The Day I Realized My Illness Made Me 'Codependent' — And That's OK
Growing up as a teenager in the ’90s, listening to Beyoncé as loud as I could, belting out songs on being independent, I was certain of one thing – I was going to be an independent woman. No other person was going to control me nor was I ever going to be in a situation that I couldn’t get myself out of.
That was a tall order for a pregnant teen from the projects but I was even more hell-bent on making that my reality. I would never be in a situation where I couldn’t make decisions for myself and I was willing to do whatever it took. That’s why, in 1996, I graduated with my class – with baby in tow – and then went on to finish college. I worked full-time in a warehouse, three grueling 12+ hour shifts on the weekends, then I went to college full-time at night, taking care of my son during the day. A social life was not important to me at that time. Ultimately, I became an accountant. I controlled my money, my life, my future and I did it all without the help of my parents. I was the first one in my family to graduate college. I felt empowered, strong and certainly I was independent. At least that’s what I thought at the time.
In hindsight, I was never independent, per se. My son’s grandparents watched him during the weekends, my boyfriend (now husband) watched my son while I was at school. Without them I would not have become the “independent” woman I boasted to be. Still, I was strong; I overcame odds. I was never given a thing and loved the fact that I was about to build a house for my children, something I never thought I would ever do.
Speckled throughout my “independent” years are moments that I tried to hide, you know, as a strong woman. “Strong women,” in my then naïve and ignorant view, worked hard and were unstoppable. For many years, I hid the fact that I was indeed stoppable. In fact, it all began right after giving birth to my oldest son when a large, quarter-sized kidney stone brought me to the floor. It happened time after time when I started getting migraines with auras and nausea that kept me hidden in a dark room. I found out I had a rare kidney disorder and a congenital heart defect. I was sick all the time, catching anything that went around the office or daycare.
Still, I hid the “weaknesses” and moved on. I worked full-time for 18 years and was progressively climbing the ladder in the corporate accounting world for 12 years before my illness caught up to me.
Between the constant wrath of migraines and kidney stones, coupled with a host of many other seemingly unrelated issues with advanced arthritis at a young age, weak muscles and joints, I knew something more was going on. I was even diagnosed with a small brain tumor. “It’s inoperable and not growing now so there is nothing we can do,” I was told. So, I cried and then got over it and moved on. Vacation days were used as sick days or doctors’ appointments and I could no longer ignore the inevitable – I was unreliable. I was managing a department and I could not be relied upon to be there for my employees or for my boss. The anxiety set it and depression started to emerge. I continued to ignore the reality.
I would find any possible place at work to cry in silence, be it the bathroom, a walk outside or my car. Nobody can see me, I thought. I would talk myself off the brink of quitting until an illness at the end of 2012 left me hospitalized. During the hospitalization, many issues emerged and I had to make the decision to take a leave of absence. It was my worst nightmare.
I wanted to provide my boys with the ability to do what my parents couldn’t do for me. I wanted to be independent and successful and felt a great sense of control in my life when I was providing for my family. I was not going to easily let that go.
My stay in the hospital happened right after a flu shot that I received at work. I now believe it was something that my body wasn’t strong enough to fight, like someone with a healthy immune system could. I was slightly sick when I had the flu shot and I disclosed that but it didn’t seem to matter to those administering it. Whether it was the flu shot or a fluke, I was very sick. I had contracted two types of bacteria that were very hard to get rid of. After several days in the hospital and about eight or so different antibiotics, I was getting better. However, that hospitalization changed everything for me. I was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, a result of the antibiotics destroying my bladder lining. The hospital also found several issues within my scans that would have me in a never-ending loop of doctor visits over the next four years.
The doctors’ and specialist’s visits resulted in a finding a tubulovillous adenoma colon polyp, the most aggressive type that always turn cancerous after time. The removal of the polyp was followed by the removal of both breasts, all breast tissue, nipples, uterus, hiatal hernia repair, reconstructive surgery – all within six months.
Still, I was determined to go back to work. I had gone through DMSO treatments for my bladder and put on medication for the chronic pain and muscle spasms. I had recovered from my surgeries, or so I thought. My employer took me back, after having to re-apply to the company, but had to place me in a different, non-managerial position. I was very excited to have normalcy and control back. I found out that the manager of the department I was in was leaving and I would most likely be moving back into a management role. Life seemed to be back on track. I couldn’t still hide my migraines and take my vacation days as sick days – no problem, as long as I was working.
Then, it happened again. My left breast was infected and I was hospitalized. The antibiotic had to be given through an IV or I would lose the new breast implant. The harsh IV push of antibiotics put my bladder back into constant spasm and pain that wasn’t touched by the prior medication.
I was at a very low point in that room. I knew I was needed at work and that the department was suffering without me. Then I had an epiphany. Throughout every surgery, every migraine, every day I was sick, there was a constant in my life. He was standing right next to me again, quickly leaving work each time I was sick. So, it was then, in that hospital room, that I finally realized that I was codependent. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t realized it before. It’s OK to be codependent. I was codependent to his employer, whenever they graciously let him out to care for me.
I was codependent to my mother, who was living with us at the time and would watch my children. I can now write a long list of my codependencies, proudly.
I was lucky enough to have a loving husband that was by my side during every single surgery, every deep depression as I realized our lives were about to change significantly. I made the decision to stop being something I’m not – “independent.” I made the decision there, in the hospital, that I was going to leave the corporate world and start my own practice, part-time. I needed to manage my health first and foremost.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I would finally be diagnosed by a team of geneticists with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which finally put 20 years of scattered puzzle pieces together. In the past four and a half years, my life has changed drastically. I am now a children’s’ book author, writing novels and own an accounting company with my husband. I am on the Board of Directors for the newly created NH EDS Coalition. I do what I can, when I can. I have no choice, as my disorder has the final say. My husband still works full-time on the weekends at the very warehouse we met 20-years ago. I work part-time, at most. I don’t do any of it without help. Even though I still struggle with the acceptance of the illness and mental illness that has come along with it, I am now accepting of my codependent status.
We aren’t all Beyoncé or Kelly Clarkson, and in fact, both are codependent. If they didn’t have a fan base, then they wouldn’t be the success that they are. So, just call me Mrs. Codependent and I’ll proudly smile back and wink because it’s no longer what I use to define strength. Attitude is my choice of words to define strength, not independence.
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Thinkstock photo by Zoonar RF