I went out of town for a few days because I read his emails, but I never told anyone. Later when he yelled at me for being a whore or locked me outside in my underwear, I never told anyone either. Most of the time, I just waited out his drunken rages, reading at a 24/7 coffee and donut place, sneaking quietly back in after he’d passed out.
When I made the move to New York, I tested out saying things like, “I lived with an alcoholic for years” or “My ex was verbally abusive,” the way you might say, “I have an uncle in Toledo.” Turning it into a one-liner felt false. I was lying to myself when I pretended that I’d never been hurt by any of it. But I was lying too, about the way I was complicit. I didn’t have to stay all those years.
In New York, I started sleeping with men who were terribly self-involved and set in their ways. I could tag along in their lives for an afternoon and it’s almost like they didn’t even notice I was there. It’s what I like about New York. You’re surrounded by people who don’t pay any attention to you. I like having my body pressed against other bodies like that. I feel strangled by too much space. I pride myself instead on being able to fit into the budgeted room available, like a bag in an overhead luggage bin on a crowded flight.
A few years went by like that. I wanted more but felt I was too much. I texted one guy compulsively. “Am I being too much?” I think he meant yes when he said no. I drunkenly brought up the word ‘codependency’ with a guy I’d sleep with. I didn’t want that again, I said. But still I had no personal boundaries. I read someone’s emails. I went out of town with another someone, ate every meal together, slept in the same bed every night. I felt physical withdrawal after being apart from lovers. I googled codependency. I thought it was a word for the thing couples do when they’re young and inseparable. Instead, I found 12-step programs for the families and partners of alcoholics and self-help books targeted at women.
It feels really good to identify with something. So good in fact, it’s easy to ignore the parts that don’t apply and just focus on the parts that do. But in the list of characteristics of a co-dependent, there seemed to be enough that fit. “I believe displays of emotions are a sign of weakness.” “I accept sexual attention when I want love.” “I judge harshly what others think, say, or do.” “I suppress my own feelings or needs to avoid feeling vulnerable.” I ordered Robin Norwood’s innocuously titled 1987 bestseller Women Who Love Too Much, mentioned on the codependency wiki page. “The woman who loves too much” became a mantra whispered into my ears by the audiobook performer’s warm, even-toned voice. Full of repetition and commodified messages, the book lulls you, like most self-help books do, into a state somewhere between meditation and indoctrination.
In the mid-80s, codependency came into vogue. Al-Anon, the 12-step recovery program mirroring Alcoholics Anonymous for family members and partners of alcoholics, had been around since 1951, but codependent only started being used as a clinical term in 1983 to describe people married to or the children of alcoholics. All this talk about codependents who enabled addicts came at the same time the Reagans launched “Just Say No,” part of a broader zero tolerance campaign that reduced federal funding for substance abuse treatment. And along with that campaign came the passage of draconian penalties for non-violent drug offenses at the federal and state levels and a dramatic rise in incarceration of drug users.
This was the climate in which Robin Norwood, a marriage and family therapist from Central Coast, California, penned Women Who Love Too Much. It became a phenomenon. Two years after it was first published in 1985, it was still the number-one selling paperback. The book gave rise to recovery groups across the country for women who were “addicted” to men. According to Norwood, the men these women are addicted to aren’t all alcoholics. Some of them are drug addicts or workaholics. One man named Tim was just obsessed with watching sports on TV. But in Norwood’s book, full of clumsy novelistic detail, whatever the man’s addiction, women like Jill “with blond orphan Annie curls” and Lisa “with wide-set green eyes and long, straight dark hair” are junkies for the constant tension, chaos, and rejection relationships with these men provide. They get obsessed with and devote themselves to taking care of partners who are too sick or unavailable to love them back. According to Norwood, the infamous “woman who loves too much” doesn’t want real intimacy anyways. She just wants to feel needed. And distracted. Norwood’s archetypal woman uses stressful relationships like an addict uses a drug—to avoid being still within one’s self.
Suddenly every childhood anecdote, every one-night stand, from hoarding period-stained underpants in a corner of my closet as a tween to taking home that coke dealer with a barbed wire tattoo on his bicep, resonated with Norwood’s message. I’ve never been able to see the Big Dipper no matter how many times people have tried to point it out. I’ve always only seen a bunch of discrete stars. While I’ve done things that I know will make for a good story to tell later, I’ve always had a resistance to telling a grander story of myself. I needed Norwood’s pathology; it comforted me.
That pathologizing’s likely where a lot of Norwood’s backlash came from. A pull quote from a February 1990 Texas Monthly magazine article “The Codependency Conspiracy,” asked in big block letters “Do you crave love and approval? Do you over-eat, watch too much TV, or think about sex all the time? You may be suffering from co-dependency. Then again, you may just be human.” Another 1991 article in New York Magazine, “Recovery Fever,” echoed criticisms of the trending use of “disease modeling” had only been productive for industry’s profits, merely “drum[ming] up business for the recovery movement.” By this time, there wasn’t just Norwood’s book. Melody Beatty’s Codependent No More (1986) and Pia Mellody’s Facing Codependence (1989) had both become bestsellers, and there were codependent gurus touring the country with expensive conferences and workshops. Calling a habit of poor relationship choices an illness makes people with fairly “normal” problems feel like they should fork over lots of money for on-going books, workshops, and therapy sessions from “professionals.” Self-help is big business.
There’s a whole host of factors, some more legitimate than others, why certain behaviors are pathologized—what’s in the DSM one edition, is out the next (although, it’s good to note that codependency has never been included). To what capacity can we label behavioral deviances authentic enough to deserve the title of “disease”? If we label a certain behavior as diseased, do we trivialize “real” illnesses? Is it irresponsible to encourage people to self-aggrandize their poor relationship choices? Frankly, I just find it annoying.
Worse, diagnosing codependency pathologizes caring for others. I don’t think loving in abundance is a disease, and I’m pretty sure Norwood doesn’t think so either. In her book, there’s a selfish streak to the codependent’s strain of selflessness. Their displays of sacrifice and devotion are more for themselves than they are for anyone else. It’s not a question of quantity—as if codependents just care too much. It’s a question of substance. Their caring is careless.
I’ll reluctantly admit—I am my most obnoxious self when there’s no hovering threat of rejection. When I feel accepted, I feel all this space around me and I fill it up with my loudest worst version of myself. I desperately wish I had the internal boundaries—some call it grace—to be kinder and gentler when I have the permission to exist without repercussions, to be loved unconditionally. In relationships, I think I worry that when someone gives me that room to breathe, I’ll prove myself unkind. It’s easier, in a lot of ways, to be hurt than to realize you have the power to hurt other people. Norwood doesn’t say that, but it’s the realization that her book brought me to. Now, I’m trying to get to the place where I talk less, not because my boyfriend thinks I’m stupid, but because I’m actually trying to listen to what someone else is saying.