March 10, 2006

The Fawn Response

The great mystery of codependence, to me, is why it should be a mystery at all.

People all over struggle to explain codependence. Even people in Codependents Anonymous have trouble defining it. Books like Codependent No More resort to pages of "characteristics of codependency," in the hopes that one will be able to use them for healing rather than denial. In the recovering addict community, as one alcoholic recently put it, "Codependency is a really dirty word in our culture, and even more of a dirty word to us alcoholics, druggies and other addictive personalities." And in mainstream American culture at least, codependency is often stereotyped as being weak and obsessively enabling a drug addict. Rarely is it identified as an addiction proper, or properly understood as the commonest of all addictions.

I have heard many descriptions of codependence, but my favorite is the simplest: Being codependent means living in fear. This is the root of all our codependent control issues; our need to be loved and validated by others; our drive to fix people; our perfectionism. It doesn't matter if it is a fear that we are not good enough, or that others will hurt us, or that we are not worthy of love, or that we will never have enough. Or even the smaller, everyday versions of these fears - that we will get fired, get dumped, get yelled at, lose control of our lives, or our emotions, be overwhelmed. It doesn't matter what little outfits and props we use to dress up our fear. What matters is that a tremendous number of us are letting it run our lives, often without even noticing it.

How is it an addiction? Well, it is a self-abusive behavior that we use to fill what seems like a void inside of us. It is compulsive behavior, cunning, baffling, and powerful. It comes with all the same clutter as substance abuse - the denial, the obsessive justifications, the anger, the need for control. It allows us to engage in intense drama and get high off of the resulting flood of adrenaline. And if we let it run unchecked, it will kill us emotionally, and potentially for real.

You can read many a book about codependence, or go to many a CoDA meeting to learn more. What I find more compelling is this truth's flip side: that substance addictions are a form of codependency. There are many reasons an addict uses. To numb emotions. To have fun. To overcome shyness. To feel satisfied. Mostly, it boils down to using the drug of choice to avoid what's happening inside of us. What is that except control? All any of us are doing in our addictions is trying to control - and deny - this wound inside of us. Some ways are just less legal, or more immediately toxic, than others.

There is no wound without a wounding. Codependency, as therapist Pete Walker puts it, is a response to an attack. "Fight or flight" has already been expanded to "fight, flight, or freeze," that deer-in-the headlights reaction that includes fantasy and other forms of dissociation. Walker has added "fawn" to the f-words of trauma. When we cannot escape an attack by fighting, fleeing, or freezing, we fawn over our attacker. We try to figure out how to fix the situation, how to nollify them. We take on full responsibility for whatever is happening, however inappropriate that may be. This is codependency. Essentially, it is Stockholm Syndrome. And it is children's desperate and instinctive reaction to abuse, especially within a family. When one has to live with one's abuser, one develops these self-destructive skills in order to survive.

And I mean that literally. When we use these escapes in adulthood, we are, subconsciously and desperately, trying to destroy our very selves because we have so clearly been shown that our selves are displeasing and worthy of abuse. It doesn't seem to matter what kind or abuse it is: to a child, being screamed at is just as inexplicable a response to our existence as sexual abuse is. Children are naturally and appropriately self-centered, developmentally, and they react to abuse by assuming that they must have done something to cause or deserve it. And once a child has learned that they deserve abusive treatment, they will seek it out in adulthood and perpetrate it upon themselves. We drink, smoke crack, pursue relationships obsessively, berate ourselves, cut ourselves, et cetera, in an attempt to finish the job our abusers started. We do it to control the emotions we feel around ourselves and others. We do it to keep our abusers at bay, the way a gorilla will attack itself to avoid its attackers. We do it out of fear.

comment on this piece. (c) 2005 catherine h.