Maya* was 21 when she showed up at her first Co-Dependents Anonymous meeting.
"I remember turning up to these weird, dingy rooms – more often than not, in odd church halls – with a bunch of people, some of whom really looked like freaks, and the whole thing being quite uncomfortable and relatively pathetic-feeling," she recalls nearly a decade later.
"[Rock bottom for codependents is] where the codependent dies of their addiction, and the way that looks is suicide, it’s that serious. The codependent kills themselves. I had gotten to that point."
The word 'codependency' is bandied about somewhat recklessly, to the point that few consider it to be a dangerous addiction. However, those with serious codependency issues tend to rely on others for their self-worth and self-esteem to the point that it can negatively impact their mental health. Often, it triggers a compulsive need to help or please others, even when it is not required or respected, and can lead to unhealthy and dysfunctional relationships. This is the case for many who attend Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA): a programme of recovery from codependency, and "a fellowship of men and women whose common purpose is to develop healthy relationships".
Like Alcoholics Anonymous, CoDA promises a degree of anonymity (only first names are used) and works off the same 12-step programme. Meetings follow a similar structure: people sharing their experiences, either in turn or as they feel moved to, and similar rules are enforced (no cross-talking or passing comment). Meetings are free and open to anyone, with locations and times listed online. Fellows are assigned 'sponsors'. And while not compulsory, at the end of a meeting, the group holds hands and recites the serenity prayer together.
Codependency tends to affect everybody to varying degrees, explains Dr Sarah Davies, a Harley Street psychologist who regularly treats people with the condition. "Where it becomes a problem is when it affects our relationships, either with others or ourselves."
She recommends looking at the common traits and patterns as a starting point. Ideally, while a codependent person would attend CoDA alongside therapy, she says, it is not always necessary to reap the benefits. "My advice is to be open-minded, go along and try half a dozen or so meetings, pick up some literature to read, speak to people and decide from there," she says, adding: "I went to CoDA myself many years ago, alongside therapy, and I can honestly say, it's one of the most helpful and loving things I did for myself."
People walk in and think they're different. I had that, like: I'm not like these fucking people, these losers. Then I came to realise: Wow, we are so similar in the way that we feel about things [and] about ourselves.
For Maya, initially it was a club she didn’t want to be part of. From the outside, it wasn’t dire straits – she looked good, sounded good, had been living in New York and had, in her words, "all the trappings of a good education". However, the reality was a dysfunctional home life (her father was an alcoholic drug addict who had been having an affair, which she was privy to from the age of six). After she had a breakdown, a therapist diagnosed her with codependency, and suggested she try CoDA.
Eventually, she came around to the idea. "They say you have to listen to the similarities, not the differences," she explains. "So many people walk into the rooms and think they’re different. I had that when I first came in, like: I’m not like these fucking people, these losers. And then I came to realise: Wow, we are so similar in the way that we feel about things [and] in the way we feel about ourselves."
And what about now, 10 years later? "It has changed my life," she says definitively.
When we talk on the phone, it’s mid-morning, and the chorus of London traffic is humming in the background. Maya is breezy but emphatic, her tone warm yet self-assured. She has agreed to talk to me on the condition there will be 100% anonymity. Which leads me to ask whether those closest to her know of her weekly, sometimes biweekly, meetings? "I don’t break my anonymity too quickly," she says. Given that one of the principles in CoDA is discernment and boundaries, she remains selective.
On that note, learning who to trust and who to let go – friends, family, men – has been among the biggest changes she's made over the past decade. "Like attracts like. Crazy attracts crazy. Misery likes company," she says. When she first started attending meetings, she was dating a man 11 years her senior. Despite being considered the ultimate no-no (it is "strongly suggested" that you go through your first year single, to "keep the focus on yourself"), that relationship continued for the next few years before coming to an end, "despite me trying to hold onto it left, right and centre". From there, she fell into another couple of bad relationships, which she now considers to have been little more than a search for validation. "It really took me a while to be able to choose better, to know my worth."
Now, she is (happily) single and dating. More importantly, she feels she can connect with someone without losing herself. At the end of the day, she is just like any other thirtysomething woman talking about dating, as evidenced by her ever-so-slight change in tone when we broach the subject. "Of course, I have the feelings of excitement and nervousness and like, 'Oh my God! When are they going to text? And what are they doing?'" she says feverishly. "It’s not like I’m like Buddha, and constantly at peace with the world. There’s still that anticipation." The difference, now, lies with her newfound spirituality, a big focus of the 12-step programme. "It’s about the feeling of being spiritually connected to something greater than myself, that’s going to take care of me – the universe has legit got my back." Applying this to dating, she says, means not settling for anyone who is "kind of great but..."
For the past decade, CoDA meetings have been a steady fixture in Maya’s life. Will that look the same in another 10 years? Most likely, yes. Much like you can’t go to the gym once a month and expect results, CoDA is an "emotional workout", she explains: "I have to keep on top of it week by week to make sure things are feeling like they’re in check." Like any addiction programme, she follows the "just for today" mantra, taking one day at a time, because "every day you wake up, you start from square one".
When she first started, she recalls, her therapist told her that one day she would get to the point where she would be able to wear her recovery "like a loose coat". She now feels like she has reached that point: no longer tightly buttoned up, it’s less consuming but always there, secure and reliable.
*Name has been changed