Codependent no more, from Melody Beattie, was one of the first self help books I bought. It has been very, very useful, all these years.
I have read it once again recently and it has stood the test of time. It’s still great, and it is still relevant for survivors of violence. Especially at the beginning of recovery, when we are completely lost.
Strangely enough, it is not about recovery from sexual abuse. Beattie defines it mainly as a consequence of being involved with alcoholics, even if she widens her definition somewhat.
The thing is, I have never been involved with an alcoholic, or any person caught up in a chemical dependency. My family of origin was dangerously dysfonctional, but no trace of alcohol at home.
Still, I could recognize me on each page of this book. This confused me for a while.
Over time, I have understood why. There are many ways to define a codependent, but my take would be: “someone who has no boundaries. ” A direct consequence of sexual violence (possibly all types of violence) is the destruction of our boundaries.
What are boundaries ?
In its simplest form, boundaries are what allows us to say no, and to maintain this refusal to do what we don’t want to do even if pressured. Said like this, it is pretty obvious it will be a problem for survivors, isn’t it? What perpetrators like is precisely ignoring and shattering our boundaries. Sexual violence is a way to invade someone’s body and mind.
Once our boundaries are destroyed, or if they have never had a chance to emerge for people abused early like me, life can be very, very difficult indeed.
Having weak, or absent boundaries means we don’t know where we start and where we finish, where other people start and finish. We are emotional blobs, all over the place. For me, it felt like this :
- Most of the time, I had no idea what I was feeling, what I wanted or what I needed. All I could do what trying to guess.
- I could however, tell you what other people were feeling, needind and wanting. Part of this attention was hypervigilance, one of my speciality. Part of it was projections. Sometimes it was sheer paranoia.
- I was feeling unsettled, uneasy and unsafe if someone around me was experiencing an unpleasant emotion. I had this bizarre compulsion to try to fix their feelings, for example offering unsollicited help or advice.
- I was utterly unable to take care of myself. I’m aware this sentence conjures up images of women having a manicure of spending quality time reading a book. In my case it was more that I was forgetting to eat, to cover myself when cold, in other words very basic self care.
- At the same time, I was constantly trying to take care of the person I was involved with (or wish I had been involved with). Trying to guess his desires, the help he needed, how I could impress him, or whatever.
- Obviously, saying no was horrendously difficult. It was even worse than that: I usually sensed what others wanted and complied before they even asked.
- In a relationship, I was automatically assuming it was my fault if something was not going well. Even if it was obvious for everyone else, I could literally not see if someone was behaving badly. I felt responsible or guilty or their bad behavior. Naturally, this tendency of mine was very handy for anyone wanting to take advantage of me.
It’s as if I had checked out of myself, and focused all my attention and energy on other people. They could agitate me like a puppet, really. I needed alone time after each social interaction, to recover. Being in a group was almost a torture.
Abuse had destroyed my capacity to stand like a separate human being, with emotions, desires, needs of my own. I could not relate to someone without getting lost in him, or her. And I was constantly out of touch with myself.
Of course, it is not the only damage there is a long list of possible consequences of trauma: post traumatic stress disorder, depression, addictions, difficulties in relationships, low self esteem, self sabotage, eating disorders… , we could go on like this for a while, couldn’t we ?
But we need to pay special attention to our boundaries (or absence thereof). First, because it feeds other problems. Of course we are stressed without boundaries: we are unprotected ! Of course it takes a toll on our relationships and our self esteem. We are unable to stand up for ourselves, and can end up being revictimized.
But also because this damage is often invisible. We often don’t even understand what the problem is: we sense that something is wrong but we don’t know what. There is no medical diagnosis. No common sense explanation.
As it is often the case, if we don’t see what the problem is, we can’t solve it. This book helped me to see what was missing.
From there, is it possible to build boundaries later in life ? Absolutely. I’m proof of that. It takes more than a book, of course. For me it took several books, gentle help from therapists, observing others having solid boundaries, and a few very painful, and useful, life lessons.
But it is so worth it. I can say I am now living my life from inside myself. Most of the time, I don’t care about what other people want, feel, or think. If they want me to know, they need to tell me, and I can decide what to do (more often than not: nothing). It is so comfortable.
At this rate, I’ll probably end up like these old ladies who say exactly what they think and do exactly what they want, without any regard for social rules. I’m looking forward to it.