Co-Addiction and Co-Dependency

The terms co-addiction and co-dependency are psychological terms and are often used synonymously. The more common terms you might run across are codependency and codependent, rather than co-addiction or co-addict.

Codependency is referred to as an “unhealthy relationship pattern” and is further described as follows:

A psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (typically narcissism or drug addiction); in broader terms, it refers to the dependence on the needs of, or control by, another.

Is the Label Correct?

As you can see it is a fairly broad term. Whether one uses these terms or not, it is evident they are being used to describe certain real phenomena. Labeling someone as a “codependent” or “co-addict” is not necessarily accurate in that we are dealing with a wide range of human emotions and reactivity. An individual could display codependent behavior one day and not the next, or they could demonstrate some of its characteristics but not others. One psychiatric website lists 20 detailed personality traits of a codependent individual.

The first five traits read as follows:

  1. Feel responsible to ensure no conflict, upsets, angry outbursts occur in your key relationships.
  2. Seek to “keep the peace” with little or no thought to your own personal needs, wants, well-being, growth, etc.
  3. Are overly attuned to what others need or “must have” to feel okay or not get upset, yet have little or no awareness of own needs, feelings, wants, boundaries, etc.
  4. Worry about being viewed as “selfish,” “controlling” or “mean” by asking for what you want, doing your own thinking or acting on your own behalf.
  5. Check the moods of key others around the clock, in particular, looking to see if you’re needed to put out “fires” (i.e., anger, upsets, discomfort, etc.).

These traits could also be used to describe behavior and attitudes which are beneficial and even encouraged, such as a mother looking after her children or a person who takes care of his or her spouse. In the case of drug and alcohol dependence however, the story is quite different and can be detrimental to both parties.

How Does Co-Addiction and Codependency Work?

A wife has a husband who is an alcoholic. She sees that it is destroying his life and the family unit, but she does nothing to remedy it. She has long ago given up on fixing the real problem. She is careful to not bring up the subject to her husband; she never “rocks the boat” in other words. His alcoholism gets worse and worse and all she does is prop him up so things look vaguely normal. She is afraid to leave him and she is afraid of making an attempt at changing him. Such scenarios are all too common in cases of addiction.

In the case of children, they are essentially forced into these situations. A child is quite literally dependent upon the mother and the father. When one or both parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol, the child is forced to play along no matter the circumstances. Children in homes like this are at greater risk of substance abuse. They may rebel, run away, or simply accept the situation as a fact of life. In any case it is unhealthy for the child.

The Phenomena of Fixation

An addict will commonly have one or more persons around them who are in effect “fixated” upon them. It could be a spouse or parent or even a friend who could be described as codependent in that they love and wish to support the addict, yet they feel utterly helpless when it comes to the addiction. They do not know what to do about it. They are at the mercy of the addiction much the same as the addict is. True they are not shooting drugs in their veins, but they are in pain in their own way.

To a large degree, this can be remedied when it becomes clear to both parties that the addiction can be dealt with and the addict can get clean and sober. Another common situation is two addicts, or even a group of addicts, who are dependent on one another, use drugs together, etc. A common example of this is people who constantly drink together. Heroin addicts will tend to gravitate toward other heroin addicts. Addiction treatment must address these issues as they can constitute a serious obstacle if ignored.

Intervention and Families

A drug intervention is normally an organized meeting between friends, family and the addict, often with the help of an addiction specialist or interventionist. Any trained and experienced interventionist knows that dealing with the family is often just as urgent as dealing with the addict, as the family could be exacerbating the situation and antagonizing the addict without even realizing it. In the case of what is termed co-addiction, it is not one set of emotions at work, but rather a volatile mix of emotions and attitudes flying about unpredictably. It is thus extremely helpful to have someone on board who is “exterior” to the situation and can take an objective stance, act as mediator, etc.

Confronting Co-Addiction

A person demonstrating addictive behavior will commonly act more and more selfish as their addiction takes hold – with others around them doing nothing, pretending that nothing is wrong, and even actively supporting (enabling) the addiction. The people surrounding an addict could indeed have their own personal issues to deal with. Who doesn’t? But they need some extra help as the situation has gotten too overwhelming for them.

People who behave in a codependent manner are often described as having self-esteem issues which are manifested in their inability to stand up to the addict. They cannot confront the addict or the problem, nor can they communicate properly about it. Evidence exists that some of the same remedies and therapies used for an addict are just as applicable for those connected to an addict, and there are even groups that specialize in this exact field.

Is It the Brain?

In certain psychiatric circles, co-addiction and codependency are discussed in similar terms as addictive behavior, such as the compulsion to engage in actions that create  dopamine or other neurotransmitter release. While that could have some basis in fact, codependency has also been characterized as a disorder or disease of the brain, a statement of obvious concern but little to no merit. In fact, as is the case with numerous other “disorders”, there is no conclusive evidence, no medical test, and no empirical scientific results to indicate any disorder or disease of this kind exists.

Holistic and Evidence-Based Methods

While one could argue incessantly as to the influence of the brain or lack of it, it is abundantly clear that there exists a significant and substantial array of influences and factors when it comes to anyone connected to an addict. The holistic view would indicate that a number of methodologies can be employed to help an addict’s family and friends. We need to look at the big picture. Co-addiction affects many more people than just the addict. Holistic and evidence-based systems exist whereby all can benefit.

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