Episode 20

Ashley: Letting Go of Codependent Patterns

August 27th, 2021

Announcer: Welcome to Addiction and the Family, “Episode 20: Letting go of codependent patterns.”

Casey Arrillaga: How has addiction affected your family?

Female Speaker: It robbed me of my father.

Female Speaker: Addiction's affected my family in absolutely every way.

Male Speaker: It has caused a lot of turmoil.

Female Speaker: It goes back to what I understand is at least three generations.

Female Speaker: It robbed my daughter of her mother. It robbed my mother of her daughter.

Female Speaker: Addiction has made our family quite challenging.

Male Speaker: Addiction has affected my family tremendously.

Male Speaker: It's affected my relationship with my sister where I wouldn't – I'd go for months without talking to her. It's a very difficult thing for everybody involved. It doesn't just affect the one individual. It's a disease that affects the whole family.

Male Speaker: Addiction is spread not only genetically through some of my relatives and I assume ancestors.

Female Speaker: It's generational.

Female Speaker: I think of him every day.

Casey Arrillaga: Welcome to Addiction and the Family, a podcast by and for family members of anyone with an addiction. My name is Casey Arrillaga, and I'm a clinical social worker and addiction counselor at both Windmill Wellness Ranch and InMindOut Emotional Wellness Centers in Texas.

Kira Arrillaga: And I’m Kira Arrillaga. addiction counselor intern and recovery coach at Windmill. Casey and I were in our additions together for over 10 years and have now been in recovery together for almost twice that long.

Casey Arrillaga: I've led hundreds of family workshops, but just as important is that Kira and I have lived the experience of being family to addiction as both children and adults.

Kira Arrillaga: Join us as we offer experience, strength, and realistic hope about how you and your family can find recovery together.

Casey Arrillaga: In this episode, we’ll hear my interview with Ashley, a woman who traces the roots of her codependent patterns back to early childhood, who married someone with an addiction, and who learned through this experience to move away from those codependent patterns and into a healthier way of seeing and caring for herself. In her interview, she talks about how she made these changes and how she now works to help others do the same. We’ll hear that interview after a quick message from one of our sponsors.

Casey Arrillaga: Welcome back. I’m really happy to introduce our guest, Ashley. Ashley is someone who has been working to spread the message of recovery for family members. This is of course our mission as well because family members are underserved and under-resourced, and often doesn’t even know that recovery is available to them. Ashley, welcome to Addiction and the Family. Would you mind telling our audience a little bit about yourself?

Ashley: Well, I do have to agree with you on what you said about this whole area and community being very underserved. When I was going through my kind of searching for different material and stories from other people, I didn’t really find a whole lot.As far as my own personal story is concerned, I had just a normal childhood and everything. I’d, I don’t know, gotten into contact with, I guess, addiction as a whole, just through media, like movies, TV shows, the random person who had an alcohol problem. I never really saw anything else particularly heavy. I didn’t really learn that much about this whole community of people, recovery, any of the issues that are dealt with, people who have addiction until I met my now-husband.
We met in 2013 and we kind of started out with our friendship and through that, he told me that he had issues with addiction, with different substances and whatnot. It was from there that I started doing my own research. I found a Nar-Anon meeting, but it was on the East Coast. I am on the West Coast. That was interesting, trying to dip my toes into that.
I didn’t really have a lot of other resources available to me at the time. Since it was on a different coast than I was, it wasn’t as personal as I would've hoped it would've been, so I didn’t really enmesh myself with that very much. I realized as the years went on and I did more research, I actually found out that I had something called codependency, which was something that I didn’t really like to acknowledge for a long time either. I learned that, basically, in my childhood, my parents both worked a lot, so I would spend a lot of time with my grandparents. They almost became a second set of parents to me, and unknown to me at the time, I was really little, maybe around six or seven, my grandparents were actually in the middle of going through a divorce.
I was very close with them, particularly my grandfather. I would always wait for him to come home from work. We would always hang out. It was a thing, just like [05:18]. I would always enjoy hanging out with him, both of them and everything, until one day he didn’t come home because they were going through their divorce. I assumed that since we were so close, that had something to do with me. I actually internalized that.
It changed my personality to be more quiet and reserved, and I carried that with me through my teenage years, young adulthood. When I met my now-husband, in a sense kind of latched onto that relationship and that friendship. I really wanted to be the one that saved him. I wanted to be the one that was there, right by his side, as he finally conquered his addiction, and I was the one to thank for that. I wanted to feel like I was useful and wanted. I felt in having that, it would kind of set me up in a position to where it would be impossible to lose him because I cared very much about him, even just through only a friendship standpoint. I really enjoyed having him in my life. If I presented myself in that way it would make it, like I said, less likely for me to lose him.
In going through the whole process of learning about addiction as the years went by and he would enter recovery and then relapse again or go through periods of just sobriety without the recovery aspect of it and then relapse, that caused me to do a lot more searching for different materials for different people’s perspectives, learning more about myself. Finally, it took up to this last cycle for me to finally figure out okay. I finally figured out what worked, and it was none of the things I thought that worked before. It had nothing to do with finding the right treatment plan for him or finding the right [07:10] for him or whatever.
It finally had to do with how I approached the situation and how I kind of took care of myself and focused on myself in relationship to his addiction. It had nothing to do with me trying to be the savior and save the day. From then, since I had finally found what worked for me and realizing that this was such an underserved community and there were probably lots of people out there who were searching for answers and help and just someone who understood what it was like, I wanted to share my story too. I had joined an actual Nar-Anon meeting in 2019, and that was really nice.
I had just figured that if there’s tens of meetings of NA and AA meetings in any given city, there should be an exponentially large amount of Nar-Anon meetings because all the loved ones and friends and everything, there should be a ton of them, but there was only one and there was only four or five people that would attend on a regular basis. Just with me sharing, I’m like, I know there’s Nar-Anon and everything but I wanted to do what I could to share my story and also share the importance of it, not just being the person with addictions issue. We, as loved ones, also have our own responsibilities, and how we handle it, and how we take care of ourselves in the process, and just setting ourselves up for success as well. It’s not just all about them, and their problems, and everything. We have a responsibility, as loved ones, as partners, as spouses, as well. That’s what I’ve been doing since then.

Casey Arrillaga: That’s fantastic. I appreciate your sharing all that. You talked about Nar-Anon which is one of the recovery fellowships by and for family members, but some of our audience may not have ever heard of Nar-Anon or know about it. Can you expand on what that organization is and what drew you to it?

Ashley: Yeah. There is Nar-Anon and there is Al-Anon. Nar-Anon focuses more on the loved ones of those with a narcotics addiction, a drug addiction, whereas Al-Anon is for the ones with alcohol issues.
Now, personally, I really enjoyed the literature of both groups. I have a daily reader from Nar-Anon and also from Al-Anon. I just so happen to attend a Nar-Anon meeting because, while my partner has had issues with both alcohol and drugs, it was more of a drug thing that was the more prolific thing that he was dealing with. That’s just for anybody who knows somebody with an addiction problem, not just for spouses, not just for partners. It could be parents, friends, coworkers, anybody who knows somebody with an addiction issue or an alcohol issue. You prefer to go to Al-Anon.
I started doing that when I first met him. They do have both in-person and online meetings. This one was an online meeting because it was on the East Coast. It was just where we would share our own experiences and then we would kind of touch on other people’s issues, share our experiences from their specific issue. Just kind of go back and forth on that. It wasn’t until I actually went to an in-person meeting in 2019 that I really got a sense for what it was because it was a little bit impersonal just doing it only through – it wasn’t even through voice. It was just chat, the meeting that I went to before. It was a little difficult because I didn’t know that much about the program at all, so having to kind of learn that while also just doing it through chatting was a little difficult.
The face to face meeting was really nice. They gave me a newcomer packet that gave me some basic information about what it was. I actually had a Nar-Anon literature book from his mom because she had been going to those towards the beginning of his addiction. She wasn’t attending towards the later years, but I had had that and yeah, it was really welcoming. They kind of showed me what to do. I didn’t have to immediately share if I wasn’t comfortable. When I went to the first couple of meetings, they let me have my time to kind of get comfortable with the whole situation and the whole setup.
The meetings were every week, so I would go every week. Finally, I felt more comfortable to share as the weeks went on. It was there that I found a sponsor and my sponsor worked through the steps with me, because it really does follow the structure of a NA meeting or an AA meeting where you can have a sponsor. You go through your own version of the steps. You really do have that same sense of community. You can call any of the numbers. You get their phone numbers in your welcome packet, but you can call any of the members if you ever feel like you’re struggling at any given time, which I had called my sponsor quite a few times with my own issues that I was dealing with, and different crisis, and everything. Yeah, I really do like Nar-Anon meetings.
It kind of got a little bit difficult because my home group was located in the city that I was living in, and then, a year or so later we actually moved, and then, plus, with COVID the face-to-face meetings had ended, and we were able to do Zoom, and phone calls, so that was nice. Then, like I said, just with the difference in city and with my work and everything, I wasn’t able to attend as much as I used to. I still talk to my sponsor, and I still do find that they are a very good source of support, and I really do appreciate them. I feel like they really did help me a lot. I would definitely suggest Nar-Anon meetings to anybody who was curious about that.

Casey Arrillaga: Well, I appreciate you sharing that, especially because a lot of family members would say, “I’m not the one with the problem. Why should I have to work at this?” and thus not see the point or maybe even resent the suggestion that they should get involved in recovery fellowship or otherwise work on their own recovery. Did you have those thoughts and what might you say to someone else currently thinking that?

Ashley: Yeah, because at the beginning I’m like, okay, yeah, you have your issues. We’re going to get through it together, but then as time goes on, I would build up resentments and I would just see the whole situation from a limited perspective. I would just think like, well, I don’t have any issues with drugs. I can have a glass of wine every now and then and it’s not going to be something that I just drive into the ground. I’m able to live life completely normally and it’s you that has the issue. You’re the one with the drug problem. You are the one that needs to get help and yet you won’t do it. Why do I have to do something? This is not my responsibility.
But it does have a lot to do with my behaviors and my actions too, because while I do not have the drug problem, I still can behave certain ways within the dynamics of our relationship that is unhealthy. Obviously, as they say in Nar-Anon, I didn’t cause it, can’t cure it. That responsibility is not on me, of course. Like I said, it’s just the way that I interact, the way that I would see myself as a savior, or as the person who was going to fix all the problems, or how I would lack the empathetic aspect of it to where I would just see him as the one with the problem.
I would sort of demonize him in that situation. I would kind of cut off the opportunity for support, for me to offer support to him, for me to offer a safe space of support and love and the kind of environment that somebody in that situation would need. When I don’t have the resources to take care of myself, that just makes things a lot worse for me too, even outside of the relationship, because I have no way to, in a healthy way, process my resentments, to process the feelings that I have, the anger that I have, the misconceptions that I have about certain things, and if I just keep that all bottled up, it’ll just come out in different ways in my relationship. It will come out in different ways, just to the people that surround me and my support system as a whole.
It led me personally to isolate myself. I became a much more negative person. It really took away my ability to hope for better things on any level in my life. Once I found the different places that I could go for help, Nar-Anon, or the different resources that I could find for myself, and even then once I really started my recovery and started my blog just to have an outlet for that as well and have the hope that I could help other people who were going through the same thing, that’s really what made the difference and allowed my to gain that different perspective and understand that he wasn’t a bad person; he was just going through stuff. That if I choose to stay in the relationship and I choose to stay just to be around him as a loved one and a support system, that I had to be able to look at it through a more empathetic and understanding standpoint to make it work and have it be a healthier dynamic.

Casey Arrillaga: Right on. If I can circle back around to something you said earlier. You said that you didn’t have awareness of addiction in your life until you meet your husband. Looking back with adult eyes, do you recognize addiction in any other family members now especially knowing that addiction can show up in ways other than chemical use such as gambling, sex, food, spending, etc.?

Ashley: Not in my family, no, not personally, although I did hear stories about different relatives that were a little bit removed from me like maybe aunts or uncles that I hadn’t really talked to that much. It was interesting that after having gone through this experience that it opened the door a little bit for discussion of a different – people that I may have known. Maybe it just wouldn’t have come up naturally as a topic of something between my parents and I.
After having him be in my life, it’s like, oh yeah, did you know that so and so also struggled with this or even friends of the family. We have close friends. Now, I’m starting to see their behaviors, and while before, I might have just thought that it was just their personality. Now, I see the different aspects of it. It was different mechanics of how they are as a person. I’m like, okay, maybe it isn’t just their personality; maybe they do have an actual issue with alcohol and it manifests as different things. Does that make sense?

Casey Arrillaga: It absolutely makes sense.

Ashley: I don’t want to be too specific about these certain people, but my point is that – yeah, my point is that I can see how these different things come into play now and also seeing how their partner relates to it and everything. It’s very interesting now to see those different dynamics come to play.

Casey Arrillaga: What things catch your eye now that maybe you wouldn’t have noticed before?

Ashley: This one, it has to do with alcohol. Before, I would just think like, okay, maybe they just like to have a good time. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a bad thing for them to drink just to relax or whatever, but it was just excessive. It seemed like they would need alcohol in order to have a good time at all or even to just function. It wasn’t just a glass of wine or a drink after work or at a party or whatever. It just seemed more than that.
I would notice that they would act out in different ways that were very contrasting to how they would be sober. I would find that their partner would either dismiss the situation or downplay it a little bit to minimize the embarrassment. It was just little things like that where I’m like, okay, maybe this is a little bit more serious than they’re letting on, and so things like that.

Casey Arrillaga: With your own husband, when you met, you would not have had that same awareness, but you said he talked to you about his addiction issues. What was the state of his addiction or recovery when you met?

Ashley: He had actually recently relapsed. He was at the point where once we started getting closer as friends, that was when he was starting to look into different treatment centers to go back to because he was realizing that he was getting out of hand. That was when he shared because he knew that he was going to have to go to a treatment center around that time. Of course, then me, the one who wants to have all the answers, I would take it upon myself to then call different treatment centers, which was really difficult because I would call, and they’d be like, okay, if you’re not the person seeking this, we can’t really give you a whole lot of information. I would still try like, yeah, I found this rehab and I found this rehab, and give him a whole little list and all the details, but yeah.

Casey Arrillaga: How did that go?

Ashley: He was like, yeah, no, it’s okay. I already found one. You don’t need to do that, but I would still do it. I’d do as much as I could or buy him groceries and all these kinds of things. The funny thing is looking back, he never specifically asked for any of these things, but I just took it upon myself to anticipate what he might need. I could have just asked, but no, I had to be the one to figure it all out.

Casey Arrillaga: A lot of people fall into that. You talked earlier about how much you were impacted by your grandfather leaving and how that probably started the ball rolling on the patterns you described as your codependency. Have you noticed if there are broader family patterns like that may have been passed down and which were then exacerbated by that sense of abandonment?

Ashley: I guess for me, I try to step away from analyzing things like that too much, at least for the people I’m around all the time. I don’t like to get too much into that. I can very easily do that; I just try not to because I know myself. I know how I’ll start forming opinions and stuff. Then I get too wrapped up in my head.
Looking back through the eyes of me as a child, not really having a whole lot of background information, I really did internalize the whole situation. After talking with my parents and my grandparents afterwards, they were doing it from a place of love. They didn’t want me to understand that much about what was happening because they didn’t want to have me be hurting because of that situation. In their attempt to shield me from that, it made me come up with my own answers to things, or my own reasoning, or my own rationalizations, which is how I came up with that.
Okay, we have a really fun time together. I love going over to the house. They love hanging out with me. Now, one of these random times with no prior warning, he just doesn’t come back. Obviously, it’s got to be me. Through my young eyes, that was what I thought. I’m like, well, clearly, I am the only common denominator, so that was me.
Carrying that as I got older, it made me withdrawn. I didn’t really like to have a whole lot of friends, especially of the opposite gender. I did not go through normal milestones that normal peers would go through like having a first boyfriend, or having that first kiss, or that first relationship. I intentionally would shield myself from those things because I did not want to go through the whole feeling of loss and devastation coming from that. Even if it was something as trivial as a teenage boyfriend, I just did not want any of that.
I really do think it was something that I developed on my own because of the thing that I went through because my siblings, they didn’t have any of that like I did with my grandparents or anything similar. They don’t have any of the same things that I did. I felt a little disconnected from them in that aspect and just as a whole. It was just something that I went through and processed it in young adulthood. Casey Arrillaga: This brings to mind a question: if you could go back and talk to your younger self, what would you want to tell her?

Ashley: I would want to tell her exactly what happened through the perspective of a kid. Obviously, I wouldn’t get heavy into details, but just the point of like, yeah, they just had their problems. It has nothing to do with you. It’s funny because that perspective that I was thinking, well, how would I want them to deal with it for me is actually what I used for our own child. Me and him, we have a daughter.
He would have cycles of sobriety and using as she got older and stuff like when she was little and then she got toddler stage. As she became more and more aware of her surroundings and what was going on, I had to think about that because I’m like, okay, how am I going to frame this to her because I don’t want her to think on things the same way that I did. If he goes off to a treatment center and I don’t explain what’s happening, is she going to internalize that the same way that I did? I would hope not, but I really don’t want to take that kind of chance.
I did make sure to explain to her what was happening. Dada is sick. He’s going to a doctor. We’re going to keep talking with him. We will visit him. We will talk to him as much as we can. We’re going to hope that he gets better.
It would just be something along those lines to where as much information as I can but not too heavy on the details that it’s going to confuse her, or upset her, or anything like that. It’s funny that you mentioned that because I did use that same idea as to how I would communicate with her. What would I want if I was in that situation?

Casey Arrillaga: How old is she now?

Ashley: She is now five. It’s something that we’re actually still able to talk about to this day because he hasn’t been to a treatment center in almost two years, but it’s still something that she will have a random memory come up. She’ll be able to talk about it. We can talk about it with her.
We’re able to talk about it with smiles on our faces. It’s not something that is like this dark period from her childhood. I feel like we were able to be transparent enough with her that she feels comfortable talking about it even now, even though there’s nothing currently happening. If she ever thinks about an old memory or has something she ever wants to talk about, it’s something that’s very easy to do so with us.

Casey Arrillaga: Ashley, I have to say that it’s really wonderful that you were able and are still able to talk that openly with your daughter. I have to say for any of our listeners who aren’t sure how to talk about these issues with younger family members that as a therapist, this is the approach I recommend. When people ask, do we tell the kids, how do you explain something to someone being in treatment, I say put it in terms that kids can understand. Ashley, looking into the future, there is another conversation to be had as your daughter grows older because addiction is about 50% genetic. Have you thought about how to discuss this with her as she moves into an age where she is more vulnerable herself?

Ashley: I want to carry that same principle going forward. I just want it to be as open as possible. I want it to be like with anything that parents might be uncomfortable talking to their kids about. I want it to be just like that.
Whenever the time comes to start talking about that, I want it to be where both me and my husband are there. He can share as much as he can within the guidelines of what her age is at but share how things were for him and make sure that she’s able to make wise decisions but not be so overbearing that it’s going to cause the opposite reaction because I have given some thought to how things will be on many levels when she’s older. Judging by how free-spirited and strong-willed she is now, I can only imagine that will be quite a challenge.
Yeah, I do want things to be as transparent as possible. I want her to be able to feel free to come to us with any questions she might have, any concerns, any safety issues, or anything. I just want it to be completely open because that’s how we’ve done it so far. I really do want to carry that into the future because I feel like we have a good foundation going forward on any topic, especially this one.

Casey Arrillaga: It’s never too young to establish a good foundation.

Ashley: Yeah.

Casey Arrillaga: I know with our daughter, who is now 25, I sat back and thought, my addiction was off and running by the time I was 10, so by the time she was 10, it was time to sit down and have a conversation and say, hey, this runs in our family. There are some genetics behind it. Here are some things you can do as protective factors.
We talked about some of the underlying principles of recovery fellowships without telling her she needed to go and do what we were doing or she needed to go join a group. We tried to take some of the ideas from the group and said, here are some things you might try in your life. Fortunately, she took us up on some of those things. While she certainly has had her own struggles around mental health and things like that, she’s managed to avoid having an addiction. Even though her issues showed up in a different way, it seems like some of those foundational concepts and tools from recovery fellowship, especially those aimed at family members, have been helpful, nonetheless. I think it’s a wonderful and very important conversation to have within the family.

Ashley: Yeah, and I think so, too. I feel like maybe society as a whole is getting better with even just topics of mental health and therapy, but we’re also very open with the fact that we still go to therapy. It’s just something that we do just to make sure that everything is good. We’re just like maintaining a car. I’m not just going to take my car in when it has a huge, devastating issue; I want to make sure that we take it in to get oil changes and whatnot. It’s like that.
We keep our therapist that we’ve had through the roughest of the rough times. We just see him once a month just to make sure everything is going good. We’ve very open about it. Everybody in my family knows that we go to therapy and we still do. We love it. There’s no secrets or anything. She knows we go to therapy.
I actually found her a child therapist around 2019 just to make sure because I didn’t feel like she was showing any signs of distress or anything, but I just wanted to make sure that since she was getting older that everything was going fine. She didn’t have any kind of issue that maybe I wasn’t aware of. That was when I had told the therapist that this is what we’re talking to her about and everything. She had said, yeah, that’s good. I don’t notice anything strange happening with her. She’s very good.
That was reassuring on my end, too, like, okay, good. Everything is fine. I’m doing okay with her because I tend to be a little bit hypercritical of myself. Just to have the openness there is really good. I feel like it makes me really comfortable knowing that things going forward should hopefully continue to be that way.

Casey Arrillaga: Fantastic; it strikes me that she’ll also have the comfort of going to therapy if and when she decides she needs it because I’ve seen a lot of people try and get their kids into therapy after issues have gotten really bad. It often doesn’t go well, especially if the kids are adolescents, which is maybe the worst time to try and start into therapy if it isn’t the kid’s idea. Adolescents can spend a lot of time in session with arms crossed, closed off, I’m not telling you anything, but if they’re familiar with that setting, like this is something we do, then there might be a lot more possibility for healing.

Ashley: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, I just try to be as much on the same page with her as possible while still letting her have her childhood.

Casey Arrillaga: Absolutely, and we have to keep in mind that sometimes we’re affected by things, especially as little kids, and we aren’t even aware of the effects. Nothing shows up from the outside until we hit adolescents, when the brain starts to function in new ways and on another level. Then old experiences can come up in new ways and have unexpected effects. I’m going to say again, great job in preparing her for life.

Ashley: Thank you.

Casey Arrillaga: You talked earlier about how you were affected by your own childhood experiences and how this led to codependent traits with your husband, but did you notice those traits coming out earlier perhaps in other relationships?

Ashley: Not a lot, only because, like I said, I was a little bit more withdrawn. I almost didn’t want to let it get to that point. I didn’t want to even let there be a possibility that would happen, just the whole loss. I didn’t really come into contact with the term codependency until I started doing more research on addiction and everything. Yeah, I wouldn’t even let that become like a possibility.
I did have friends, just not a whole lot of them. I got along well with a lot of people, but I never really had anybody that I considered super close except for maybe like one or two people. Even then, I still tried to have my guard up because I just didn’t want to experience a loss of any kind. For some reason, when I met my husband, it was just different. I don’t know; he was just really easy to talk to.
For some reason, I just didn’t have that impulse of habit where I would just try to be closed off. It’s almost like he knew that, too. He would do things intentionally that would make me be more open because he would point little things out like, you don’t have eye contact with people or you don’t – your posture is very closed off, or just little things like that. I’m like, wow, I didn’t even notice that, but I would intentionally do things like that to keep myself closed off from people. Even when I did have friends, I didn’t want to have really deep conversations or really show them that I cared that much as sad as that sounds. That’s not really how I wanted to be, but that was just – in my rational mind, that’s just how I thought things should be in order to keep myself safe. It’s a very sad and lonely way to live. Casey Arrillaga: We’ll hear more about how Ashley moved out of that loneliness after a break to hear from one of our sponsors.
Welcome back. Let’s hear the rest of Ashley’s interview. It’s really striking to hear you talking about being so closed off and avoiding vulnerability and then to see you today intentionally putting your story out there so vulnerably as you have been in this conversation and really allowing people into your experience. How did you make that change?

Ashley: It’s the same thing that I went through with that I had gone through my whole life trying all these different things to keep people closed off. It just got to a point where I couldn’t do it. If I wanted to continue to be friends with this person, my husband, but at the time, this person, I couldn’t continue to be closed off. It just wasn’t going to work. I had seen the benefit of our friendship to where like, okay, well, I don’t want to let this go. I’m going to clearly have to change.
It was like that through the years of his addiction. I would try and I’m pretty sure I tried really everything I could think of. Nothing was working except for the one thing that I didn’t want to do, which was actually realize that I had a problem. I was contributing all these negative things to our relationship. There was only one thing that I hadn’t done yet, which was focus on myself.
Everybody always says that. You always hear it everywhere, even in the context of just normal life outside of addiction. You hear it in Nar-Anon meetings. What does that mean? What does that mean to focus on yourself? Okay, I’m thinking about myself. Okay, well, my loved one is still suffering. What does that mean?
I learned that I had to focus on myself in terms of my actions, my behaviors, my beliefs, my mindset, the way I was thinking about things, just the way that I operated as a whole within the context of his addiction. I wanted to be a savior; can’t do that. I wanted to have the answer to everything; can’t do that. I wanted to be a people-pleaser and make sure that I was doing what other people thought I should do. Oh, you should do this. Okay, yeah, sure. If that was me, I wouldn't let that slide. I would have done this. Okay, cool, I'll do that, or let's try home detoxing. Let's try this rehab. I'm going to find you this one. Here's a credit card so that you never go without anything or whatever, because I had thought that that's how I support him. I know now that's enabling, but even when I knew what enabling was, I still didn't want to label it that. Well, you don't understand. This situation's different. I just really care about him, but then I would get resentful at the fact that I was doing all these things that would enable him, and so finally I was like, to myself, look, I've tried everything. I've tried everything. We've done everything. Everything, every option that – I said, “Oh, I'll try that next time.” I've done every single thing, and nothing has changed. If anything, things are getting worse. This is like the worst I’ve ever seen him, way worse that things were when I first met him. It was just insane.
The only thing I hadn't done was actually put up firm boundaries that I myself believed in and that I made according to how I felt and what I wanted in my life, not just because some person had told me that I should do it, and I actually started working on myself. Things that I noticed weren't helping me, negative mindset, negative beliefs, the fact that I had no hope for the future and things that I would do like not keeping resentments, not making him into this terrible, awful person and realizing I am incredibly stressed out. What can we do to help that? What are ways that I can decompress? What are ways that'll make me more independent?
I would go through many versions of this. At the end of a cycle of active use, he would be like, I'm going to go to rehab, and I would, of course, be very sad because I would miss him, and so it would be a week or so of that. Then finally, I would be able to talk to him on the phone. I’d know that he was okay, and I'm like cool, I have some time to myself now where I don't have to be worried that I'm eventually going to get the phone call that something happened to him, so I'm going to start doing stuff for myself. I would take some time to meditate. I would take some time to start a workout plan up again because I know that it makes me feel a lot better and puts me in a better mindset. I would start hanging out with friends and family, and I would start doing more things for myself, and then he would come back, and then I would fall right back into the same cycle.
This last time I actually took it seriously. I did as much as I could to build myself up as an independent person without having to rely on him so much for all of my emotional needs, and I would make sure to keep it up. Even when we were in contact a lot more, and even when he was thinking about moving back in, I was like, no, I don't think it's the right time right now. We still need to live apart, and through all that time, I was focused on me, first and foremost, me. How am I feeling? What am I doing? Okay, because if I'm not a hundred percent, I'm just going to go right back where I was, and I knew I did not want to go there.
Now it's a lot easier because if you get in the habit of doing something, if you do it for long enough, it becomes second nature, and so now I don't find myself going into those previously held beliefs and all the bad habits that I would have before. I just realized that I had to get to that breaking point. That was my rock bottom to where I realized this is what I need to do to move forward, and I can't do this anymore. I can't keep thinking that there's going to be one thing that I haven't done yet. This is it.

Casey Arrillaga: Well, that's such an important realization, and you touched on something there that I want to highlight. Again, codependency is a loosely defined term. Some people look at that set of behaviors or traits as being their own compulsion, or even call it an addiction in its own right. Did those codependent behaviors feel compulsive to you?

Ashley: I don't know. It took me a long time to even identify with the word codependent because it was something that, to me, seemed negative. I don't want another negative term. I don't believe in that, but as I would read about it and stuff, I did acknowledge, yeah, I do see these behaviors coming out in me in my own life. I don't know. It's hard to explain because I had had those behaviors for so long, and they would still come into play in different ways, maybe not like before in my life with him, but it just got to a point where I just saw how those actions and behaviors played out and how they intertwined or became overlapping with other things I was doing, and I could not live that way any longer. I thought it was going to be something that I had for the rest of my life. I thought it was going to be a part of me that existed, and I was just going to have to manage it, but at the end, I was able to see the behaviors and stuff for what they were without giving it a label, and that's what ended up making me able to fix it, so to speak, or at least work on it, and identify it and be able to change it into a new way of living and have different habits that would help me to be able to succeed in that.
For me personally, if I find out that I have a label of something, I will dive headfirst into it like okay, I have codependency. Finally, I accepted it. I'm going to get as many books on codependency as possible, but then I would just find myself obsessed in a way or hyper-focused on that label, and that would end up working against me. In working the steps, because I did work the steps too, with my sponsor, I've found different parts of myself that I wanted to change for the better, and so I didn't really write codependency. I would just write different things that I did like keeping people at a distance, isolating, different things like that, and it would help me to be more vulnerable, to not put a bunch of walls up, to allow people in that I feel helped me as a person, and they helped me feel supported, helped me feel loved, and helped to give me the strength to want to grow as a person and keep going and stuff. It was more like that where I was able to separate from the actual label itself and work on different aspects of myself as a whole, and then it naturally evolved into where I am now where I don't feel like I identify with the codependency term anymore, at least not as much as I used to.

Casey Arrillaga: Now, you talked about going through the cycles of addiction in your marriage. Did you find yourself learning things with each cycle or deepening your understanding and experience, and if so, can you talk about that?

Ashley: Yeah, so I feel like every time a cycle happened, I would learn more things, and it was usually when he was gone. I would learn more things about myself when he was in rehab, but it sucks, but every time he came back, then I would just immediately fall back into that. I'm going to work on myself while he's gone. He's going to work on himself while he's gone, and we're going to come back, and then he's going to be fine, and then I don't have to work on it anymore because I'm not dealing with him as an active addict, so it's fine. As long as he's doing what he's doing, I don't really need to work on myself anymore, and that doesn't work because then I wouldn't be able to be a healthier version of myself, which would then cause this terrible dynamic.
I did learn eventually, it's not my fault. I know that, but if I still poke at him with all these resentments that I have and all these expectations and stuff, it's not exactly setting the best foundation for our relationship outside of the addiction, let alone with that too. I learned more things in terms of tricks or whatever. If he's doing that, it means this, or if he's doing this, it means that, but that was things that I tried not to focus on so much towards the end because that really didn't matter. Looking back now it was mostly the stuff that I learned about myself. That was what I wished I can carry over and continue on, and not so much things I learned with him, which I thought was important at the time.
I remember one time he was going through a home detox, and so I actually asked him point-blank, what should I do if this happens again? I feel like you're in a place to be really open and honest with me. What should I do in this situation? He basically said, “Don't do this again. No matter how much I beg and plead with you to do this, don't do this again. This isn't helpful,” and I'm like, oh, you're right, but what if you're really sad? What if I think it's really going to work this time? I would always have that.
Looking back, I wish I could have figured it out sooner that it's just what I learned about myself. I didn't want to learn any more things to do with him. I didn't want to learn anymore what to do in this situation, what to do in that situation. If he's hiding stuff, it means that he's probably relapsed again, or look for these specific signs, these specific substances or whatnot, all the different detective things. It was mostly just keep up with all the healthy things that I had learned while he was gone. I wish I would have learned that a lot sooner and not, what option haven't I tried yet?

Casey Arrillaga: That really illustrates the journey that a lot of people go through in recovery, and not just recovery through a treatment center or a particular recovery fellowship but recovery in the broadest sense, whether it's directly from addiction or from the effects of someone else's addiction. This can include recovery work, therapy and counseling, helpful books, internal reflection, meditation, spirituality, or whatnot. Now we know that very few people make these kinds of dramatic changes the very first time they try, so we know that statistically speaking, most people with addiction will have a number of attempts before they hit a point where they can sustain sobriety, and that might be treatment centers, times in and out of one recovery fellowship or another, or anything else they try in order to keep the changes up. Knowing that this can be the same process for the loved ones of those with addiction, how many times or cycles did it take before you were ready to say that's it, I'm planting a flag. I'm doing this for me?

Ashley: Oh, man, way more than I could count, way more than I can count on one hand, maybe even two. It took a lot because it's good to have hope for the future, but for me every single time I'm like, well, if this ever happens again, or I haven't tried these different options for him. We haven't tried detoxing this way, or we haven't tried doing this, or I haven't tried approaching it this way or whatever, but it was always focused on that. It wasn't focused on what I was doing, so I would just get stuck in the same thing, the same cycle of just like being focused on him, and so it was like him and his use and everything, and so I would just fall back into it every single time.
It wouldn't even happen at different times. During any one point of his active use or his sobriety, I would just go through so many different phases of oh, I should do this, or okay, maybe I'll try doing this, and this will be the one thing that saves me or maybe this little whatever, and I didn't realize there's not just going to be one thing. Like okay, I just read this one book about recovery, then that's going to help me, and that's going to save me. There's just so many things, and I would put all of my hope into one specific thing every time, and I would always be let down by it because I didn't realize how many things went into it and how much of it was inside of me, not trying to find comfort and answers and stability and something outside of myself. I would just go through all of these things where I just put all of my hope in this one thing that was going to save me, and it never did, and when I finally realized that it was like, I wish I could have figured it out sooner, but I'm glad I figured it out when I did. That was when I realized that there's just so many different things. It was a lot of work at first to realize that I had all of these things, but once I just started going in that direction and wanting to be healthier and wanting to be happier and just having that drive, it made it just so much easier to just continue on that path. I know there's nothing else I could do for him in that situation and in that regard. I just have to keep going this way, and I can't let it just fizzle out because this is my only option, and that's what kept me going, and that's what keeps me going to this day.

Casey Arrillaga: That's fantastic. You talk about hope and that's so important, but there are two types of hope, and we want to be able to differentiate between them. One is the hope that things can get better, and that's what keeps us moving forward. The other type of hope is where we think that we are going to find the magic cure this time, that we're going to be the ones who make things all better, or that I'm going to place all my hope in this new book or the latest treatment center, whatever the new thing is that we hope will come in like a deus ex machina that finally comes in and saves the day. It's great to hear how you brought the focus back to the hope of working on yourself. It's very powerful.

Ashley: Then just as a little funny story, I remember there's a certain daily reader, a date of the Nar-Anon book, and I remember reading it and thinking that it wasthe craziest thing I've ever heard. Then I actually saw it happening in the meeting, and then I actually experienced it myself. Where it was saying this newcomer comes in and their partner is the worst of the worst. They're in jail. They're just living on the street, terrible circumstances, and they go in and they're like, okay, this is a room filled with people who are just like me, but yet they're in here and they're laughing and they're smiling and they're talking to each other as if everything's perfect. How are they like that? Do you not realize that we're going through this terrible thing? Why are you laughing? You get to a point where you realize that you can still have hope, and you can still have happiness, and you can still find joy in your life even if that is happening with your partner. I used to think that I was just the worst person if I even dare to be happy while he's living a situation like this, but then that would just cause me to just be as sick as he was and as unsupportive as I could be.
It wasn't until I was able to get to a point of being happier and healthier and being more able to live that I was actually a good support for him, and that wasn't because I was trying to be. It just happened that way naturally. I was able to do all the things that I wanted to do before once I came from a different point of not doing it just for him. I was doing it for me, and I could then do it for him as an extension of that. When you realize, like you said, the different types of hope – if you can have a hope that things will get better while you're still doing things for yourself, you don't put all this reliance on finding your comfort in this other person and their success. It's your success that you can then extend to other people, and you're able to be a better person for yourself and for them.

Casey Arrillaga: Beautifully put. I really appreciate you talking with us. We've covered a lot of ground. Before we close, though, is there anything else you want to say to someone listening to this who might be in a situation similar to where you've been?

Ashley: Yeah, as cliche as it sounds, even though everybody will tell you this, focus on yourself first. Put yourself first. That is the most important thing you can do. Don't cloud your mind with thinking of all the things that you can do to save your partner or your loved one. Figure out what you need to be healthier and happier and at least content. At least go to a neutral point first, and then you can figure it out because then your answers will come to you about how you can actually be a healthy support system to not only your partner but to anyone else that you care about in your life. Focus on yourself first. Turn inward. Take care of yourself. Nourish yourself on every level. Just make sure that you are good emotionally, and then go from there. As hard as that is, I just want to get that into people's heads. Focus on yourself first.

Casey Arrillaga: Right on, and the last question is where do people find you to get more of your perspective and follow your journey?

Ashley: I would say the blog, first and foremost, because I figured out how to put all of my social media links on the actual blog itself, so that is ashleyspeaksup.com, so from there there's the videos, the blog, the podcast, the social media links, the this, the that, everything. That's the main hub of everything, but if you were to find me on social media, that does have the link for the blog too, but I would just say for ease, the blog, ashleyspeaksup.com, and from there you can get everything else.

Casey Arrillaga: Wonderful. Well, thanks so much for coming out and being on our podcast.

Ashley: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed this. It was fun.

Casey Arrillaga: That’s our interview with Ashley. If you want more information on her and her work, go to ashleyspeaksup.com. If you want more information about Nar-Anon, go to nar-anon.org. That's N-A-R-dash-A-N-O-N-dot-org. All right. See you next time.
Thanks for being with us through another episode of Addiction and the Family. As they say in many recovery meetings, take what you liked, and leave the rest. Go out and explore the possibilities for recovery in your life, and give your loved ones the space and dignity to make their own choices.
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Kira Arrillaga: Addiction and the Family is produced, written, and engineered by Kira and Casey Arrillaga, with music by Casey.