An Inmate’s Story – A Lesson In Codependency

Every month I run our program at the California Institution for Women. Most of the women are doing life sentences, having murdered their partners and all victims of abuse.

Corinne Ho, pictured with me, is on my board of The Women’s Voice Project and attends these sessions with me. Her dedication is invaluable. She not only arranged for the Spanish translation of WHEN LOVING HIM HURTS but acts as the translator for the Latino women. Some of these women are in their seventies, cannot speak English and would never have had the opportunity to heal from horrific abuse experienced since childhood.

Codependency and abuse are a great leveler, just like addiction. It makes no distinction between demographics, education, color or class. After each session, the women are given assignments from When Loving Him Hurts. Some of their stories are so inspirational that I asked the prison for permission to print them to inform and empower women like you. Only their names have been changed. Their stories may differ from yours but the underlying theme will be identical. Equating love with need, working like a slave for a man’s approval, needing a man to validate their worth, and having no self-esteem. Codependency is bred in childhood and each of their stories is testimony to this.

Each one is given a written response to help them connect the dots as to why they chose the men they did, help them identify self-destructive patterns, and how to create new ones that serve them in ways they never imagined possible.  Below is my response to one of their stories. For the purpose of this blog, I will call her Nancy.

From my response you will learn about her story.

Dear Nancy,

I want you to consider what you understood love to be from a very young age. Abuse from your mother, a brother who was the first to molest you, a family you couldn’t trust, and no safe place to be. Your world view from this experience was that the world is a dangerous, scary, hostile, and unsafe place.

Can you see today that experimenting with drugs at an early age was a way out of your desperation to not feel? It was what you used to cope. To numb the pain. You described how you fell in love at 14. What on earth do we know what love is at that age?  From your understanding of what love was, you would have gone to anyone who gave you the slightest attention.

Imposing adult emotions on a child is what creates chaos, dysfunction and suffering. We are barely able to cope with these emotions as adults. It’s impossible to deal with them as children especially when it comes to countless rapes. Falling pregnant at a young age,  having an abortion and then having to lie about it, can only create havoc to an already chaotic life. Your life up until then was so fraught with hostility, pain, and uncertainty, you had no skills to navigate any of this.

The life you described that followed is understandable. Running with men and doing drugs, was an indication of how badly you wanted to jump out of your skin. Anything to numb the pain.  When we don’t deal with the issues, they burrow underground and come out in all sorts of ways that keep us in a self-destructive cycle.

Your aversion to taking responsibility with your kids, is a reaction to having responsibilities foisted on you as a child that you were neither equipped to deal with or had the ability to understand. This is why I said that it is impossible for children to deal with adult responsibilities or emotions.

The first thing I want you to focus on is your guilt. It’s time to DROP IT!!! As an adult, you can now do for yourself what was never done for you as a child. Inside you is still that little girl. Traumatized and afraid. If you continue holding onto your guilt you are continuing the abuse you have experienced your entire life. Only you can stop the cycle. Make that decision today!

And here’s how: Firstly, living with powerlessness is one of the reasons you reacted to your life circumstances the way you did. From feelings of helplessness, the only way you felt like you had some power was choosing to use drugs, sleep around, go out, and neglect your children. When we don’t know how to cope and are never taught coping skills we ALWAYS self-destruct. We seek cheap thrills, dangerous traps and think that’s the answer. You were never taught what love is, trustworthiness, and responsibility so how on earth could you have shown it? You were abandoned from an early age, abandonment and neglect is all you know. As an adult, you now have the power of choice. You can choose differently. Choose to stop blaming yourself is the first step.

When you think back to how you were treated as a child, and this includes while you were a teenager, what choices did you have that you could have been different? NONE! Because you didn’t know any better. Continuing to blame yourself is no different to expecting you as a child to take on adult responsibilities when you were incapable. By blaming yourself you are continuing the abusive cycle that is entrenched in your life. There is a huge difference between blame and responsibility. Blame keeps us stuck, responsibility empowers. You now have the power to break the cycle. This is the time to take responsibility where it really counts. With yourself.

The past is over. It’s gone. Stop giving it power to infect your life now. You have been given this incredible opportunity to change the direction of your life. Give everything to yourself now that you weren’t given as a child. It is never too late and by that I mean it is never too late to be the mother to your kids. Let them be your motivation when you think it too difficult. Think of that little girl inside you who never received love, understanding, comfort, safety and be that mother to her.

Blaming keeps us stuck in victim-hood. That includes blaming the past. When we stop blaming we take our power back and are then able to make choices that empower us.

Those feelings of helplessness and powerlessness no longer need dictate your life. It makes no difference that you are in prison. You have this incredible opportunity to unlearn all the destructive ways you used to cope. So many people who aren’t in prison may as well be because they cannot free themselves from the chains of their thoughts. The irony is that in prison you can feel real freedom for the first time. Free from guilt, free from torturing yourself with your past. The past is over. It’s gone. Don’t allow it to have power over you. Real power is from within. It’s making choices today that are no longer self-destructive.

You say you have forgiven your mom.  It’s remarkable that you did. Whatever means you used to forgive her, do the same for yourself. Forgiving yourself needs to be your priority. Until you do, you will never find the peace you long for. Do this exercise each time a wave of guilt hits. Go back to every decision you made that causes you shame, pain and guilt. What were you thinking at the time you made those decisions? Did you have any choice to act differently? No, you didn’t because you didn’t know any better. Instead of judging yourself as guilty, see yourself as INNOCENT to what you were thinking and believing at the time. You had no choice because you had no idea what to do from years of abuse, degradation, and humiliation. You were never taught or shown skills how to cope. This is the time to be kind to yourself, gentle and be the loving mother to yourself that you never had growing up. As Oprah says, “when we know better, we do better”.

Once you do this, you will be able to be the loving mother to your kids. This is your first step. You are no longer alone struggling to make sense of a world that never showed kindness. Kindness starts with you. When you treat yourself in a kind, loving way, the world will reflect this back to you. There is nothing you cannot achieve. Think of the strength you have that you survived the unimaginable. Use that strength and dedicate that to yourself to heal. Break the cycle of abuse with yourself. It’s where healing begins. None of us know the future. I understand your pain with regards to your kids. When we do the right things, right things happen. All you can do right now is focus on you. If you think of everything you need to do to make things right it is too overwhelming. Think of how your life looked like when the first step was unhealthy and dysfunctional. A pattern of one dysfunctional act followed after another. The same is true when we start doing things the healthy way. You set a pattern and miracles occur.

The pain you carry for not being there for your children, use it. Be there now for you. For that child in you that was never shown love.  It’s where change begins. Each time you want to go on a guilt trip, be kind to yourself. Practice kindness whenever you can towards yourself. No one was ever there for you.  Now you can be there for yourself. Each time a wave of pain hits, remind yourself that beating yourself over it continues the cycle of abuse. You end it. You have the power and the choice to do so. TODAY!

I’m not in the least surprised you take medication. What you have endured only tells me how incredibly strong, resilient, determined and powerful you are. The fact you so want to heal, says everything about you. Stop focusing on what you did wrong. You did the best you could with what you knew and with what you had. You now get the opportunity to do things differently this time.

I am honored that you shared this with me. The fact that you are in this class is not a coincidence. I will help you every step of the way and will remind you when you forget how courageous you are. It takes courage to face ourselves, to own up and show up. Every time you want to beat yourself up about not being responsible, remind yourself that there is nothing more responsible than owning up and doing whatever it takes to do better. I applaud you. Now applaud yourself!

Author, foodie, political junkie and currrently writing a series for children, giving bible stories a much needed makeover, free from religious dogma. Author of Hot Cuisine, a book written on men and food and co-wrote When Loving Him Hurts and The Affair.

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Posted in abuse, codependency, dating, domestic violence, emotional abuse, family, love, marriage, relationships
One comment on “An Inmate’s Story – A Lesson In Codependency
  1. Sue Hickey says:

    What a magnificent post. Abuse is easier to understand in the context of a real life and I have no doubt this kind of feedback starts the healing process.


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