Overcoming Codependence
Need help? Call our 24/7 helpline. 855-933-3480

Overcoming Codependence


This post was originally published July 17, 2013.

I sat at the kitchen table, clutching my stuffed pony as my father stumbled in and fixed himself next to a smoky pile of Benson and Hedges. The beer had been flowing all night and in between long drags of his cig, he would sigh heavily, clench his jaw, and mumble his favorite collection of what I knew to be “bad words.” He was drunk. He was angry. He was chronically miserable and at the tender age of nine, I made it my mission to fix him and his life.

When I wasn’t tip-toe-ing around his emotional and physical hangovers, I was dreaming up ways to make him happy. Actually, it was a bit more intense than dreaming; it became more of an obsession. At Christmas, I didn’t want anything but for my dad to feel better. When tenants from the apartment buildings he owned refused to pay rent, I would fantasize about swooping in and bullying them until they paid up—like a female version of Robin Hood, I imagined, I would trot home and swing clanging bags of money at my dad’s feet after which all would be well in his world. I was his devoted daughter to a fault and before I even understood what the word codependent meant, I owned the part.

I was knee deep into my third month of college when I returned to my dorm room and found my roommate bent over our answering machine. “Dawn, you need to listen to this—it’s from your dad and he sounds really upset,” she said. I dropped my backpack and took a deep breath before I hit play. My dad was sobbing uncontrollably on the message—so much so that I could barely make out what he was saying. From what I could gather, my stepmother had left him—technically both of us—that morning and there was something about driving to Florida to be with a guy she had met on the Internet. What the fuck? This cannot be happening, I thought. How had my Robin Hood fantasy turned into a Jerry Springer nightmare?

I drove home for the weekend, though I ended up staying longer than I’d planned. And just as I had when I was a kid, I found myself sitting at our kitchen table, no stuffed animal this time, as my father stumbled into the room and fixed himself next to a smoldering pile of Benson and Hedges cigarettes. He was inconsolable and the pain in his voice caused a flood of guilt and outrage to fill my lungs to the point of suffocation. He repeated over and over again, as drunk people typically do, things like, “It’s just you and me now” and “You are all I care about” and “You are my family.” The thought of postponing school entered my mind a thousand times. My dad needed me and if putting my life on hold to take care of him was the right thing to do, well then I would make it my business to do it.

While my friends were out buying new outfits for frat parties and sleeping until noon, I was consumed by my father’s every move. I would lay awake at night fretting over his emotional state. What if he tried to kill himself? I would think. What if he was lonely? What if he thought that I didn’t love him anymore? What could I do to be better? How could I take away his pain? Was I giving him good enough advice? Dear God, I would think, if you are listening, just please give all his pain to me—I swear I can handle it. The more I worried about him, the more my own needs fell off the radar. I was so busy trying to fix his life that I barely noticed how depressing mine had become. Who was worrying about me?  Who was making sure that I was okay? Where was my Robin Hood? Never once did it occur to me that my father and I had switched roles. I just knew that I was on the cusp of my 19th birthday but felt like I needed to add 21 more candles to the cake. The lines were beyond blurry. Who was the kid and who was the adult again?

Out of the blue, my dad disappeared. An entire week went by and I had no idea where he was. I harassed his cell phone day and night. I had memorized the number of times the cell would ring before his voicemail kicked in. Eventually, I called his work and was livid when his co-worker told me that he went on vacation—to Florida. Are you fucking kidding me, I thought. After all the time and energy I put into this man? After all of the worrying I did? After hours of pep talks? I made him the center of my universe and he turned around and went running off to Florida—to be with her?

Over time, I came to accept that I could not dictate nor was I responsible for the quality of my father’s existence. Even though I made it very clear to him that I thought he was making a huge mistake, he moved back in with my stepmother, bought a Harley and continued on with his life. But none of that changed my behavior, which got more unmanageable before it got better. Somehow his drinking, dramas and mental meltdowns took over my life and became my problems; eventually I saw that it was up to me to let them go. Did I cut the cord overnight? Hell, no. But I’ve learned a thing or two about boundaries and honoring my needs and making them a priority. About a year-and-a-half ago, my father called me and it was just like old times, only I was cuddled up on my couch with my cat—hundreds of miles away from the cigarette smoke that was probably billowing out from his ashtray. With a heavy sigh he started mumbling something about how he was miserable and not in love anymore and how he was about to get laid off and how he was going to have to file for bankruptcy. Instead of hanging on his every word and getting tangled up in his latest mess, I interrupted.

“Shoot, Dad,” I said. “I’ve got to go—my cat’s throwing up.”

Any Questions? Call Now To Speak to a Rehab Specialist
(855) 933-3480

About Author

Dawn Clancy is the creator of Growing Up Chaotic, a blog and radio program for those determined to survive and thrive despite growing up in toxicity. Her goal is to create a community hell bent on breaking, cracking and demolishing the cycle of dysfunction.