How to experience relationships, confidently and peacefully, has been at the core of my writing since my first book, Each Day a New Beginning: Daily Meditations for Women, was published in 1982. It makes sense when one considers my history: I was the third child in a family of four children with an angry, chronically depressed dad and a very sad, uncertain mother. I never knew where I stood with them so I was imprinted to carry that uncertainty, which gave rise to my codependency, into all my relationships from childhood on. I have said on many occasions, in fact, that I was no doubt born carrying the codependent gene and it made my reliance on alcohol a natural solution.
Codependency has a way of tearing at the very soul of a person; of a society too, I think. Not being able to look in the mirror and be at ease is a heavy, very sad burden, one that affects every event, every encounter in a person’s life. And it’s a burden carried by millions of people, perhaps billions of people worldwide, if the number of self-help books translated into foreign languages is any indicator.
My life began to change, as so many lives are triggered to change, by a passage I read in a book 40 years ago. I still pay homage to the author of that book: John Powell, a Jesuit priest. The book was, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? I have shared this story in other places but it’s worth retelling:
Powell was walking down a New York city street with a journalist friend. His friend bought a paper from a vendor who was rude. This was a pattern that was repeated many times in their morning strolls. Finally Powell asked his friend why he was so nice to a man who was so rude and he said, “Why should I let him decide what kind of day I’m going to have?”
Those words stopped me in my tracks. That had been the story of my life. From childhood on, others had determined how I felt, how I acted, how I saw myself. My life was in the constant control of others, even though most people were generally oblivious to my pandering. However, I knew from the moment I read that passage that I wanted to be different, but the change was yet a few years away. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let me digress for a moment.
During high school my obsession with the behavior of others gained a stranglehold on me that wasn’t fully released until a few years into my recovery from addiction. Even though I recalled Powell’s words often and knew they “called my name,” I couldn’t shake loose from my obsession with others. What they were doing, how they were experiencing their lives and perceiving me in those lives, claimed my near constant attention. I honestly had no life of my own. Your life was at the very core of mine. It was around your life that I danced, hoping to change it, of course, so I’d feel more secure. And nothing really changed for more than two decades.
When I think back to those early days, I know I had never considered there could be any other way to live. I certainly never discussed how I was feeling with friends. I was ashamed to let them know how I felt in case they didn’t share my feelings. I quite simply lived in a state of perpetual anxiety about what others might be thinking.
At the age of 13, at a family party, I had quite secretly taken my first drink and the warmth, the glow I got from it gave me a sense of hope that my life could change. And change it did. I didn’t become a daily drinker until college years. I did manage in high school to drink occasionally and always loved how alcohol allowed me to feel “like every one else.” Or how I thought they felt. But the many long days where alcohol was absent triggered my anxiety to a fever pitch.
It’s amazing, really, that we can tolerate such discomfort for years without really understanding how to make it change. I didn’t know I had another choice, one far different from the drinking life I so easily became addicted to. I sought to be with people who drank like me, ignored me in the ways I had grown accustomed to, and then allowed me to dance as fast as I could around them. How tragic and yet, it was from the ashes of that life, that I have come to see a new way to live, and my experience has enabled me to help others see a new way too.
And that brings me back to the work I feel I have been called to do, work that has consumed me in joyous ways since that first book was published in 1982. I’d love to be able to say that since the publication of that first book I was “cured” of my need for affirmation from others. But that would be a lie. My codependency wasn’t alleviated by the writing of that book. Nor the next few books either, but rather with the commitment I made many years ago to being a “double winner.” Being a steady Al-Anon and AA member, I have progressively gotten better. I am still getting better but it has been the result of the many wonderful people I have met over the last 35 years. From them I have learned. And it’s what I have learned that I pass on to others.
I hail my first Al-Anon meeting as the trigger for change that I was waiting for. Reading Powell’s book three years earlier couldn’t quite get me there; I wasn’t ready, as they say. But in that first Al-Anon meeting I heard men and women laughing and discussing experiences that mirrored my own, but they were not being destroyed by them. They had gleaned a perspective that I knew from the very start I wanted too. The year was 1974. The place was Minneapolis. And I was finally ready to embark on a new way of life. It would be nice to be able to say, “and the rest is history.” But I still had a lot of changing to do. My codependency was a long time in the making, and my alcoholism too. And there are no quick fixes. Thank goodness, there are no quick fixes. Had that been the case, I would have wandered off before that miracle happened. And for me, the miracle has been unfolding over this 35 year span. One tiny one at a time. One day at a time.
Because I was a slow learner and because I have loved to write ever since I was a school girl, I have been blessed with the yearning to write the books that have helped keep me on track. I can’t honestly say I was thinking all that much about the potential reader each time I undertook a new book. I have generally written from a rather selfish perspective, actually, passages that helped me maintain my sanity and peace of mind. If there is one thing I clamor for more than any thing else it’s peace of mind. I find it when I’m writing. When I’m in a meeting. When I’m sharing at a workshop, or meeting new people, or giving a talk. And for those reasons I simply keep doing what I have always done since the publication of that first book.
As I said earlier in this article, relationships have both intrigued me and troubled me my entire life. When I reflect on the decades before coming into recovery and the decades since, I can see a very intentional pattern to my life. I think we all have very intentional lives. What we do with them is where the joy and the mystery intertwine. I eluded to being “called” to do the work I have done as a writer and speaker, and I don’t say that lightly. I love the awareness that this is true. And when I think about the specific work I have done related to codependency and relationships, I know it’s because of my own vulnerability in both areas, areas that go hand-in-hand.
I explored the topic of codependency in A Life Of My Own, a daily meditation book that was published by Hazelden a couple of decades ago and in Worthy of Love. I have returned to the topic throughout my writing because I lived it so close to the bone. But it wasn’t until Codependence and The Power of Detachment that I devoted every passage, in some way, to that ever so familiar and oftentimes debilitating syndrome. But there is a way to break free from codependence and it’s by practicing the principles one learns in Al-Anon; principles that remind us that we can detach with love, we can let go of our loved ones; their behavior, their perceptions of us, their opinions. We can let others behave how ever they want, knowing those behaviors and those people don’t define us. And we can refuse to join every argument we are invited to. Choosing to say nothing can be the best, most loving choice many of us can make in a day.
Coming to believe that every person has his or her own specific, very intentional journey, supports the letting go process. Learning, as I finally did, that every one’s actions are about them, not me, released me from a prison I had shut myself in decades ago, a prison overcrowded I might add. Had I known in 1971 when I read John Powell’s book that the behavior of others was truly about them and never me, my life would have looked far different. And yet, I cherish the knowledge that my life unfolded as it did because I had special work to do, work that was part of God’s plan for me.
Detachment promises quiet contentment
Choosing contentment over agitation seems like a simple choice. But it apparently isn’t for many of us. All we have to do is take a brief inventory of the many encounters we had yesterday. How many of them were peaceful? Did we take “the high road” very often? Were a few of them riddled with words or actions that embarrass us in retrospect?
Were there some regret, yet today? It’s been my experience that the encounters that are not peaceful fall into two categories: there are those that are the direct result of my trying to make sure some thing that is not my business, my business. In other words, trying to control that which is not mine to control. And the other category can best be described as letting some one else’s behavior determine how I feel about myself. This is a cesspool. And I have wallowed in it far too many times.
Fortunately, I am learning to make better choices. I can walk away, now. Most of the time. How about you?
The first few times we make the choice “to be peaceful rather than right,” feels like denial. But it will become the preferred choice with practice. Give it a try today.
In closing, honestly, I am dumbstruck and ever so grateful that so much in my life has changed, and that these words reflect the woman I am now. They could not have been written by me prior to finding freedom from my addictions. How blessed I feel for the changes I have been privy to in my life. How grateful I am to have heard “the call.” And to have been willing to answer it. Hopefully you feel the same way about the life you have been called to live as well. It is divine. I assure you.
Karen Casey, Ph.D. writes at womens-spirituality.com.
This article first appeared in the August/September 2010 issue of the newspaper.
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