CNM 049: How Mary Battled Codependency And Won – with Mary

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In this episode I interview a podcast listener who wanted to share her personal story of recovery – and what a story it is!

Throughout this interview, you’ll learn how Mary stayed the course even though it was extremely difficult at times.

She specifically shares several strategies and tactics you can put to use right away, so thank you Mary!

Interview with Mary on Her Story of Codependency Recovery

Brian: Hey, Mary. Welcome to the show. We’re so glad to have you here.

Mary: Hi, Brian. It is great to be here. Thank you so much for having me on.

Brian: My pleasure. We’re talking about your personal story today. You had reached out to me in response to a note that I sent to a lot of the folks on my list.

Question: What was it that made you decide you wanted to connect and ultimately share your story?

Mary: I think that one of the main things about people who do struggle with codependency is being able to relate to other people’s stories, see something that they might be struggling with, or possibly even recognize things that they have done that are good and positive in another person’s story. I really wanted to share mine as a positive anecdote for those who may be struggling and dealing with some of those similar things because communication is key.

Brian: Yeah. Thanks for saying that. That’s why I like to have these stories because they’re motivating and inspirational for people who are maybe in the middle of it or at the beginning of their journey just to hear someone who’s really done some heavy lifting and can talk about it. Thank you for coming on the show. Why don’t we start by setting the stage here?

Question: Can you tell us what life was like for you up to that point where you realized, ‘Hey, maybe I need some help with this?’

Mary: Basically with my story – as with many other stories for people who do experience codependency – mine came to be in my childhood. I had a very classic codependent upbringing; there was the ‘power figure’ and the ‘enabler’ dynamic with my parents. In this case my mom was the enabler and my dad was very narcissistic. My mother had a tragic upbringing, so she had suffered from codependency prior to having me. I grew up in that environment and I had become more and more aware that things just weren’t adding up and weren’t quite right.

I actually decided to move across the country with my husband, my roommate at age twenty. We did a little ‘manifest destiny’ and travelled four or five thousand miles. I was in this new environment and things were great. I didn’t have those toxic influences that I dealt with previously.

After that initial rush had ended (of not needing to be in that dangerous situation anymore), I realized that I was almost panicking because things were so normalized. Thankfully, my husband and my roommate weren’t from these abusive households. But for me, I really fell into a free fall of, ‘What do I do? Why are they not reacting the same way?’and I started exhibiting some of those negative behaviors myself that really came to the forefront.

Question: What kind of things did you find yourself doing?

Mary: My husband and I had been together for three or four years at the time; we weren’t yet married. But I was getting increasingly needy. I had no idea how I felt about things, I would increasingly be looking to him about how I should feel about things, about what I should be doing. I had massive amounts of mistrust coming up for no reason. Eventually, I had been more or less thinking, “Oh, I’m not going to do this, I’m not going to do this.” But he was very, very patient with me and he let me figure it out myself.

Questions: This upbringing that you describe with your parents which was a little bit of a tumultuous environment – how exactly did this affect you in your adult life? You’ve given a couple of examples here but let’s elaborate. Do you think it has had any impact on your relationship with your husband too?

Mary: Oh, definitely. Essentially from a formative age, we model the behavior around us whether it was contrast or not, I was essentially modeling both my mom and my dad because there was no narcissist in the family. My husband was very loving and helpful. I had a lot of turmoil after moving out where I could start to see my mom (not as that hero figure anymore, but that she was in a lot of pain).

It took me quite some time to realize that I was leading up to being in that same pain and doing a lot of self-sabotaging because of those learned behaviors from childhood. After I left, since I was no longer being manipulated, that became the voice in my head. My voice became the voice of the abuser which obviously does not translate well into any sort of close relationship, especially not one that otherwise would be very healthy and happy. There’s a ton of negativity that really starts to build up there.

Question: Because oftentimes, people with the kind of upbringing that you had end up in a series of relationships; maybe is one or maybe it’s just relationship after relationship where they’re not treated well  because they’re usually seeking out similar circumstances. But why do you suppose that wasn’t the case for you? Why do you believe you found a healthy husband?

Mary: Right. A lot of it also had to do with the fact that we already had a lot of trust and background together. We were best friends growing up through high school. That kind of trust can be so hard to give, but it had already planted its seed there. I think that, generally, what really helped was removing myself from that situation that had already bred so much toxicity that me, remaining in it, would only spread that to myself.

Gaining that situational distance really made it so I was able to focus things, put things in perspective, view things much clearer and really see that suffering that my mom was going through, and see from an outsider’s point of view what a codependent relationship can do and how it can harm. I think receiving those messages early on set the stage. And I think that as people, we tend to either go towards what we know or rebel against it, and a lot of it takes quite a bit of self-reflection.

My husband has allowed that with me – go figure, he’s a psychology major – he wasn’t enabling me and he was very straightforward with his expectations. Through that, through my roommate, and holding myself accountable, I was able to make these micro strides that put me on the path to recovery.

Brian: Yeah. Let’s talk more about your husband. You’ve talked about distancing yourself from the toxic relationships and you also happen to have an already established, very healthy relationship.

Questions: How important has it been for you, in your opinion, to have such a strong support along this journey? Do you think that you would be where you are now without it?

Mary: No, not at all. Interestingly enough, with codependency, it’s firmly based on that reliance on another person, that prizing them above yourself. But I do believe that one of the biggest helps for me was having up-close connection with a person that was notcodependent. That was such a hard thing for me to strive for but I think that’s going to be paramount in anyone’s recovery; having someone by you who has those healthy boundaries who’s willing to help you.

Counselors are great for this. Then there’s also a friend, someone removed from the situation, someone that you trust enough to at least put their opinion into consideration. It could even be an online presence. I think it’s really important when working with codependency to notice what other people bring out in you, and what traits you’re exhibiting when you’re around them. I have found some really wonderful people whom I exhibit those traits around that I always knew were present in me, and I’m very happy around them. That puts me very much in touch with my own feelings and working towards creating a plan of progress for myself.

Brian: That’s great.

Questions: You mentioned some great examples of types of relationships that people could establish. Since you already had a husband that was supportive, you really had quite an unusual situation. A lot of times, when folks are coming to this realization, they’re oftentimes in a toxic romantic relationship already.

In your opinion, how important is it that they remove themselves from that relationship? Should they look for another romantic relationship with a healthy partner or should they avoid romantic relationships for a little while until they can heal and then attempt to get into another relationship? How should they navigate that, in your opinion?

Mary: I think that I was in a very interesting situation where I was only seventeen. At that age, most of us aren’t thinking, ‘Oh, this is the person I’m going to marry,’ but I had stumbled into this relationship with someone who was very caring and was very kind. For me, a large part of wanting to work on myself was I knew how good of a person he was. I knew how much he cared, and he really exhibited those wonderful qualities. I didn’t want that to fall by the wayside. But for those who are in a toxic environment right now, I think that recognizing that is one of the absolute best and first steps that you can take. It can be very difficult to be set up boundaries.

I view it like you’re building a sand castle. But if the tide’s constantly coming in, it’s going to be really hard to create those boundaries, to create that drawbridge and those walls to build up yourself and those sustainable strides that you can make.

I think it really depends on the person but I do think that the most important thing is really getting in touch with yourself regardless of romantic relationships. If you’re with someone already, great. If you’re not with someone already, that’s fine. It’s not about them anymore, it’s about what you’re feeling, thinking, and where you are in your journey, and really applying that to what you can bring to the table, and where you are with caring for yourself. These are the absolute, biggest things that you need to be aware of before entering any sort of close relationship, not just romantic.

Brian: Alright, let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about some of the tools that have helped you recover from these problems.

Question: What are some of the things that have helped you in your situation?

Mary: In the beginning, when I was first putting the pieces together, I didn’t have these specific names for them. I did a lot of research on my own and a lot of Googling, just wanting to know more about it. I started finding these pieces that were very fitting to me. I think that people can go either way, but I became very entrenched in trying to figure out all I could about it (codependency).

A key part of it for me was researching everything from scientific journals, to self-help materials, to podcasts, to online forums. All of that was so helpful for distilling the tools that I felt were necessary and would help me on my journey. With that came a lot of trial and error.

But one of them that really stuck with me specifically is journaling, which I actually learned through one of the books I’ve gone through. I would journal, and journal, and journal. In the beginning, you’re actually encouraged to just put out your thoughts and feelings and to write. Then the absolute hardest part is to turn the page and notlook at it again for a while. Although I admit that didn’t happen right away, overtime, I was able to read through my journal when I was feeling off, scared, or sad. At first, I may not have been able to identify the emotion, but just having a safe place to let it out, write it out or type it out, gave me that clarity to start to calm down after that to collect myself.

Then what I would do is I would go back through these journals because I think that a really common experience is not knowing how you feel about something. But I would go back through these and then actually circle, with a red pen, any sort of emotions I was feeling at that time to  start identifying, “Oh, when I was writing this, I was angry. When I was writing this, I was sad,” to really connect with those emotions with what I was writing to better identify them within myself.

I think that journaling was a very big help for me. It was definitely part of what I like to call ‘my self-help kit,’which is essentially something of a plan that I’ve made with my husband and my roommate. It’s going to be very individual to the person but mine goes through and has books, videos. It’s your own little self-help kit; your little tire patch.

When you’re in the dessert and you’ve driven five hundred miles from the last rest stop and you blow a tire, you can’t fix your tire if you don’t have anything. You have to pre-pack that stuff. When you start having a rough time, when something upsets you, when one of the other tools like journaling doesn’t work, you have those backups. I think that having a multitude of tools that you know work for you is really key to making sustainable happiness and progress.

Brian: Yeah. Sure thing.

Question: You mentioned this book that had these journaling exercises, and having some other books, I’m just curious, can you tell us what book you used and what are some of your other favorite books that you’ve come across?

Mary: Oh, of course. This one was called The Artist’s Way. They had lessons and some guidance. It’s very good for a wide-variety of different struggles that people go through. It’s really all about self-acceptance, taking yourself out on dates, and really feeling that value added as a person without necessarily having to go accomplish anything or have someone else feel great about you. It’s really focused on yourself and your own self-worth.

Another one that was very specific to my circumstance, but has a workbook to go around it, is called The Courage to Heal. It’s specifically for survivors of sexual abuse but it can be utilized for a wide-variety of causes. It has exercises, different experiences, and survivor stories. Those have all been great. I’ve found resources in very unlikely places.

A really big one for me that I never would have thought of is the organization of Adult Children of Alcoholics. That’s been a much more reason one for me but they have some fantastic literature, it’s more website based. But again, it’s very applicable to not just one situation, it’s applicable to a lot of situations. They share a lot of those same struggles from myriad of circumstances, not just if you’ve had trauma or rough patches in your childhood, but in your adulthood, or maybe not at all. They offer a huge amount of support and community as we had been speaking about earlier to just kind of look through. They have some great links to books as well.

Brian: Thank you for sharing those.

Question: You also mentioned taking yourself out. I think I caught you saying this on self-dates. What would that look like and how helpful was that?

Mary: Yeah. That’s part of that ‘revaluing yourself’. One of the questions is like, ‘When was the last time you’ve gone through a restaurant by yourself?’I hadn’t even realized how much of my daily activities were being planned around others. For me, what that looked like is going to a restaurant, sitting down, really treating myself, and staying present in the moment which can be very hard especially with Facebook messages and everything else going on. I really needed to focus on staying present.

Another portion of it is identifying when you were most affected; even going through the hardest times and reframing them. For me, mine was my childhood. A lot of my self-dates were existent in childhood activities to promote not only what I wished I could have had but also promote those healthy affiliations. Because I think it can be very hard to move forward if you haven’t properly processed things. Things always are going to come up; things might pop up here or there. One of my steps was that I really wanted to go out and have these wonderful things that I knew the child in me would love to do because that’s mainly when it affected me.

The first step I had to take was actually to distance myself and almost treat the child version of me like a child I was talking to right in front of me because it was easier to figure out, ‘Oh what does that child want?’ than ‘What do I want?’because I wasn’t quite ready to answer that question yet. But it’s become more and more synonymous, and I’m figuring out what I like and enjoy because of these self-dates.

Brian: Interesting.

Questions: Did you think of yourself as a child then and try to make sure that the child got their needs met? What do you mean by that?

Mary: Yeah, definitely. One of my tactics that has really helped me is more or less, I have a very strong protective instinct. I was actually in the teaching profession for quite some time. Sometimes, things would be hitting me a little too close to home. Not only at work because I was working with children all day, but when I would be doing the self-discovery, I would sometimes hit a nerve or not know how I felt about something, or instinctively push away. It was something that I knew I needed to explore.

I literally pictured me as a child (because that’s when my toughest times were) and it was almost, ‘If I could bring myself there, what could I provide for her? Would she like a hug?’Even now when I’m in these stressful or scary situations, I think, “Okay, that’s the little me coming out. That’s the little five-year-old, Mary. Right now, she needs a hug and a Fruit Roll-Up.”(laughs) That’s okay to be able to embrace because essentially, the key to who I still am is needing to identify what I needed then and giving it to myself now.

Question: These things that you’re talking about here with little Mary, for example – have you done this in conjunction with counseling or therapy or did you figured out these things to do on your own?

Mary: It’s been a little bit of both. I’ve been involved with therapy and I highly recommend finding someone who is compatible. There are so many other free resources aligned with therapeutic qualities as well – vent sessions and talk. For a while when I wasn’t able to go, I utilized those, but therapy gave me ideas. Anyone who’s going to be in the mental health field who’s knowledgeable about these sorts of things can bring you more specialized resources and more specific care. It was a combination of suggestions, a lot of introspection and homework.

One of the hardest parts for me with therapy was when, sooner or later not every week was a crisis, when things started petering out. Those were some of my first steps of progress that I didn’t recognize at the time. I was actually becoming more stable, so I was able to use those times to remind myself how important those relationships are. Sometimes it’s about building relationships and sometimes it’s about seeking out new resources. But for me, I think that the more that you can try, the better anything is going to be. And we have so many resources and the internet available at our fingertips.

I know that it can be also very discouraging when something doesn’t click right away. But finding those things that do click and holding onto them will inch you forward. That’s still progress. Three steps forward and two steps back, five steps forward and twenty steps back; that’s still progress, there’s still movement there.

Brian: Absolutely. I’m going to bring back something you said in the first time we talked that’s interesting and see what I’ll see you have to say about it.

Question: You said that you put yourself on a trolley to success that kept moving forward no matter what. It’s a really cool way to put it. It sounds like you just basically designed a life and a system that just forced you to move forward no matter how you were feeling. How did that work?

Mary: Exactly. A lot of that was taking in that five-steps-forward, eight-steps-back mentality because let’s face it, ‘Things happen; life happens.’In stating a kind of ‘fail-proof system’ where if I was having a bad day, week, or month, I had that plan in place. I had that tire patch for when I was in the dessert. Not only that but I had things in place when I felt like I was backsliding that still made it so I was moving forward.

What that really looks like is having an environment around you that is growth centric. It’s having people around you who understand or at least can empathize and know what you need in order to keep that trolley going. I think of it on almost like a game plan. Not only that, but I had that journaling piece that comes in, mood logs, things like that; those were all components of the trolley that keeps you moving forward when there are times where you’re just too exhausted to even think about self-caring. There’s basically a system that you have set in place that is providing you self-care through your habits, environment, and actions that’s still pushing you even though it might not feel like it.

Brian: Yeah. This environment that you’ve created here, I think, would be interesting to get some more of the specifics about it. I caught a mood log, you had a therapist, you forced yourself to journal, you just generally had a positive growth-centric environment as you put it.

Questions: What truly made you keep going even if you felt like stopping? Did you have somebody calling you every Tuesday to see how you are doing? What did you do specifically?

Mary: For me, a lot of it was having those people around me. I think that when you live with positive people, it’s the ‘boomerang effect’ as you tend to better each other. Since my husband and my roommate had much more normalized behaviors that were much healthier, it was nice that they could understand why I might be acting that way but also say, “That’s not okay.”

A lot of times when I would start to spiral, it was in a much shorter span than I had originally thought. It wasn’t necessarily, ‘Call me every Tuesday,’because it might hit at me four o’clock at work, it might hit me at two in the morning, on a Thursday night. Sometimes I would fall in a rut because it seems to be that, ‘One moment you’re up, then the next moment you’re down’. It’s all about breaking that ‘mind loop’ of spiraling.

For me, what that actually looks like is a lot of funny YouTube videos. My husband keeps up a playlist on his computer and his phone so when I start spiraling, he’s putting on the funny YouTube videos even if I don’t like it. Another one has just been opening a window. It’s so difficult to keep pushing forward, but it’s looking at your emotions and seeing, ‘How can I convince myself in times when I am spiraling?’That mood log is especially helpful.

For me, I tend to be very fact-based and that’s much harder for me to weasel myself out of when I’m feeling extremely emotional, it’s much harder to reason cold-hard facts away. I might be looking at my mood log that I filled out feeling that the world is ending and then realizing, “Oh, I’ve only had two days where I’ve actually felt like this. This isn’t the end of the world. My trolley is going to keep going.”

In those times, making sure that my basic needs are being met; I’m getting enough sleep, I’m getting enough to eat, I’m getting enough to drink, how are things at work? Taking that time to reflect and evaluate. You just need to break that loop when you’re spiraling by any means possible, and you know what works best for you.

Brian: Yes.

Question: There was one interesting, almost fun-little idea that you gave me the first time we talked as well, it had to do with your communication with your husband. Do you remember what we talked about there?

Mary: Yes. Essentially, we’ve had some very unique styles of communicating. In the beginning, as I think it often tends to be, ‘He who yells loudest wins,’which was very much not in a growth mindset. For a while I was struggling to find ways to express myself while being sure that I felt like I was being heard, that didn’t result in me hurting those around me, especially my husband.

To keep myself in the moment (and out of my head) when I would start to feel like I was spiraling), or when that voice in my head (my dad), would get louder with all those negative thoughts, we would actually have a little object that we would call our “talking stick”. To break it down, when I have the stick, I get to talk; when I don’t have the stick, I don’t get to talk.

On top of that, I need to make sure that I’m being present for them because they’re being present for me, which for me was harder said than done. I would fidget, snap, tap or do whatever I needed to do to keep myself making sure that I was listening to the other person’s words and not filtering them through that toxic filter in my head, and coming out with something completely different than the message they’re actually trying to convey.

Brian: Yeah, that’s really great. Lack of focus and controlling emotions are big problems for a lot of folks. Anything to just make sure you’re staying focused and staying in the moment can be particularly useful at the beginning until you build that muscle a little bit, I think.

Question: You sound very young, can we get a ballpark of where you are in age?

Mary: Yeah, sure. Actually I just turned twenty-six.

Brian: Thank you for being willing to share that.

Mary: Of course.

Brian: I ask that because you sound very young, and you’ve made so much progress at such a young age. Some of us have a lot to learn, no matter how old we are or how young we are, your life experience can be useful, we can turn it around, and anyone can do it if they put their mind to it. You’ve given us a lot to think about as we’re creating our own path and so it’s wonderful to talk to you about this.

Question: If I can ask, what would be your biggest piece of advice for a codependent person?

Mary: Sure. I think my biggest piece of advice would definitely be to use the resources and tools around you. If you can’t be active in any other way, if you’re still in that very reactive state, just try to reach out and find something different to do. Because the worst thing that you can do is give up and start thinking in those absolutes.

If you find something that might work, give it a try. Worst-case scenario, you have that experience under your belt and you can try something else. It’s much better than doing the same thing fifty thousand more times. You can do it fifty thousand things one time instead. Find something that works for you. I think that one of the most important things is making sure that you’re getting that variety and listening to that muscle and what it’s telling you as you go through your journey.

Brian: Excellent. I was just taking some notes as we’ve been talking here. I just want to sum up a couple of things for folks. This is wonderful because like you said, you have a textbook scenario that you were raised in and then you’ve done some very textbook things to recover too. It’s a great lesson learned. You’ve removed yourself from toxic relationships, you established healthy relationships with healthy people who hold you accountable. You did research and investigation for good information. You did a lot of trial and error too to find exactly what works for you. You did a ton of journaling, you even used the red pen to circle the emotion words and really used that journal for all its worth.

Again, you tried a lot of different things, found what worked for you, you created a growth-centric environment around yourself so that you would move forward no matter what. You even used communication tools like the talking stick and you had a plan for when you spiraled out of control, when your emotions were just getting out of control like that. These are all really, really great things.

Question: Is there anything else you’d like to add to this conversation before we wrap up for good?

Mary: I think that one of the only other things that I can think of that’s been really helpful for me – I know that I’ve peppered this conversation with a lot of metaphors – but one of the ones I recently came upon with a lot of my own self-reflection and self-improvement was picturing what kind of island I want to be and framing it that way.

For me, right now, my island may look like a bunch of little houses and one big steel building starting to be constructed. Other people can come and visit my island if I want them to, but I need to be focusing on what I want my island to look like. For me, like right now, I’m working on a seismograph in the basement of my big building. What that actually means is being more aware that my goals is to be more aware in the long-term, to know myself enough to be able to figure out exactly how I’m going to feel about certain situations, to be able to sense those things bubbling up and do something about it, and calm myself before it goes down the other path.

Eventually, my trolley is just going to keep on tracking and I’m eventually going to have a metropolis where my island used to be. It’s going to be a very good experience, I think, if you just keep visualizing what you want it to be and what happiness looks like to you.

Brian: Great lesson. Mary, thank you so much again for being on the show. We’re really glad to have you sharing this story and we wish you all the best as you continue forward.

Mary: Perfect. Thank you so much. I’m so happy to get to share this experience. Thank you.

Brian: My pleasure.

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