Holmberg’s Mistake

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I’m reading a book about the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America.  The idea is that our long-held belief that Columbus discovered an uninhabited, pristinely untouched wilderness may be incorrect.

Instead, North America may have been far more populated by people and cultures that dramatically shaped and reshaped the land in ways that led to vast and thriving native civilizations.

The book opens with the author’s visit to the Beni, whose inhabitants were made famous by a scientist–Holmberg–who wrote about them as holdovers from an ancient age, so primitive in their existence and lack of culture.  Yet, this was a mistake, the author suggests.  These holdovers were actually the survivors of smallpox and influenza that laid waste to 95% of their population.  They were the remnants of a shattered culture.

It was if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving.

This was a once thriving society in one of the largest and most ecologically rich artificial environments on the planet.

Holmberg’s Mistake was not being able to look past his own discomfort and ill ease to see that these people had a rich heritage that was devastated by events outside their control.

Those with codependency, I feel, are often mistaken to be the purveyors of their own plight.  And while not entirely wrong, it’s a mistake to look at someone with codependency and think, “This is how it’s always been and so this is how it will always be.”

But like the indigenous cultures in my book, there was a rich and vibrant life in each codependent until something or someone happened to them.  Codependents are not born.  They are made.  And not through happy circumstances.

At my CoDA meetings, there is a lot of talk of families of origin and their impact on members’ being codependent.  Alcoholic family members.  Abusive relatives.  Traumatic loss.  Indescribable pain and emotional suffering.  Abandonment.  Neglect.

For these, codependency seems to be the erroneous panacea for ‘coping.’

It is the codependent’s mistake to believe that exacerbating control over all can save them from further hurt and pain.  But for many who will later find themselves in love with a codependent, it is the lover’s mistake to think that this how their partner always has been and always will be.

Trauma in my childhood left me devastated and, without healthy coping mechanisms yet developed, I became codependent as a way not just to survive, but to earmark signs of ‘growth’ and ‘stability.’

And even now, more than two months into my official recovery, I feel the impetus to assess my life, accomplishments, and relationships through the lens of codependency.

I’ve been looking for a new job for months.  Months.  And with each rejection, I feel the sting of discomfort and vulnerability.  Sometimes, in those moments, I feel myself wistfully remembering when I was a stay-at-home spouse who rarely worried about money.  I was financially cared for.

I left church early Sunday and when pushed by the pastor via text as to why–was I truly feeling unwell or did the Sunday School group scare me off–I realized that I felt I was confronted with an unavoidable reality of being old and alone, as so many around me were.  Nevermind that when I was married, I often sat alone in the church pews. A future I feared was too close for comfort, and so I went home and ‘nursed’ my worries through care-taking that left me feeling more alone.


In a recent conversation, the difference between the emotional landscape of women and men was explained to me as this: Women just don’t let go.

This seemed a cursory and harsh interpretation of the sex bombarded with the greater number of hormones, physical changes, and socially-expected sacrifices.  It also seemed not unlike telling a Holocaust survivor to “let go” of the past.

The truth is that sometimes, people get hurt.  In big ways.  In invisible ways.  And that dramatically alters who they are.  It dims the colorful personality they had before.  It throws the switch on life from thrive to survive.

But I do believe that whomever the person was before the trauma occurred still exists.  They have neither “always” been this way, and most likely, they will not “always” be this way.  And we cannot simply expect a traumatized person to “let it go,” to unceremoniously drop the armor they’ve haphazardly welded together to protect themselves–or others–from further harm.  Most do not proudly waive the banner of codependency.  We know that our codependency is inhibiting.  We know that our codependency is hiding a richer, more fulfilling life of authenticity and accomplishments.  But it’s hard to let go the sword, the helmet, the breastplate.

Life makes more sense when there’s need to keep the armor on.  And thus enters toxic relationships, self-sabotaging behaviors, and other things that invite some beating.

And yet it’s humiliating to have our armor pointed out, mocked, and us labeled dangerous and crazy because we know that we walk around armored in a largely unarmored world.

But we weren’t always this way.  Something or someone happened to lead us to feel that donning these defenses was necessary.  We felt safer.  We felt in control.  And though we had an idea of how self-limiting it was, we accepted what we could get with it on. Because we wanted to never feel vulnerable again.  Because we might die otherwise.

I wasn’t always this way, nor will I always be.  Patience, world, patience.  Patience, me, patience.

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