| Arts & Culture
Movies Imagining a Way Out of My Codependency
My codependency is always trying to convince me that it deserves to live. It asks me to keep the poison coming.
Before we begin, you should know that I don’t plan to tell you everything. I have my reasons. Like fiction, some essays deserve to keep their secrets. Names, little wounds, ghosts. You can stitch them into the lining, not so much to fix them in time but to leave them behind for good.
There are things I can try to explain instead—like what a film can make you see about yourself that you didn’t want to see.
In this film, a woman poisons a cruel man and chooses to keep poisoning him, to control both his cruelty and his genius. It makes you furious. It makes you long to be a murderer, in a fictional sense. You want the poison to work through his body and you want to watch him die. Not because you identify with her, the naif, though you have been her in the past: the girl trying to please a man older and more powerful. The girl who likes her own taste as she twirls in a mirror, looking at a disapproving man over her shoulder. You’ve been her, and you want this fictional version of her to be free, but that’s not it . You’ve been longing to kill the cold, controlling man with his dresses and his dinners and his rules and his quiet, but you haven’t had the guts to do it. He’s too close to something else you’ve been holding onto.
To express any ownership over the word “codependent” feels both terrifying and embarrassing. As though I, a woman of thirty-three, who has worked very hard to fashion an independent life, have failed. And while the textbook definition of codependency is stark and simple—one partner takes on the role of caregiver for the other partner, sometimes even bullying or cajoling the other into line —I’ve found the experience to be much more slippery.
In the late 1970s, psychologists who treated patients for chemical dependency found new ways to discuss the emotional lives of their partners and family members. The partners and children of alcoholics often became caretakers, seeking to control what they could in an erratic situation. To take care of their chemically dependent loved one, as if that care could swing the balance toward change. Codependency was a framework for these emerging patterns of dysfunction, enabling, and caretaking.
But caretaking of that magnitude can erode personal boundaries until it’s difficult to understand your identity outside of that role—and the behavior seeps into other parts of your life. That’s why codependency is also common in career caregivers, like nurses or therapists, and in families dealing with mental health challenges or disabilities. It’s easier, theoretically, for codependents to focus on controlling the behavior of their dependent loved ones than to maintain their own needs and boundaries. They might have forgotten what those needs and boundaries are. They might have made a secret of their own desire, even to themselves.
To make matters more confusing, codependents can exhibit all sorts of behaviors that, taken on their own, might be easier to address. There’s excessive people-pleasing, on the one hand—because we tend to lose sight of how to make ourselves happy and find our validation in external sources—and withdrawal from romantic or personal relationships, on the other—because we have rarely been shown what positive relationships with healthy boundaries look and feel like, so we assume all relationships are bad and decide not to bother with them. We have a way of ferreting out dysfunction, too, as if, once we’ve caught the scent, we have no choice but to chase it down and claim it as our own.
I thought I knew about codependency before I returned to therapy. I believed there was a logical path one could discern, descending from independence to codependence, like losing yourself in a dark pool. That it was a fate I could avert simply by being independent or uncoupled—as if codependency can’t find you or hurt you when you’re on your own.
I can tell you that I was wrong.
Each of my parents led wild teenage lives, and alcohol was banished from our home long before I was born. They saw their own choices, and the choices of their families, and changed course. They wanted a new kind of life for me and my sisters. Though I was largely sheltered from the alcoholism of my grandparents, I’m still learning the ways addiction and codependency have affected my family—one generation removed.
I’ve discovered that bad coping mechanisms are easily passed down between generations. Unlike the genetic transmission of blue eyes or a high risk of breast cancer, though, it is an inexact science. You learn to fear the lack of control that ruled a house that wasn’t even your own. This fear is difficult to name, but like a shadow, it can follow you around. It pushes you into relationships you know are bad, and it keeps you out of ones that are good. It convinces you that being alone is a strong and valiant choice.
When a relationship in my early twenties soured with spectacular force, I spent almost a full decade trying to build an identity that would protect me from the dysfunctional men I kept encountering—and whom I came to fear. I seemed too willing to lose myself in caring for them, and too distraught by the resulting breakups to pick up the pieces and move on, always wanting to fix a deeply broken thing. Better to make myself stronger, somehow, or more independent—harder to catch and harder to break.
I used my career, my disdain for men writ large, and regular moves to new cities or entirely new states to put distance between me and the broken person that relationship left behind. I thought all this independence made me safe, more self-assured than friends who used men to define themselves—but now I only see someone running away and putting up walls, terrified of connecting.
My parents worked so hard to save me, yet I still have to step in and keep saving myself.
A timeline: It’s August, and whole days slip through me. I can’t work, I can’t concentrate. My friends tell me that it’s just a phase, that I’m burned out, in need of a break. I refresh and refresh and refresh the internet. I’m not really sure what all this obsessive monitoring is for. I don’t know whether I’m looking for approval or friendship or some other connection, but what I see every time I refresh is a book deal without my name attached, bylines that aren’t mine. It makes my inability to do work feel worse.
It’s October and there’s a secret spreadsheet, a list of names I don’t have access to. What’s on there, though, what I hear about, pushes me into therapy for the first time in almost fifteen years, and the therapist will read me from the first moment. That all my anxiety about what is or isn’t true about someone I’ve come to care for is also an anxiety about caring in a way that feels more like carrying. That this is a bad pattern I have. And that this pattern comes from my family, the ghosts in my family, and the ghosts inside me.
I have not experienced trauma at the hands of this person, but the spreadsheet tells me that perhaps someone else has. I still hold all the possibilities in my head at once, and it hurts. I hate feeling uncertain about the truth. I hate feeling complicit. I hate feeling like my past pushed me toward another relationship that could have wrecked me, after so many years of forging ahead alone.
All of this seems like so very little, compared to the very worst. And yet it feels like being laughed at, cosmically, by the universe as it cycles me through patterns I thought I’d escaped. It takes me a long time to learn that I still have a choice. That this time, I can choose differently.
By December, therapy is helping. I have learned to ask myself what it is that I want. I have tried to set myself sailing in the right direction to get it. I’m online a little less because I have stopped trying to use the internet as a stand-in for the approval structures I’m used to: parents, teachers, editors. I’m trying to give up any approval structure that isn’t the one I’m building: What do you want? Why do you want it? How will you secure it for yourself?
I go to the movies in February. I shudder watching Vicky Krieps as Alma, the muse to Daniel Day-Lewis’s mercurial fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread . “Sometimes it’s good for him, to slow down his steps a little,” Alma tells the doctor sitting just off-camera in flickering firelight. Reynolds is off-screen, heaving his guts out. His dead mother glares at him through the clouded seeing-eye of a fever dream. When the camera cuts to the doctor’s face, then quickly away, you sense his suspicion and surprise before he dons a mask of British politesse. Alma has poisoned Reynolds with mushrooms harvested from his country estate, mincing their tender yellow bellies, grinding their flesh with a mortar and pestle into the finest of powders. A thimbleful steeped in Reynolds’s favored lapsang souchong, so he’ll “settle down.”
Perhaps, at first, Alma’s desire to care for Reynolds is simply that—an attempt to win the chance to take care of him for herself, even if it means making him ill. Later, though, Alma’s desire seems to shift, and what could be described as an ill-advised attempt at caretaking transforms into something more like self-preservation. She poisons Reynolds because he’s better after an illness, more balanced and somehow restored. In that moment, I realize that I’ve been Alma in the past; that the well-worn path of my emotional life pushes me toward being her again.
But I identify with Reynolds perhaps even more. I’ve long had a Reynolds Woodcock, with his outsize ego and his fragile sense of self and his ridiculous name, sewn into the lining of my skin. He whispers that I only have two choices: to be locked forever in our diseased relationship, or to be alone. I don’t think it’s an accident that Reynolds embodies both cruel male genius and codependency’s deranged logic, that these threads are woven into the same story. The muse doesn’t have to be a codependent figure—though the power dynamics in the muse-creator relationship are traditionally uneven and prescripted—but she can easily fall into codependency’s trap if the circumstances are right. And when men twist desire and intimacy into tools for getting what they want, it becomes all too easy to wield the tenderness of their partner (or family member, or friend) like a weapon.
This is why I’ve balked at readings of Phantom Thread as a subversive triumph against toxic masculinity, at the idea that Alma is controlling Reynolds’s terrible excesses instead of the other way around. If there’s anything I’ve learned from struggling with codependency, with trying to undo what I have done to myself, it’s that Alma’s form of control has a false bottom. You’re no more in control of your partner or your father or your best friend than you are the weather. Really, Alma is poisoning herself. Anderson’s film delivers a determined hush, a sly smile, where instead there could be invisible rage bubbling up through the seams of the film—and I feel its absence like a keen loss, or an irritating lie. Anderson seems to badly want Alma to be both Reynolds’s handmaiden and an independent, even subversive, woman, and perhaps he believes she is. But she is only given one action, in the end: She’s trapped in that movement, like a tape on loop, while the film attempts to convince you she’s free.
In telling the story of yourself, it’s not always easy to look at two warring visions and select one to kill. My codependency is always trying to convince me that it deserves to live, even if it has to shackle itself, heaving poisons, to me. It asks me to keep the poison coming.
I know I’m supposed to forgive the part of me that is still struggling to heal, that I’m supposed to value all the selves that made me who I am. But I don’t. I’m still mad at my past self for being stuck, for refusing to ask for help, for thinking she deserved everything she got. I’m mad at my past self for picking the mushrooms. And I’m mad at her for eating them, too.
I wish Alma’s love story had ended in murder. I want this for both selfish reasons and narrative ones. In Anderson’s vision, the codependent couple remains mutually destructive but intact. In my own story, codependency is something that can be destroyed, no matter how persuasive the love story that surrounds it may be.
That destruction means relinquishing parts of yourself that wish you harm, no matter how tightly they are woven into your fabric. It means giving up something you once had great hope for, even if to do so is painful.
Art can reveal to us the circumstances that we live in, to show us its limits. But I’ve started wanting something more from the art I consume—and create. I don’t want to butt up against the edge of what’s real or what’s possible. I want to see what’s on the other side. I want to imagine a world that doesn’t have the same limitations, the same traps, the same rules. I want to know what it would be like to be truly free, not just shown a small freedom that illuminates the constraints of what we know.
Fiction isn’t a safe place, but it lets you try on masks that make you feel safe. It lets you imagine the possibilities of a story, sneak into and out of fabricated rooms like a ghost. It lets you take things that aren’t yours and make them yours. It is, not ironically, its own form of control. When you determine both the characters and the outcome, you can right things that went wrong, even if it means committing, on the page, acts you would never commit in person. It’s what I am learning as I heal, slowly, working on a novel I have long been terrified to write, or to even attempt writing. It is what I learned that winter evening at the movies, projecting a new film in the theater of my mind.