The Wolf You Feed: Thoughts on Codependency
By Jasmine Banks
I am developing, through practice, the self-compassion to not lash out in the face of feeling powerlessness in my pain.
Woman sitting at a window, looking at her face in a compact mirror.
Photo by Alina Miroshnichenko on Unsplash
Eckhart Tolle says, “addiction starts with pain and ends with pain.” In the beginning of January I had to pause and take an inventory of my life. My very pregnant body was bleeding. I’d never bled like this before with other pregnancies. Three trips to the emergency room and two appointments with the obstetrician later, they all suggested I see my psychiatrist. My bleeding was anxiety and stress induced. It wasn’t a bad idea since I’d engaged in self harm upon returning from a trip that resulted in a falling out between two friends. Pain is a signal.
I sat across from my quirky psychiatrist as she listened to me. I did my typical thing I do.
“Are you sure I’m not borderline? Are you sure maybe I am not an alcoholic or something? Everything feels so awful and unmanageable. Maybe I am a narcissist and I just have you fooled.”
She sat quietly as I spun in circles with snot and tears and panic, waiting for me to look up. When I finally did, she gave the same dependable slow smile, a bit amused, never mocking, and 100% comforting.
“Jasmine. We’ve worked together for over five years now. I’ve given you every test. Your psychologist, who is a seasoned professional colleague of mine, has given you every test. We both have the same results. You have complex trauma and as a result you have post traumatic stress disorder. You are not an addict and you have no other personality or mood disorders.” She continued, “it sounds like you were in some precarious situations and you didn’t behave in a way you are proud of. This is not a reason to medicate you, or change your diagnosis. You acted poorly and I want you to find your way back to equilibrium. You mentioned that you made some poor comments about someone. Why did you say those things about her?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “I guess I was annoyed. She didn’t take sides about this issue me and my friends thought was important. There was this Megan Markle debate online that we thought was a really big deal… and we got annoyed that people didn’t agree with our perspectives and we harshly critiqued them.”
My psychiatrist jolted her pointer finger at me, “That!” She exclaimed wide-eyed, “You got upset at that person because they held nuance—and that is your constant struggle. Have you considered reaching out to that person? If she is willing you could learn something from her.” She refunded my office charge for that day, because she claimed she didn’t do anything and I didn’t need to see a psychiatrist.
Later that day, I reached out to one of the people whose opinions I’d made sideways comments about and asked if she’d consider being my mentor. I confessed my poor attitude toward her and expressed what my care team had communicated: I had something to learn from her, if she was willing.
Dr. Wong, my psychiatrist, was right about me being off kilter, in a precarious position, and not behaving in ways I was proud of. But she was wrong about me not being an addict.
I am, absolutely without a doubt, an addict.
We get caught up in the major addictions that receive a lot of spotlight in the recovery community. Narcotics and Alcohol are often center stage with sex addiction, gambling, marijuana, and love and food addiction following in close second. We talk about codependency, but often in the context of being nestled into other addictions or as a way to characterize the experience of partners of people with addictions.
Codependency, though, in the absence of a relationship proxy with an addict can and will become an addiction of its own. Codependency follows the same cycle as every other addiction. It starts with pain, moves to the urge to act out and engage in searching and preparation behaviors (such as preoccupation with controlling others and seeking opportunities to caretake), and transitions into acting out; the actor experiences temporary relief, and then feels the unavoidable pain of the consequences of his or her acting out. What follows after that is more pain. Pain in the self and pain enacted on others. Codependency, like every other addiction, is unmanageable and cultivates chaos and loss. It is about self-harm moving through you and into others and back, and it doesn’t discriminate as to whether they are loved ones or not.
The ultimate root cause of many who engage in co-dependent behaviors and experience this form of addiction is a traumatic and internalized belief that they are not good enough; that they are innately lacking and must fill the void to dodge the constant gnawing pain. Their acceptance into a relationships requires ultimate alignment with others resulting in the loss of self, service of others above themselves (caretaking), and performance. There is so much distraction and numbness. There is so much being consumed with whatever that relationship-based thing is (trash-talking people, perfectionism, self-made victimhood, etc.) in order to avoid the pain of looking at yourself and rescuing yourself. Because rescuing yourself would mean staring down those hurt places again and again and re-committing to healing again and again.
People are not born codependent, they are groomed and taught to be that way. I was taught by my mother, by Glen (my mother’s partner who sexually assaulted me from 8–13 years old) and by my ex-husband. I was taught through years of excruciating relational pain and reinforcement to perform certain behaviors so that, when I am off-balance, it often becomes hard to see myself apart from these unproductive behaviors.
There is a Cherokee parable about wolves that illustrates the kind of alignment I am learning from my mentor and the kind of equilibrium my Dr. Wong was referencing. The parable goes like this:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
I’ve been feeding the wrong wolf. As I neglected my self-care, several things happened: my relationship struggles became overwhelming; I felt as though I was failing miserably as a mom to my daughters with unique trauma and needs of their own; I felt the need to distract myself; and I continued to feed the evil wolf.
My friends fed the evil wolf too. They laughed at my hateful jokes about people, they welcomed it and offered vitriol of their own. I was the only one trusted to put it in text message format—their drag sessions happened in person and on the phone. They hypothesized in cruel ways about the drinking habits of a friend in Jamaica: “I am fairly certain she is an alcoholic, and she is 40 and should get it together,” my friend commented as she adjusted her hijab over Facetime. We called people trash, talked about how disgusting mean-girls these people were (as though were weren’t engaging in the same behaviors we critiqued). I liked belonging to this group. It was a fit distraction from my marriage separation, from the pain of facing pregnancy alone, and from the general malaise and lies of depression that I was failing at everything. If you can make fun of other people, drag them… Well, you can make yourself so busy with manufacturing pain that you never really have to face your own.
But the pain always catches up.
So now, several weeks after the pain first caught up, I am experiencing the consequences of engaging in codependent behaviors. The wolf with the ego, the lies, the false pride, and superiority is the one that I fed. Its belly is bloated with the scraps my former friends rewarded it with. That wolf is in me and feeding it resulted in deterioration of my best self. Volatile emotional episodes, self-harm, unflinching anxiety, and spreading around pain to others without regard for their well-being or safety were my results.
And that is not the end of things. Because there are two wolves in each of us. We are neither all bad or all good. I am choosing, with accountability, support, and deep self-compassion to confront (again) those first injuries that led to codependency. Those first times my heart was shattered, those first times my mom didn’t believe me, and every time I felt lost, alone, and unheard. Every time I didn’t get what I needed and the fear of scarcity was seared into my mind and heart. Every moment I felt responsibility for the harm that was done to me.
I am developing, through practice, the self-compassion to not lash out in the face of feeling powerlessness in my pain. I am doing the hard work that every person trying to overcome addiction, every person stumbling to address their trauma, seeks to do: I endeavor to wake up each day and choose to accept the pain, admit I am powerless against the reflex to medicate with chaos and distraction, and feed the right wolf.