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Codependency or DSS, By Any Name It’s Treatable

A lawyer comes in to talk recently. He expresses that he is burned-out with the profession. It is hard to come into work: he hates returning calls. His relation with his spouse is poor and his child is acting out in school by skipping classes and smoking pot. All of these are signs of possible addiction issues as well as depression (of course most alcoholics and addicts are depressed too).

But as the conversation develops, it appears that in addition to the depression or addiction something more is going on. There is an inner war in this lawyer. Part of him is trying as best he can to get the approval of his clients and firm, to feel at home in the profession. He would like his profession to be a safe place, but he grew up in a home with an alcoholic parent and he is still struggling to find a sense of security he never had as a child. As a child, he and the rest of the family tried to please his alcoholic ­­­­father. His mother always served dinner after dad had had a couple of stiff drinks, but before he got too drunk. Everyone tiptoed, literally and figuratively around dad. The lawyer never had a meaningful emotional connection with his father and tried, in lieu of that, to win his father’s approval by doing well in school. The lawyer succeeded well in college and law school but these external achievements never compensated for the missed father connection.

After law school, the son realized he was drinking heavily and immediately gave up alcohol because he didn’t want to be like his father. The alcohol had done a good job of masking the underlying irritability and discontent the lawyer felt. Without alcohol, he tried to avoid these feelings by simply moving on to accomplish the next thing on his list of things a legal career should have (or at least he thought it should have) in order to feel okay.

In a war, soldiers see friends killed or kill other human beings and to bear this experience shut down emotionally. There is trauma due to the events themselves, and there is the trauma due to the necessity of denying the emotional impact of events.

Just as we have learned that the insidious thing about stress is not the stress itself, but the body’s reaction to stress, with trauma the danger is similar. The emotional event itself is often not as serious a health hazard as the body’s response of numbing feeling over a long period to deny the trauma. The unresolved emotions that are cut off eventually surface in new ways which produce trauma induced anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, inability to have healthy relationships, depression, etc.

What is in a name? When it comes to a disease, the answer is a lot.

Call it diabetes or call it emphysema and the mind immediately conjures up images of stark medical need.

Call an illness Codependency and the mind not only conjures up no image of stark medical need, but the mind doesn’t even understand the term. A more accurate term perhaps is Delayed Stress Syndrome. Still this term does not offer much insight into the nature of this disorder.

Like diabetes or emphysema, Codependency or Delayed Stress Syndrome (D.S.S.) is a disease in which the patient’s conduct and milieu may play a significant part in making the body susceptible to the disease. Stress and poor dietary habits may lead to some types of diabetes; smoking may lead to emphysema; and stress, culturally encouraged ways of rewarding behavior and dysfunctional family patterns may lead to D.S.S. Like diabetes and emphysema, D.S.S. is, unless treated, a progressive and chronic condition that leads to crippling lives and often death.

When we grow up in families where alcoholism exists, or where parents grew up in alcoholism and simply brought with them their old DSS pattern of coping, or where mental illness exists, we grow up having to develop survival skills to deny emotional reality. Maybe that emotional reality was alcoholism, rage, abandonment, incest, parental fighting, dad ignoring us because of his workaholism, mother smothering us because she had no identity besides being a mother, or something else. It doesn’t matter; the end result is similar.

The messages in these families include: children should be seen, not heard; big boys don’t cry; girls don’t get angry. In other words, we grow up in the middle of a war with our emotional selves, where to survive we had to discount and ignore our feelings. We did this because there was no safe place to learn who we were emotionally. The survival mechanism worked. We survived, but the cost was we had to avoid learning who we were as emotional beings.

When there is no safe place to learn to experience oneself and discover who one is, one’s feelings of identity all become hinged on externals: what others think, approval of peers or bosses, firm recognition, how one is liked, how your spouse regards you, what your children do.

But even if all these external props are there, eventually hollowness seeps through and one experiences the feelings the lawyer who came into my office was recounting. The trauma of feeling we were not safe in our childhood home, particularly if this trauma is experienced daily for years and years, makes it very difficult to feel safe emotionally later in life, even with a string of accomplishments to one’s names.

Codependence or D.S.S. is a very vicious and powerful stress disorder. It is a “catch-22” war with ourselves; where we must deny parts of ourselves to try to feel okay, but where as long as we deny parts of ourselves and do not know who we are, we do not feel okay.

Like alcoholism, one of the most salient aspects of D.S.S. is that the survival skill that erected the barrier to soften the blow of the trauma, effectively prevents us from seeing how sick we are.

This can’t be said too loudly: if you have D.S.S. you will experience symptoms similar to the ones of the lawyer above you will feel you have a “dis-ease” with life; but you will not, positively not, see the extent to which your emotional being has been warped and distorted by the underlying trauma of D.S.S. The reason is because of the psychic numbing effect to blunt the trauma. Like the stress reaction, the psychic response of deadened feelings that is experienced with trauma, may last for years after the traumatic episode.

Codependency might more accurately be called external dependence. It is a malediction in which we look outside ourselves to people, places and things, – to money, property and prestige to determine if we have worth. Because all such external conditions can change they are inherently insecure so they build into the codependent person a sense of being a victim. Lawyers will not allow themselves to feel like victims, because we are the ones who are suppose to help victims of injustice. Instead we feel depressed and frustrated; we feel like neither our spouses, partners, nor our clients understand what we do and how hard we work.

Since lawyers never like to feel like victims, often they compensate by victimizing other people in order to feel okay. They may use this energy to run their work life. In the 1980’s co-dependents were thought of primarily as victims who responded passively. Since then we have come to understand more completely the forms of personality reaction to unperceived trauma. These are common personality adaptations:

a) Uncaring Aggressive: this is the hard driving person who cannot tolerate any type of human weakness because to do so would require him/her to accept some of his own weakness and vulnerability. This is your steamroller lawyer who invariably applies a ten-pound hammer to a tack.

b) Self Righteous Aggressive: this lawyer always knows what is right for others and what other people should do. This lawyer feels the great burden of having to do it all because other people do not know the right way to do things.

c) Passive Aggressive: this lawyer acts friendly to you but sabotages you in any way possible. This lawyer sees him/herself as a wonderful person who is treated unfairly by the system. They feel like victims who must respond to their victimization indirectly. They feel so vulnerable that they can only respond by indirect means.

d) Martyr: this is the person classically seen as the co-dependent. These people use guilt as a way to try to manipulate others.

These are broad categories and may overlap. A person may use one style of defensive system in one kind of situation and another in a different situation. They are all defensive guises to protect from feeling emotion suppressed by trauma. Codependents never feel equal to anyone, everyone is either above them, to whom they are overly differential, or below them, to whom they are abusive and condescending.

Codependency is a dysfunctional relation with one’s own body, mind emotions and spirit. When we have dysfunctional relationships internally we have dysfunctional relations externally. We try to fill the hole inside ourselves with a relationship, or a series of relationships, or booze or work, but it doesn’t work. Recovery from D.S.S. must start with dismantling the self-limiting view of our own experience. Again, this is a difficult process for lawyers because we find such security in thinking we know the answers. But for the emotional numbness to be thawed, we have to start with the recognition understanding is limited, that the way we operate in the world as a reflection of our life experience, is inadequate.

Once there is a willingness to accept the idea that our system for knowing emotional truth is broken, then we can begin to bring into consciousness those beliefs and attitudes from our own subconscious that are causing our dysfunctional reactions. We can begin to find a new emotional truth that allows us to trust and love rather than have our life be driven by rage, shame, and guilt. Ultimately recovery from D.S.S. is a wonderful process because it involves the grand journey of self-discovery, of finding out who one really is.

The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program is a confidential program of assistance for all North Carolina lawyers. The Lawyer Assistance Program has two outreaches: PALS and FRIENDS. PALS addresses alcoholism and other addictions: FRIENDS depression and other mental health problems.

– by Don Carroll

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