Codependency and authority

June 18, 2014

I find it difficult to look at the domestic violence crisis that precipitated my move to the Pacific Northwest as a productive displacement and a timely disruption. If my mother hadn’t been arrested, I wouldn’t have had access to the same kind of transitional support from my extended family that I needed to get a job and start living independently.

I should be glad her behavior came to a head in an incident that brought the attention of the police to a situation in which I had grown accustomed to feeling disbelieved and ignored whenever I reached out for help. She had been abusive before, but I had had extreme difficulty following through on the simple imperative of making a home somewhere safer. Instead I keep catching myself looking at the crisis as an aberration, something that ruined a perfectly stable living situation and turned my life upside down.

I can tell this is distorted thinking, that I had some sort of attachment disorder, maybe a codependent relationship with my mother. Difficulty distinguishing between stuckness and stick-to-it-ive-ness is probably somewhat normal (i.e., confirmation bias), but there was no way to make that toxic relationship work. It’s bizarre to miss the awful familiarity of it.

Codependency is an awkward way of describing a relationship in which my mother was both the breadwinner and the one abusing painkillers, but it does capture the learned helplessness I’ve become prone to, and the thoughtless way I relied on her for instrumental support while harboring nothing but resentment for the way she treated me. It’s possible she learned codependent relationship habits while living with my father, an alcoholic, and transferred those behaviors to me after he left.

If codependency is relationship addiction, I had withdrawn from other relationships on the perverse logic that only my assailant could “truly understand” what I had been through in the abusive relationship. She was the only witness to most of the abuse, and in that I invested the dignity of having endured years of bullying and death threats, as if it were a private club we belonged to in which the world was harsher and the stakes were higher, a club to which I had paid my dues.

Those I had confided in seemed to have accused me of blowing things out of proportion or of not having done enough to help myself, when my relationship with my mother was so emotionally taxing I didn’t believe I could handle the simultaneous stress of a job. I felt pressured to normalize my home life for appearances’ sake, a pressure so stifling I preferred to avoid social contact altogether.

“Though a good deal is too strange to be believed, nothing is too strange to have happened.” – Thomas Hardy

On some level you nurse the hope that you’re merely being disbelieved, that the truth might finally come out and lead to a reversal of the injustice you’re so accustomed to, but it’s more than that, people are waiting for you to save yourself, and they’re not holding their breath.

Peter Weir directed a wicked psychological thriller about the claustrophobic intensity of being harassed behind closed doors and treated with bemused disinterest by those you turn to for help, in which the villain is a deranged plumber who comes across as a likeable eccentric to everyone but his victim. He said / she said disputes with no witnesses provoke conciliatory reactions from most informal arbitrators, insisting that the distressed party let it go to save everyone else the trouble of an investigation.

Asking for help coping with abuse that takes place behind closed doors means leveling accusations at someone who modifies their behavior when witnesses are present, and it is also special pleading for a favor – two strong reasons for friends to brush off the request as inappropriate, especially if it’s coming from someone who seems flustered or upset. The complaint will bring nothing but trouble, and lacks the dignity of confrontation with an adversity faced voluntarily, so everything about it is socially awkward.

The ego-centric social expectations of self-discipline militate against reaching out for help with relationship violence, and speaking out is often greeted with pressure to smooth things over and conciliate with the abuser.

• pain silencing
• denial of emotions
• concealment of weaknesses

Not making a show of distress is important to avoid alienating people whose social commitments to you are casual or professional, not close and personal. But it’s typical of an abuser to isolate the victim from close friendships, so that only flimsy social ties remain.

The social isolation that results promotes cognitive distortions that are, themselves, isolating and confusing. Daniel Araoz describes “negative self-hypnosis” that produces catastrophizing delusions or excessively disastrous expectations as a process in which negative evaluations are accepted uncritically, revisited habitually, easily visualized as convincing expectations, with the ability to produce havoc in everyday life through effects on “mood, motivation, and behavior, limiting the individual in such a way that s/he cannot break through those hypnotic limits” (1982). He quotes The Reluctant Messiah (Bach 1977), “Argue for your limitations and, sure enough, they’re yours.”

I like the pantoum “kidding myself in Kuta, Bali” for its depiction of a dream within a dream and the experience of cognitive dissonance or denial in the face of disruption. Denial is a difficult concept to operationalize in metaphor, but I tend to see it as a pervasive force of nature, as intense as social pressure but internalized and more obscure.

“They’ve hired too many actors for the scene
The piles of bodies really are a laugh
The blood however excellently done
With limbs ripped off and bodies cut in half
I am the one in shock who laughs and claps

Confused? Concussed? A little drunk perhaps
At last it dawns, there is no camera crew
A man in white sticks something on my brow
He smiles and whispers sorry and departs

The frantic search for living victims starts
A second man comes close, and shakes his head
He smiles and whispers sorry and departs
I can’t accept I’m very nearly dead

A second man comes close, and shakes his head
I do not want to face my life’s conclusion
It’s just a film: my final self-delusion”

I have a working notion of attentional bias dancing through layers of cognitive dissonance in a non-linear system of veils that move because of those who are concealed and those who seek to be disillusioned, but can frustrate either or both in their own movements somewhat, and are inconsistent in which way they conceal one another and what moves among them that is not a veil.

The Prestige explores this sort of deception intricately, and includes pain silencing as a reason that cognitive dissonance can leave us unwilling to say something.

“One half of me swears … the other half convinced…”
“How can he not know?!?”

Refusal to believe the pain of another is real is what makes the trick bearable for the man who consigns himself to death but is remade as a double without having experienced the deadly last act yet. He refused to believe he could exist in both bodies, that there was no dodge for being the same man before and after the turn, for drowning every single time. This captures the self-destructive delusions of a psychopath to me, someone in denial about the consequences of their own actions.

So what have I been in denial about? Identification with your abuser feels empowering if going out on your own would be a step down in socioeconomic status, and that probably explains what’s bothering me. In a way I felt entitled to the rewards of living with someone as aggressively self-seeking as my mother, for having put up with her for so long, and I feel betrayed now that I’ve lost access to the comforts and conveniences concerned. I also had to rehome two family dogs.

But I think there’s more to it than just that. I also lost access to the vicarious experience of explosive anger so characteristic of life around my mother. I had been reliving childhood beatings and trauma through every tantrum, and crediting myself with having put up a resistance commensurate with the scale of each tantrums, as if I were accumulating points in a zero-sum game. I was addicted to stress.


Michael Ignatieff says of the role of revenge-killings in modern ethnic warfare, “revenge … is a desire to keep faith with the dead, to honor their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between generations; the violence it engenders is a ritual form of respect for the community’s dead – therein lies its legitimacy. … Political terror is tenacious because it is an ethical practice. It is a cult of the dead, a dire and absolute expression of respect.”

Paradoxically, he argues “it is the very impossibility of intergenerational vengeance that locks communities into the compulsion to repeat. As in nightmare, each side hurls itself at the locked door of the past, seeking in vain to force it open.”

Repetition and futility characterized the one-sided feud in my mother’s house. She wanted revenge for her own childhood and she wanted it from me, and I stayed as a sort of vendetta for having been treated so badly myself, or to prove I was strong enough to take anything she could throw at me, to prove that she couldn’t win.

After she was arrested, she evicted me, and that settled it.

To really enjoy the greater freedom from abuse that comes from having left, I need a more stoic attitude towards materialism and the virtues of independence. There’s a fertile paradox in Stoicism that applies to my mixed feelings, I think. Stoics prize strength and fortitude to reduce the scope of situations in which they feel forced, yet cultivate fatalism about the limits of freedom and dignity.

Stoicism is like embracing the freedom to choose duty – recognizing constraints on individualism and cultivating the virtues of deferred gratification within those limits on self-aggrandizement.

Walter Bagehot gave this sense of moral conflict a poignant, earnest expression. He called the conscience the source of a religion of superstition that takes shape spontaneously within the mind, and in which “the moral principle … is really and to most men a principle of fear.” He felt little of “the delights of a good conscience … by vivid and actual experience.”

He argued that “a sensation of shame, of reproach, of remorse, of sin … is what the moral principle really and practically thrusts on most men. Conscience is the condemnation of ourselves. … the secret tie which binds the strong man and cramps his pride, and makes him angry at the beauty of the universe – which will not let him go forth like a great animal, like the king of the forest, in the glory of his might, but restrains him with an inner fear and a secret foreboding, that if he do but exalt himself he shall be abased; if he do but set forth his own dignity, he will offend ONE who will deprive him of it.”

In feeling constantly embattled at home, I enjoyed a sense of victory over this nameless threat, a self-satisfaction or release from bad conscience that came from always being able to compare myself to my mother, always feeling superior to her, but always enjoying the moral high ground of an innocent victim at the same time. Now my everyday life lacks a scapegoat for the mundane vicissitudes of anger and shame that normal frustrations provoke, and I have to make do without the purging excitement of my mother’s flights of rage.

I should be grateful for a taste of boredom, and for the safety taken for granted in this new normal. There’s potential for creativity in that. Maybe it just takes some getting used to.

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