APW 2013: Codependency and Identity

(This is third in a series of posts about Atlanta Poly Weekend 2013.)

I was utterly delighted at how many panels and discussions touched on questions of identity and codependence. I mean “identity” here as a self-discovery and self-listening process, rather than the external application of labels.

I’m early yet in my own exploration of codependence and the unhealthy behaviors I’ve harbored for many years. One of the things I’m focusing on is (re)discovering my own life patterns and identity. It’s a large component in why I moved into my own apartment.

When I saw a 5-7 adult family (with kids!) at APW, my first thought was, “Holy fuck, how do they stay themselves?”

Even with a full understanding that each person has a different tolerance for how much intermingling of identities with others is acceptable for them, I still had to wonder: seven noisy adults in a house, with kids. How do they maintain a sense of self among the chaos?

I don’t know. I didn’t ask, and they didn’t tend to be in the identity or codependence-related panels. Maybe they’ve got that mess on lock.

Sarah Olivia led an identity session, and Inara de Luna led a discussion on “polyamory and codependence”. Both gave me a lot of food for thought.

Sarah Olivia’s session focused on listening to yourself and remembering what you want. They told a story that highlighted the little ways we can lose ourselves: things like always saying, “I don’t know; whatever’s good for everyone else,” in response to, “What do you want for dinner?” Months and years of that, and you start to forget your own favorite places and pick your partners’ favorite places instead.

I was reminded of one of my sore spots that developed last year: my evening routine. Both D and Gregory liked to watch full 50-minute television shows or documentaries/movies while eating dinner. That meant that with cooking, the long show and eating, and any cleanup, “dinner” could last until at least 20:00 those nights. With a bedtime of roughly 22:00, that took up half my evening. Plus, the long time in front of a plate, not paying as much attention to my body and its hunger/fullness senses, led to me eating more.

It wasn’t how I wanted to be spending my evenings. If (!) I’m going to watch TV while I eat, I like a short show, and then to move on to the rest of my evening: coding, writing, communicating, exercising, whatever.

But about five nights a week, I acquiesced in order to spend time with them, in order to do things they liked. I didn’t want to deal with the pouts and complaints if I did anything different, so I partook. And that became my evening routine. Eventually, they were none the wiser that it still chaffed at times. Eventually, that dissatisfaction faded into the background to me, too.

After all, we do the things we want to be doing, right?

Olivia has us think of adjectives we’d’ve used to describe ourselves before we entered our relationships (poly or mono), and then to compare those (as much as was feasible, given the many years that may have passed) to our current state. I, of course, have lost a lot of my self-focus over the years, in my struggles to control the people around me.

It was such a calm, peaceful environment that I felt very comfortable speaking aloud on my own identity. We did the classic technique of sitting in a circle, and no one dominated or tried to control the discussion.

Inara de Luna’s discussion of codependency was equally comfortable. They’re much farther (time-wise) into their “recovery” journey (to use a 12-step term), and did an excellent job of focusing on the “me” parts of codependency.

I’m currently reading Codependent No More, which is an older book that comes at codependency from the 12-step approach, and works mostly with a definition of codependency as a coping mechanism that develops in response to having a relationship with a troubled/needy/dependent person, or as a way to cope with “the unwritten, silent rules that usually develop in the immediate family and set the pace for relationships” (page 33). Melody Beattie (the author) mostly examines spouses of alcoholics and drug addicts. Another prevailing theory focuses on partners of narcissists.

Beattie succeeds in not shifting blame to the alcoholics in their book, but there’s definitely an examination of the system in order to create awareness of an issue that the reader may be struggling to identify.

de Luna focused more on the individual. They’ve also read plenty more books on the topic than I have, and therefore have more sources to draw from in understanding the development and evolution of such systems.

Over the course of the weekend, I’d continued processing the fact that I was moving (despite having already taken over several carloads of boxes), and what I was accomplishing with that. By Sunday morning, when de Luna’s panel was held, I was able to talk some about the impact of both my emotionally unstable household and the effects of facing a second emotionally unstable household (my own, for the last four years): developing a coping mechanism that manifests in a lack of self-care and self-identity.

One of the important things de Luna brought up, though, is the difference between codependency and interdependence. Let’s say, for instance, that someone has a chronically injured shoulder (like me!). If you make an explicit and consenting arrangement with someone that you can freely or frequently ask for their assistance with things your shoulder makes difficult or dangerous (moving heavy things at or above shoulder height), then you have a healthy system of interdependence. That’s rather different than manipulating someone into helping you through unwritten rules.

I spent a fair amount of energy (for better or worse) in the last few months conjuring up ways I “should have” handled last year’s relationship. Healthier ways. Firmer ways. More self-caring ways.

It’s like when you think of that witty comeback too long after you’ve been dogged out by someone. Not useful in an external way, but still a way to process and check your learning.

This is an ongoing journey for me, and I think it’ll be a long one. I don’t even have a destination in mind, but the process is pretty clear for now: read, listen to myself, and take care of myself.