Cornerstone Content,  Writing

From Ties That Bind To Freedom: How I Escaped The Cycle Of Codependency

Thomas Slatin
Thomas Slatin holds her Firefighter Paramedic Lieutenant helmet.
September 2022

For many years, I lived in a constant fear of being abandoned by the people around me, so I did everything in my power to keep them happy and close by me. That strategy worked fine until the day I found myself standing all alone without anyone else to turn to.

My earliest memories are of chaos. Chaos both at home and school, one seeming not to escape the other. It’s because of this that I made sure as soon as I had the means, I would turn and run away. But, I could never get away from the broken ties of ropes left over from the circus of our lives. It wasn’t until my high school English class where the imagery presented in Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men when everything changed for me.

The realization struck deep with clarity—if we can’t save ourselves or each other than we can live for something worth more, giving up on our broken ties left behind by everyone who deserted us for what they saw as safety. To paraphrase Hemingway’s opening line in A Farewell To Arms, “I’m going back into the war”.

Unlike the battle they’ve been fighting in that story, I was instead fighting on a different kind of battle field, that of the one within myself. Like so many others before me, my childhood was rife with dysfunction. I was plagued by thoughts of running away at an early age when life became too much to bear. After years of running from my personal responsibility, it took someone else deciding they no longer wanted to live for me in order to wake up out of the fog created by fear.

What was it about me being so codependent on relationships simply for validation and security that had felt like home? I used to think it was my environment, but after years of never being able to separate from people, even though it felt like their love had killed me at times, it dawned on me—it was all coming from inside me. It would take more than a handful of moves from town to town and back again for those tendencies to change.

Whatever made me feel comfortable and known had been inside my entire life; something in my heart kept pulling at memories and emotions left dormant deep within. I wanted to know what they were; I wanted to confront the truth of who I really am. The realization came slowly and grew as each day passed. There’s no way back now because I know who I am and where my future lies. The ties that bind are gone, now replaced with freedom.

I can’t recall how many times in my life I had thought about cutting off all my ties, only to do so halfway. When you’re in a codependent relationship, it’s hard to know where your responsibility starts and their responsibility ends. You end up being so co-dependent on the other person that leaving feels unbearable. This time around, there was no hesitation, as I simply wasn’t afraid anymore. For the very first time in my life, I didn’t have any regrets, and the feeling was overwhelmingly liberating.

I sunk into a deep depression when my relationship with Angie ended, and I spent months drowning in isolation. But this wasn’t a new pattern for me—it was something deeply rooted in my experience as a child. Growing up, I watched the strain of my gender incongruity cause a strain on my mother’s relationship with my father, and the years of abusive treatment from him before he passed away one February morning. During the last years of my relationship with Angie, I became more and more depressed, isolated, and dependent on alcohol, and to make matters worse, I developed an eating disorder.

On my 41st birthday, I quit my job and packed up my life, hoping to find more balance in nature. I kept driving until I felt as if I were far enough away. And yet, no matter how far I drove, for whatever reason, I needed to get lost in order to truly find myself.

The minute I crossed the Vermont border, a sense of peace engulfed me. For the first time in years, I felt grounded and without anxiety. I realized this was my chance—perhaps my last chance—to make amends with myself. I needed to break out of the cycle of codependency with toxic people and my self-destructive habits of giving my all to everyone and never asking for anything in return. I knew I needed to stop being so emotionally needy and stop chasing after love from others that never fulfilled me because I had no idea how to love myself.

And I ended up in a town where nobody knew me, and purchased my forever home in cash on the spot. It’s been almost two years and I for the first time in recent memory, I have absolutely no regrets.

Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning, my head is pounding and my chest feels so tight because I haven’t been breathing well for most of the night. I sometimes stay up all night and think about my spontaneous departure, and how my actions had an unintentional ripple effect on those around me.

It really hurts is when all those memories from years ago come back—the images, sounds, words—and how they made me feel at the time that still makes me want to cry, but there are no tears left inside me anymore. Those were just a few days that didn’t seem like much at the time.

While my mother loved me and tried to do her best for me, I had a father who hated the thought of me being female, and for as long as he was alive, did everything to prevent me from becoming who I am today.

Now, here I am living in this new town with people who never knew my old life, or met my family, or heard about what happened back home. All these strangers around me who could never understand how much of myself I lost by running away, how much of myself died when I left.

For years, as a young girl, I escaped by reading novels about high-society life or fantasizing about meeting an amazing woman who would save me from my lonely life. In college, when the stressors piled up, these fantasy worlds provided relief once again. Now, years later, my past relationships were all transactional in the wrong direction; they got what they needed but never gave anything back to me. This wouldn’t be the case with Amelia.

When we first started dating, Amelia had no idea how much her love meant to me. She also didn’t know how hard it was for me to admit that she made me happy. She had no idea just how long I’d been waiting for someone like her and how terrified I was of letting her go too soon because then she might leave without knowing the real reason why. The cycle continued until finally, at last, we got married.

In the beginning, my love for Amelia was based on friendship, not typical lust or physical attraction, or fascination with superficial things. We are able to be close friends and confidants who could tell each other things we wouldn’t say to anyone else. When our romantic relationship developed, it was be because we had feelings for each other and was not simply out of obligation. When our sexual relationship developed, it was because we were attracted to each other and was not out of a sense of duty or compulsion.

In my previous relationships, if I felt any sort of attachment forming, my only option was to go with it so as not to scare off my partner. The idea of taking this process slower than usual—or backing away from it entirely—never crossed my mind until now.

Amelia sees me as someone she wants to spend time with instead of someone she feels obliged to spend time with—because we’ve been together in ways past partners never were: emotionally and spiritually, not just physically, or through simple convenience.

Amelia and I have seen each other at our best and worst, and everything in between. We met when we were both trying to figure out who we were and what we wanted for ourselves. We helped each other get through a lot of life’s challenges together. One day, when we had a long talk about how we both came from codependent lesbian relationships, and we realized that we both needed to break free from our unhealthy unrequited dependencies on others.

What I have learned through my personal journeys is that being a codependent is a cycle one has no choice but to break free from. I am not immune to this cycle; I’m living proof it exists in all of us. The first step was recognizing it for what it was. The second step was taking responsibility for my actions and reactions with others as an adult who could choose how they reacted. The third step was letting go of the illusion that this type of behavior would bring me love or security, because there were many times when it had not done so. The fourth step was finally believing in myself enough to stand up for myself. I had to start separating myself from unhealthy relationships and friendships where someone else’s problems had become mine as well. I had to start making boundaries for myself about how much time I would allow those people in my life whom didn’t respect those boundaries.

A sensitivity to rejection is more common in codependent people and those with low self-esteem. This often leads to feelings of isolation, desperation, sadness, and depression. What starts as a rejection may feel like you are being cast out. If a family member says they don’t want you coming over anymore, or a neighbor says they don’t want you over again because they are busy, or your best friend no longer wants your company, then these events can leave us feeling completely alone and misunderstood.

Firstly, never believe what someone else says about themselves. Second, if they say it’s not you, it’s them (they’re rejecting you), ask them why and hear their answer. Thirdly, find a healthy way to express your feelings such as journaling or talking to someone who cares about you. Finally remember that we all need time away from other people sometimes but that doesn’t mean we should reject ourselves. It is our right to take care of ourselves by not allowing others to hurt us by making us feel rejected when they make decisions for themselves.

As a codependent person, one major problem is taking on too much responsibility. My dependence on my relationship was also translated into all other relationships in my life. But, instead of waiting for someone else to do what needed to be done, I finally learned how to lean into my love and trust in myself. The process wasn’t easy and it took me over a year before I could cut ties with the people who were leading me down an unhealthy path. What’s interesting about this process is that when you choose freedom you attract people who care about your growth.

This piece was written in response to a conversation I recently had with my wife, Amelia. I was recently instructed by a literary agent to, “lower my writing to an 8th grade reading level”, and to, “stop writing about real life events”. In response, following my rejection of their monetary offer, I decided to write something today that goes against both of these principals. My original intent was to write something profoundly intellectual, but instead the piece took me to a series of profound ideas that deserved the attention of a wider audience.

The photograph used in this article is titled Thomas Slatin — File Helmet Portrait was self-taken September 1, 2022.

My Photography Style Was Inspired By The Feelings Of Abandonment | Closer To Fine By The Indigo Girls Reminds Me Of My Own Life | There’s No Way To Bargain On A Barter | Summer Comes For Everyone | I Have Wasted An Entire Year Of My Life | I’ve Lived A Life Less Ordinary | The Gender Binary is an Unnecessary Construct | What It’s Like To Be Born With Female Pseudohermaphroditism | I Was An Underestimated And Impatient Little Girl | Almost 4 AM | Fame Itself Is A Cancer And Ego Its Seed | Only The Moon Understands The Beauty Of Love | There Is A Ceiling In The Darkness | Caught Daylight | Trauma In Attachment


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