The Dark Side of Getting Clean: What No One Tells You

Hi, I’m Karin and I used to be codependent.

Codependency is “losing a sense of self because you’re so afraid of the emotions of others.” It’s “an excessive reliance on other people for approval and a sense of identity.” Giving others the ability to make you happy or, by extension, sad. Living this way was usually unfulfilling, but when things went well it was always worth the wait. I was addicted to approval. My default feeling was “forsaken” (yeah, let that sink in for a second… ouch), but sometimes I felt completely connected, understood, accepted, and loved, seen exactly the way I wanted to be seen. The mountaintop moments of an addiction keep us willingly living in a valley for years.

I just read the memoir of Jen Waite, who watched her “perfect” life unravel as she learned her husband was a psychopath. I used to picture a wild-haired, wild-eyed man clutching a blood-stained butcher’s knife when I heard “psychopath.” Think instead of the last person you’d suspect, the life of the party, funny and interesting and charming. Seemingly too good to be true. People often say they didn’t believe in the term “soulmate” until they met their psychopathic partner. A sociopath (the terms are interchangeable) seems to see you exactly the way you want to be seen.

When Jen went to a therapist to make sense of her shattered life and move on, she was invited to consider the parts of herself that were willing to overlook her husband’s red flags. Not to blame herself, but to learn and grow. Her memoir’s back cover reminds us, “The longing to live inside a fairy tale makes you vulnerable to those charming sociopaths in search of someone to exploit.” — Joseph Burgo, PhD

It’s normal to want to live in a fairy tale. Social media gives us an easy way to portray one. Perpetually clean, well-lit rooms, a baby giggling at the camera as Mom and Dad kiss wearing expensive or hipster clothes. Artful shots of exotic places. Decadent-looking foods. Complete approval, more likes than a person can be bothered to view individually.

This desire draws us into all kinds of addictions. “The longing to live inside a fairy tale” can make us vulnerable to almost anything. Our souls/bodies/well-being seem a small price to pay for feeling we have everything we ever wanted, if only for a moment. Getting clean is hard and complex. Most real feelings don’t compare favorably to being high, partly because we need to experience normalcy for being high to have meaning.

As I have gotten less codependent, I have gotten lonelier. This is the dark side of holding the keys to your own happiness. I no longer spend most of my time in a pit of lonely despair, but in return I must accept that no one will ever understand me completely. Those times I thought someone did were more about what I was willing to believe than what was actually happening. Having a self, being authentically yourself, makes you ultimately separate and different from everyone else.

In Hillbilly Elegy, a book about his own turbulent upbringing, J.D. Vance describes, “‘a typical middle class life.’ Kind of boring, by some standards, but happy in a way you appreciate only when you understand the consequences of not being boring.” Accepting that reality can underwhelm is not giving up, but growing up. It takes maturity to admit boredom is not the worst thing there is.

Authentic lives contain loneliness, tedium, temptations to impatience, stuckness. These are the price of keeping one’s mind unaltered, leaving substances unabused, having a clear perception of those around you. Much as I hate for it to be true, they are the price of health. It’s tempting to claim every single thing will be much better once you’re free of an addiction, but I quietly admit there are a few drawbacks.

It takes discipline, patience, and creativity to find healthy ways to make life amazing, and that’s how boredom serves us: by demanding these traits of us. Chasing an addictive high provides few moments of reflection or self-improvement.

It’s virtually useless to try to change a sociopath, and they rarely change on their own, because they are incapable of self-reflection. Because they cannot look at darkness closely enough to understand, they cause it wherever they go. I would sooner accept loneliness than that fate.

Originally published at on August 25, 2017.