It had to be the most fucked up church in Los Angeles. It was carpeted. Homeless men slept outside. The parishioners were alcoholics, geriatrics and kids with face tattoos of skulls smoking cigarettes. Still, upon entering, I felt at home. Even as an agnostic, there is something comforting about a church. It’s the quiet; I don’t hear god when the priest speaks but in the silence before.
I am not waiting for a sermon. It’s 7 a.m. on a Tuesday. I am helping a sixty-year-old woman with purple hair arrange folding chairs into a circle. This is a twelve-step meeting.
I don’t know where this story begins–likely before I was ever born. Arbitrarily, I’ll choose an experience in my life from which to look back and then to look ahead.
Let’s start with the thesis of my life: “Hi. My name is Katie. I am a codependent.”
I am eighteen and I am about to lose my virginity. The first man I ever loved is eating an ice cream sandwich and reading to me from a yellowing self-help manual:
“Codependency is a tendency to behave in overly passive, excessively care-taking ways that negatively impact relationships and quality of life. A codependent puts their needs at a lower priority than others while being excessively preoccupied with people pleasing.”
I believe we all get different gods with their own personalities. Mine’s a stand-up comedian. I can see him now, with a mic stand and a cigarette hanging from his lips, laughing as he welcomes me on my day of reckoning.
“You didn’t think defining your romantic misery for years to come right before you lost your virginity was a good joke? Ah, come on.”
My face is hot. “What the fuck is codependency? Why’d you give it to me?”
God looks down to the ground, which is really a cloud. “Because genes repeat.”
He’s right. Genes do repeat. No trauma has discreet edges; it bleeds and is passed down, generation to generation, like dyslexia, flexibility or grace. The call of the wild is too strong in every man I share blood with. My father has forty-six years sober. My brother has three. My grandfather was mainly sober after the age of fifty and died when he was eighty-nine.
Like my mother, my grandmother and all the dark-haired, strong-willed women that came before me, my knees are turned to dust by impulsive men. In an addict’s company, I feel almost mugged by familiarity.
According to the law of psychic compensation, not being held leads to holding on. In a sea of strangers, an addict and I will recognize each other as friends. I will obsess over their problems to avoid my own. They will let me take care of them because they cannot care for themselves. Our pathologies blend seamlessly. We click like magnets.
I guess every addict I’ve loved and I have something in common: we get high on the mania of running from the truth.
I want to talk about the moment I stopped running:
I’m twenty-five. I’m wearing a leather skirt and red lipstick; the greasepaint of a clown. I’m eating grits with a rock star in South Carolina. I’m freezing. I assumed the Southern States were always warm, even at Christmastime. The rock star pushes his grits towards me but doesn’t offer me his coat. He’s furious because the year’s ending and his album hasn’t been picked for any “BEST OF” lists.
“I mean, I wrote an album called The Ballad of Boogie Christ, for fuck’s sake.”
I nodded. Clearly, I wasn’t grasping the urgency of the situation.
In the distance, I think I see the man I’d left one month earlier. At this point, I am prone to apparitions, projections of my troubled conscience. I had started hallucinating because obsessions, like ghosts, don’t die a natural death, they linger.
“Are you thinking about him?” The rock star asks. He knew I was heartbroken.
The rock star, let’s call him Jon, has been a vague acquaintance for a couple years. A month prior, at his Toronto show, I told him I’d been single for four days. “Why’d you break up?” he asked.
“Because he’s an addict,” I told him.
“You can’t fuck with that. Trust me. I know.” Jon had been sober for four years. I remember counting his wrinkles. His lined eyes were so serious, like black caves. On this tour, Jon had started painting pictures on stage. That night, I watched as he painted me, with black hair and translucent skin.
“You’re right, I can’t fuck with it,” I told Jon, but I didn’t mean it.
Codependents lie and everything is a sales document: I’m fine. I can do this. All he needs is my help. I am a good actress on screen but a fantastic actress in real life. There is a certain pain, elation, terror and loneliness to the delusions of a codependent. Madness carves its own reality. If I could behave well enough, if I could love him enough, if I could self-inflict an amnesia where I forgot the grim details of our reality, we would make it after all. I wanted to save the man I loved.
I slept with Jon that night in Toronto. I didn’t want to, but he didn’t force me. Codependents are great at giving people what they want, not at saying no. Jon wanted to sleep with me; I wanted to escape. I was willing to do anything for someone who would deliver my feelings back to me in a form that was legible.
When Jon invited me on tour, I told myself it was an adventure. Yes, he was an addict, and yes, he seemed narcissistic and that was my pattern, but he was sober. Plus, I’d never been to South Carolina. I was doing it for the story!
Five years later, I guess I was right. But I’m not Penny Lane. I’m rigid.
I spent most of the time in that curtained van feeling nervous and out of place. I mainly talked to Jon’s guitarist who had played with Pink Floyd. He told me about his kids. Jon would interject once every hour if he could talk about himself. I would never talk about myself. Addicts, even sober ones, are selfish; codependents, as a way to get high, are selfless.
At a rest stop somewhere near Charlotte, the guitarist and I bought some power bars and Gatorade.
“What are you doing here? With Jon?” he asked me. He looked at me in a way I’d like to forget. I could feel my nerve endings in the wind.
“I just went through a breakup and–”
“Oh, you’re heartbroken. Now it makes sense.” How embarrassing to be so transparent.
I thought going on tour with Jon would be the fix I needed, the junkie logic of trading in one addict for another. But it wasn’t working, so I ate my power bar at that rest stop and prayed that my ex-boyfriend would come back.
When we finally arrived in South Carolina and Jon was at sound check, my ex-boyfriend called. I do believe there is a telepathy between addicts and codependents, a spiritual closeness between two people whose illnesses blend so seamlessly. He knew I was trying to replace him.
I took my ex-boyfriend’s call in the business centre of the hotel. I sat on the ground and kicked my white Chucks against the glass door. I watched as a mother of three taking her children to dinner peered at me. Why is that girl in the leather skirt crying?
“I miss you,” he told me. “I can’t sleep. Why are you in South Carolina?”
I told him I was with a musician on tour. He was fucking funny so even though he was heartsick he asked me what kind of shoes the musician was wearing.
“I bet they’re pointy boots–a troubadour!”
The denial that bonds a codependent and an addict is so thick. There’s a real creativity to love like this. It’s fun to create a mutually agreed upon false reality. We could laugh about Jon’s stupid shoes instead of crying about the mess we’d found ourselves in. My ex-boyfriend could be furious at me for being with someone else but would tell me he loved me. I could tell him I had lost my mind, that I went on tour to exorcise him or bring him back and we’d ignore that he’d disappear again soon. The seriousness of getting sober seemed to get lost in that laughing.
He was okay, I was okay, I was going to save him and he was going to save me. This fragile and dangerous thing between us could last forever.
Eventually, I could feel him avoiding me, even over the phone. Trying to pin him down was always like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.
“Did I even know you?” I asked him.
“Sorry,” he said, “I’m having a really hard time that you’re with someone else.”
That was our last real conversation. The last time I felt I could reach out and touch him. He slipped away. Like any good codependent with dysmorphic perceptions, I blamed myself.
For so long, I wished for a universe wherein he controlled his own damn poignancy and that through that phone, he’d kiss me goodnight, not goodbye. But my ex-boyfriend is the hero of this story. Because he let me go. Because he got tired of torturing me. I was forced to open the door and step into the light.
Later that night, after I said goodbye to my ex-boyfriend and stopped crying, Jon took the stage. Like any good groupie, I hung out near the back, drinking. He sang a song I’d never heard him do live before.
Remember what I said earlier about arbitrarily choosing a moment in my life from which to look back and then to look ahead? Standing in that shitty bar in South Carolina, sipping a free-pour vodka soda, is that point for me. As Jon sang, I heard my heart breaking. It was a clean, small sound, like a flower stem snapping.
I was the saint of impossible causes.
As the song ended, Jon searched for me from the stage. When he found me, he smiled and then stepped off stage. In spite of the physical immediacy of his presence, his eyes shone with a real loneliness, like he was not there at all. I could tell he had no idea what he might do next. In this moment he was a rock star, but later that night, he had no idea. I realize, as I’ve replayed this moment, that this is what connects any codependent and addict. Our grip on the world is not so tight. We agree that character is spontaneous rather than coherent.
I left the next morning.
“I hope you get back with your ex-boyfriend,” Jon told me as he loaded my bags into the airport taxi.
We didn’t kiss goodbye.
I want to say that road trip was the end of my codependency, but it wasn’t. More men like my ex-boyfriend and the rock star followed. Until six months ago, I was never not stuck in a codependent cycle. For the most part, they were hazy arrangements with an unrequited element on my part.
Slipping in and out of convalescence, twelve-step meetings and weekly therapy, I became a thinking woman, brittle and all too aware of every goddamn thing. How overwhelming it was to realize my instincts were out to get me. As time passed, that remained the most terrifying discovery. I was wired for bad romance and what I was drawn to would make a fool of me.
My brother is very committed to his church, the fellowship of Alcoholic Anonymous. He’s found his god and quotes the Big Book with the satin tongue of a born-again television preacher.
“I have no right to be the person I am today,” he tells me. “I act in complete opposition to my nature.”
As adults, my brother and I have had to learn to untrust our guts. His god told him to slowly become unconscious; mine told me to love with no bounds, in an inappropriate way, so much that I disappear.
Recovery isn’t a straight line. I believe you get well in stages. I think everyone who gets sober has a similar experience. Focus on anything other than the space, you tell yourself. I repeated the same two things over and over again: surrender your will to comedy-god. Write.
Unfortunately, or fortunately (depending on how you look at it), pain that’s performed is still pain. For me, writing acts like a garbage dump or holy cemetery of my past. I can organize everything abandoned. I take all that’s wrecked and build something new.
For a long time, all I wanted to do was be amongst the rubble, cleaning old parts. I made jokes about all my drug addict ex-boyfriends, a way to care for the wounds without reopening them. I often wondered what happened to the space two people occupied together. How could it just disappear?
I decided the fundamental question to ask yourself as you grow older is this: do you get sicker or more well? Until recently, I wasn’t prepared to give you a straight answer.
We all have guardian angels. For a long time, I thought that like my god, mine was out for a smoke. According to holy texts, guardian angels are vulnerable to sin. They look like we do. The only difference is that they have the ability to see beyond a mortal timeline. They take orders from above and convert them into miracles for the deserving.
I met my guardian angel on Bumble. His name is Daniel. The second he sat down with me he saw beyond our mortal timeline and knew we would love each other.
He is the only man I’ve ever loved that doesn’t make me feel high. For that reason, maybe he’s the only man I’ve ever loved at all. I am not obsessed with solving his problems. In fact, our problems look similar. We both say yes when we want to say no. We both don’t like it when other people are uncomfortable. We feel each other’s feelings like our own.
And though he’s my angel, our love feels mortal because it’s based in reality. I never watch as he vanishes before my eyes. He is always right here, next to me.
Before Dan, even though I kept bleeding, I was striving towards something beyond the blood. If you’re a codependent reading this, here is the only advice I can give you: people can bear any pain as long as it has meaning, so give it meaning. Fight to overcome your instincts. Slip in and out of recovery but never in and out of oblivion. Know when you’re fucking up. If you make a mistake, regret it. Let it bother you. Don’t take it lying down.
The love Daniel gives me is the miracle I deserve (the miracle being that I’m well enough to accept it). He is my proof, and he can be your proof, too. You can get well if you have enough fight in you.
I don’t ever expect to be reunited with any of my addicts.
I now understand how and why we found each other. The urgency with which we loved each other feels less like destiny and more like an inheritance. I don’t think we’ll ever see each other, not the way we did, but I saw all those men and they saw me. I don’t want to be seen like that again. No one should be able to see your insides without you offering them up first.
I wonder how those men feel about me. I wonder if in their absence, it’s enough for them that they’ve subsumed into me, that our suffering made something better, stronger and less vulnerable to sin.
The most unfair part of life is never knowing how much space you occupy in someone else. I accept that we exist only in each other’s minds, on the edges, making things blurrier.
Here’s the thing about pain: it disintegrates. For the most part, as human beings, before we make sense of something, we forget it. My father always told me we remember that things hurt, but we never remember the quality of the pain. I’m worried that things are so good now I’ll get bored, forget the quality of the pain and romanticize the heartache once again.
I may not be in the kind of pain I once was, but like my sister sickness, addiction, I will never not be a codependent. I need to remember how it hurt and stay diligent with the pain so that I don’t relapse. In the meantime, you can find me in Los Angeles, sleeping next to the man I love, acting in direct opposition to my nature. Every single day, I speak to my hilarious god.
“For allowing me to be a person I have no right to be.”