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I started taking care of myself and it feels so good I'm not going to stop, no matter what.
The Recovery Movement
Something exciting is happening across the land. Let's take a look.
Two years ago, Carla thought she was crazy and her schedule was normal.
"Well, almost normal," said Carla, an elementary school teacher and the thirty-five-year-old daughter of a well-groomed, professional family.
From 6 to 8 A.M., Carla worked at a day-care center. From 8:30 A.M. to 12:30 P.M., she taught grade school. From 2 to 6 P.M., she taught at an after-school latchkey program.
To save a woman from being sent to a nursing home, Carla had moved in with an Alzheimer's victim. So at 12:30, Carla rushed home to make lunch for her roommate. At supper time, Carla rushed home again to make supper for her roommate.
Several years earlier, while working at the state prison, Carla had befriended, then fallen in love with, an inmate (a phenomenon peculiar to many people who identify with codependency). After washing the supper dishes, Carla hurried to the prison to visit him. At 9 P.M., Carla dashed home to put her roommate to bed.
In her spare time, Carla volunteered forty hours each month to the county mental health center. And she taught Sunday school.
Besides those volunteer activities, Carla had offered use of her home, rent-free, to a family she met at the prison visiting room. She was able to do this because she had left her home standing empty when she moved in with the Alzheimer's patient.
"I thought I was doing everything right. I was doing everything people expected of me. I was being good to people. I was being a good Christian. One thing I couldn't understand was why everyone was mad at me," Carla says. "The other thing I couldn't understand was why I felt crazy and wished I was dead.
"The relatives of the woman I lived with got angry at me for telling them how sick she was and how much care she needed. My boyfriend was mad at me. My bosses were upset because I kept getting sick and missing work. And the woman living in my house got angry because when she began working, I started asking for rent money.
"I didn't know how I felt," Carla says. "For as long as I can remember, I couldn't remember feeling joy, sorrow, anything! I knew I was physically sick. My legs and feet were swollen so badly I couldn't walk some days. But I didn't go to the doctor because I didn't want to bother him.
"I didn't want to bother the doctor," she says, shaking her head. "Things were crazy, but they were about to get crazier."
The woman living in Carla's house became so indignant about paying rent she moved out. Carla moved back into her home. Within days, the furnace went out, the sewer pipe collapsed, the basement flooded, and gophers chewed through the gas line and the house almost blew up. A neighbor selling his property used the wrong land description and instead sold Carla's house, and a pheasant flew through the bay window, decapitated itself, and ran through the house like a dead chicken.
"Just like me," Carla recalls.
Soon, Carla's boyfriend, an alcoholic, was released from prison. Within two weeks he started drinking and disappeared from her life.
"I bottomed out. This was the culmination of over thirty years of failure," Carla says. "I felt like a failure professionally and personally. I had gone from one hundred fifteen pounds to over two hundred pounds. I had been married and divorced twice, both times to successful professional men who physically or verbally abused me. Now, I had been rejected by a prison inmate. This was it. This was the end! I hadn't drank for fifteen years, but I started drinking two quarts of vodka a day. I wanted to die."
Carla didn't die. Instead, someone handed her a book about codependency. From reading it, she learned that although her behaviors were a little crazy, she wasn't. She was battling codependency. She also learned a recovery program was available to her, one that promised to change her life.
Although she's worked at recovery for only a year and a half, Carla has worked hard at it. She regularly attends both Al-Anon and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. She goes to workshops on codependency, shame, and self-esteem. She also works with a therapist experienced with codependency recovery issues.
"I got mad at the therapist," Carla recalls. "I was a professional; he was a professional. I went to him expecting him to do his job: fix me. He told me he couldn't do that. I learned there wasn't a magic cure. I learned I had to do my own recovery work."
Although she didn't find a magic cure, Carla describes the changes in her life in eighteen months as "dramatic."
"I've done a lot of grieving, but at least I'm feeling. I'm feeling feelings for the first time in my life. I'm feeling sad, and I'm feeling happy.
"I'm still busy, but I'm not running around like a chicken with its head chopped off. I'm choosing to do the things I'm doing, instead of feeling like I have no choices. I'm setting and reaching goals. That feels good," Carla says.
Carla is still struggling to undo the financial chaos connected to her codependency. "But at least I'm struggling for and toward something. I now have money in my checkbook. I can take myself out to eat. And I've even started buying myself new clothes. That's different. I used to shop at secondhand stores and deliberately chose the worst items there, the things I thought nobody else would want. I didn't want to take any clothing away from the poor people," she explains, "the ones who really needed it."
Carla has made other advances too. She's learning to say no. She's learning to stick up for herself and her rights, instead of fighting only for the rights of others. She's beginning to look back to discover the origins of her codependency (family of origin work).
"My family wasn't bad or awful," Carla says. "They were good, smart, professional people. Although my father abused prescription drugs for about two years, my parents weren't obviously addicted or dysfunctional. They were dose. We had some fun times.
"But there were subtleties," Carla adds. "I learned how to be a martyr. I always felt I needed to be perfect. I never felt good enough. I didn't know how to deal with feelings. We lived in a small community. During one phase of my childhood, my parents' political stance caused us to be ostracized by the town. I felt so rejected. And I learned how to reject myself. I started believing something was wrong with me."
Besides looking back, Carla has begun to look around. She's noticing how codependency has permeated her life.
"I have two groups of friends: other codependents who want to complain about being victims, and the people who want to use and mistreat me. I'm working at changing my friendships. I'm also reevaluating my professional life. My codependency influenced my career choices. Most of my jobs demanded a lot and gave me little in return. Of course, I gave and gave on my jobs, then got angry because I felt used. Now, I'm learning to set boundaries at work. Some people are getting mad at me for changing, but I'm not feeling so used.
"I'm learning to stop asking why people are doing this to me," Carla says. "I've started asking why I'm allowing them to do this to me."
Relationships with men are still a weak spot in Carla's recovery. "I'm still attracted to the sickest man in the room, the one who needs me the most," Carla admits. "But at least I've started to get red flags. That's new. I always used to get green lights."
She says she has much work left to do on self-esteem but has begun to accept herself. "I do a lot of work with affirmations. I've got my bathroom mirror pasted full of them. That helps. It really does.
"Sometimes I still let other people control me. Sometimes I'm not sure when it's okay to want approval from people, and when it's a codependent behavior. I'm not always sure when it's okay to give, and when I'm doing caretaking stuff. And sometimes I get scared.
"But the best thing that's happened to me is I've begun to feel peaceful," Carla says. "For the first time in my life I want to live, and I believe there's a purpose for my life.
"My relationship with my Higher Power, God, has improved. I'm not in control of my life, but by working my program, it's become manageable. I know Someone is caring for me and helping me care for myself.
"And," Carla adds, "I'm proud of my recovery."
Recently, while paging through a photo album, Carla found one of the few pictures taken of her when she was a child. She rarely allowed people to photograph her because she hated the way she looked.
"I was surprised when I saw this picture," Carla says. "I wasn't ugly. There wasn't anything so terribly wrong with me, like I thought there was. It's sad I've spent so many years of my life believing there was."
The other day, when Carla walked into the student bathroom at the grade school where she works, she found a sobbing fourth-grade girl curled up behind the trash can. The girl, a beautiful child with long dark hair, had tried to smash the bathroom mirror.
Carla asked what was wrong. The girl said she hated herself, she hated the way she looked, and she wanted to die. Carla gently scooped up the child, carried her into the office, and referred her to the school psychiatrist.
"I cried for her, and I cried for me. But it wasn't all tears of sadness," Carla says. "I cried because I felt relieved. At last we have hope."