“So what the hell is codependency?” asks a man in the back row.
He’s wearing a brown corduroy jacket and he sounds annoyed.
I’m not sure how to answer. I’m in over my head here.
I’m a new social worker, six months out of grad school, working for a clinic on the east end of Long Island. My new boss has decided I should run the weekly Family Education Series, basically a crash course in alcoholism and how it screws up families. And tonight the topic is codependency.
I know my subject well enough. I’ve worked as an alcoholism counselor. I’ve treated hundreds of codependents. I can diagnose one in the first five minutes of a conversation.
But when it came time to prepare this talk I found I couldn’t define the word.
At work we talk about codependency all the time without ever stopping to explain what we meant. And when I looked into my half-dozen books on the subject I found each defining it in a different way. One was:
A specific condition characterized by preoccupation and extreme dependence on another person, activity, group, idea, or substance. 
An emotional, psychological, and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules. 
A multidimensional (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual) condition manifested by any suffering and dysfunction that is associated with or due to focusing on the needs and behavior of others. 
A recognizable pattern of personality traits, predictably found within most members of chemically dependent families, which are capable of creating sufficient dysfunction to warrant the diagnosis of Mixed Personality Disorder as outlined in DSM-III ,
which sent me off to yet another book to learn what the hell that meant.
Finally I came to codependency maven Melody Beattie, who explained that a codependent is simply
a person who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior. 
A fine definition. Until you notice it describes just about everyone.
Having no idea which definition to offer my workshop, I cleverly decided to present them all.
So here I am, having just done that. I’ve distributed a handout with the five definitions on it, and read them aloud, and am now looking at a roomful of blank faces.
“So what the hell is codependency?” asks Corduroy.
I giggle too. (Inside I’m thinking Shoot me now.)
Then something happens.
Something clicks in some back room of my head.
And I relax, and I hear myself answer,
“Addiction to control.”
I have surprised myself. I’ve never thought of it this way before.
But Corduroy starts asking questions, and I find answers bubbling out of me, and suddenly it’s all making a new sort of sense.
I tell him I see codependents as traumatized people, convinced their survival depends on controlling “their” alcoholic’s illness. So they do things like hide booze and avoid dad at certain times of the day and lie to his boss about why he missed work or to the neighbors about why he fell asleep in the driveway. And from all these experiences they come to see control as a way of coping generally, and set about applying it to everything and everyone in their lives, to the point where it makes them sick.
“Sick how?” Corduroy frowns.
Anxious and depressed, I tell him. But also worried and tense and irritable, and unable to relax or have fun, or identify and express feelings, or trust anyone, or like themselves. Also self-medicating with food or work or rescuing other people or whatever else they can think of.
And now Corduroy is nodding thoughtfully, and so are others in the room.
And I know I’m onto something.
After the workshop I go back to doing therapy with clinic clients. Mine is a typical outpatient caseload, filled with the sorts of problems every therapist faces: anxiety, depression, addictions, bad relationships, parenting problems.
But now something’s changed.
Have you ever bought a new car — a new Honda, say — and take it out on the road, and wherever you drive you see other Hondas? Suddenly the world is filled with Hondas you never noticed before.
This is happening to me. Suddenly my caseload is filled with control addicts.
The clients haven’t changed, I have. It’s like I’m wearing new eyeglasses. My vision has refocused or sharpened or something, and now I can’t help seeing how relentlessly, compulsively and self-destructively controlling they all are.
They? I mean We. Everyone.
Controlling, I find, is the universal addiction. It’s everywhere I look. Not just in codependent clients, but all of them. Not just in clients, but in my colleagues and friends and family. And on the nightly news, and in whatever I read or watch on tv or in the movies. And of in myself.
Like a red thread in a carpet, the idea of control snakes through every problem, every motive, every personality, every emotional life.
Why is this?
I had always assumed that dysfunctional families created codependency. But now I find the red thread running everywhere, which must mean either that (a) all families are dysfunctional (an arguable premise) or (b) the urge to control is hardwired into us, rooted in some deep part of our brain that can’t help rejecting what life hands us and trying to replace it with what we prefer. Or (c) both. Or (d) something else entirely. I don’t know.
I spend the next fifteen years studying the idea of control.
I hunt for books on control (there aren’t many), then for books on related ideas like desire and power and addiction. I buy lots of books. I start reading everything with a highlighter in my hand, scribbling big yellow Cs alongside the parts that relate to control. Half my books start to look pee-stained. I buy more books. I start typing out control-related passages I like and collect them in a computer file which as of today runs to 200 pages.
I discover Buddhism, which turns out to be all about control addiction (except Buddhists call it attachment). I try meditating. I hate it. Well, not hate it exactly, but resist it like hell, to the point I’m unable to sustain a regular practice. Apparently the control addict in me just can’t stand to sit and listen to my own thoughts, to that anxious internal chatter Buddhists call monkeymind.
I begin reshaping my approach to therapy around the idea of control. I teach my clients to notice when they’re monkeytrapped – i.e., caught in situations which tempt them to control what they cannot control, to hold on when they should let go.
I start a blog called Monkeytraps. I write posts about control addiction and ways to recover from it. I write posts about my own addiction, and the part I think of as my inner monkey, whom I name Bert.
People read the blog and write comments. “You’re writing about me,” is a familiar reply.
And the new therapy seems to work. I am struck by how many clients tell me, as they become less controlling, “It’s so much easier.”
I decide to write a book.
Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop was published in December 2015.
It’s based on four lessons I learned from my study and clinical work:
(1) We are all addicted to control.
(2) This addiction causes most emotional problems.
(3) Behind all controlling is the wish to control feelings.
(4) There are better ways to handle feelings than control.
I call these lessons the Four Laws of control, since they seem true of everyone I meet and seem to operate pretty invariably.
We can’t help but follow these laws, whether we realize it or not.
Just as, whether we realize it or not, we can’t avoid living lives shaped by the universal addiction.
 Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, ChoiceMaking: For co-dependents, adult children and spirituality seekers (Health Communications, 1985).
 Robert Subby, Lost in the shuffle: The co-dependent reality, quoted in Whitfield (see below).
 Charles Whitfield, Co-dependence: Healing the human condition (Health Communications, 1991).
 Timmen Cermak, Diagnosing and treating co-dependence (Johnson Institute, 1986).
 Melody Beattie, Codependent no more (Harper/Hazelden, 1987).
(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is his control-addicted inner monkey. Steve speaking:)
So what do we mean when we talk about control?
Like when someone says something like I want to feel more in control — what are they asking for, really?
I think it’s
Of mind, I mean.
Peace of mind. Consider that phrase, and what it suggests.
Calm. Safety. Blessed relaxation. Absence of worry. Absence of fear. The ability to do nothing and feel fine about it. Connection to our selves, to others, to the world. Serenity.
And where does peace of mind come from?
Peace of mind is rare because our minds are usually at war.
We fight reality itself, we fight ourselves, and we fight each other.
And we do it almost constantly.
“Each of us has our own silent War With Reality,” writes Stephen Cope.
This silent, unconscious war with How It Is unwittingly drives much of our behavior. We reach for the pleasant. We hate the unpleasant. We try to arrange the world so that we have only pleasant mind-states, and not unpleasant ones. We try to get rid of this pervasive sense of unsatisfactoriness in whatever way we can — by changing things ‘”out there.” By changing the world.
Think about it. Think of how often the reality you want matches the reality you have.
Think of the time you spend wishing that things (or you yourself, or your partner) were different.
Think of the energy you spend plotting or actually trying to make things the way you’d prefer.
Like all addictions, the search for control is a problem disguised as a solution. It seems to offer a way out of discomfort and discontent. In fact, it offers the opposite.
“The life of addiction is one of perpetual longing,” writes William Alexander in his Still Waters:
“I want, I want, I want” is the chant of the discontented self. This longing is reckless and insistent. It will never be fulfilled. There is not one thing, one feeling, or one idea that will satisfy it. “I want” is always followed by “more.” It gets worse.
Sure, you can fight reality. You just can’t ever win.
Is there an alternative to fighting?
We can practice surrender, responsibility and intimacy instead.
I’ve written about these alternatives before.
~ Surrender is the ability to stop controlling what can’t (or shouldn’t) be controlled. It means being able to do nothing and trust that things will work out just fine anyway. Other words for surrender are detachment, acceptance and faith. A life without surrender is a tense, white-knuckled life.
~ Responsibility means the ability to respond – to answer a situation or need appropriately. Often the key to such answers lies in our ability to listen to ourselves, especially to the body and the messages it sends us. Most of us are trained to ignore such messages. But a person who takes care of himself is being responsible. One who buries feelings or sacrifices himself for others is not.
~ Intimacy is the ability to be yourself with another person and allow them to do the same with you. It’s the most challenging alternative because it combines the first two. Intimacy requires that I stop trying to control you and also risk being myself. Not easy. But worth the work. Because intimate relationships are as good as human relationships get.*
As I said, I’ve written about these before, and expect to continue for a while.
The rest of my life, probably.
Partly because Bert — that part of me who insists on fighting the War with Reality — still has so damned much to learn about them.
But mainly because I am convinced they are the only real chance we have of achieving inner peace.
* The three alternatives and how to practice them are explained in detail in Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (Lioncrest 2015).