Thursday, July 7, 2011

People Like Cindy and Me: Part 1

In the past year I've been studying certain aspects of human relationships that deal with codependence (a much overused term, but still the official word so I'll use it) and the people they are codependent with, because of course it takes two to make a “co.” I don't know of a good word for the flip side of the codependent duality. At least one website calls them ambivalent love addicts (ALA's), but I tend to think of them as "Cindy people" for reasons that will become apparent. Ambivalent love addicts. People who are addicted to people they don’t care about because, in a nutshell, ALA’s can’t make themselves feel superior to other people if they don’t have anybody to feel superior to. They need orbiters, people to move around them as if they were the sun, no matter how badly they treat those people. That’s the simple explanation, but for the most part, I’ll let the story define that pathology.

Al Anon and ACOA (adult children of alcoholics) literature covers the topic thoroughly from the perspective of the codependent. Alcoholics and addicts are notorious people-users, and they always have family and friends who love them enough to try to save them, so they tend to draw (or more specifically infect) those around them into codependent relationships. That's one kind. The codependency experts* also talk about the yin of that yang: love addicts (people who are addicted to that first heady feeling of falling in love) and relationship addicts (people who hold on to a relationship even when they know it's not healthy for many reasons).** It's the latter that I'm interested in right now.

In order for one person to be codependent, of course another person has to also be dependent. It really does take at least two to make a "co." But it rarely looks like that person is dependent because she*** is a user: emotionally unavailable, distant, selfish, self-centered, controlling, often addicted to something else like alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, sex. This isn't a person who looks like she needs anybody else, and in fact prides herself on not needing anybody else, yet nothing could be further from the truth. She needs her codependent(s) to orbit her or she has nothing in her universe. That's the piece you rarely hear about. Because while codependents desperately want to find a way to get out of these kinds of relationships--or better yet, change them into something healthy--the ALA rarely does. Why would she? She’s the fucking sun.

I admit I haven't read that much of the literature about codependency. I grew up with the disease of alcoholism so I'm all too aware of the dynamic of people who give too much and people who take advantage of those who give too much. I'll bet it's not hard to figure out where I fall on that continuum. But I find too much reading about it depresses me, and I've got plenty of real-life observance to support what I want to say about it.

My first experience with an ALA was in fifth grade, when Cindy S. chose me to be her new best friend. I was not one of the popular girls. In elementary school, I was shy and tentative; I always felt awkward and left out. I was the oldest of five, so I didn't have anybody to go before me and then tell me how to navigate the war zone that was school. Many of the kids who had older sisters or brothers, especially the Catholic kids, seemed to know what they were doing; they seemed to enjoy built-in popularity, familial cool. I wasn't cool. I was just trying to survive. If I had one good friend in my class, I felt lucky. Having a recognized best friend was second best to being popular. I was OK with second best if it meant I didn’t play alone at recess.

In fourth grade, I was glad I had a best friend in my class, Julie Mac. We played together every recess, usually pretending we were riding palominos around the playground and solving mysteries, like Trixie Belden. I wasn't popular, but I wasn't alone. Things took a turn when I entered fifth grade. I was in Miss Parker's class, and so was Cindy S. And that year she chose me to be her best friend. I was (almost) popular.

I will admit I was a shit to Julie Mac. She was in a different class and had a different recess but it overlapped ours. I could have played with her part of the recess, but I dumped her when Cindy chose me to be her friend. Even when I had a chance, I walked around the playground with Cindy and didn't play with Julie. When Julie confronted me about it, I just shrugged. I had traded up.

Cindy was special. Her family was the wealthiest family in our small rural town. In fact, both of my parents and my brother worked at various times for businesses her family  owned--new and used car dealership, rock quarry, construction. Businesses that had the word “incorporated” in their names. My mom's husband works for them now. They were a big Catholic family who lived in a sprawling new brick ranch, and Cindy was the youngest of the bunch of kids, most of them highly popular and desirable. To be chosen by someone like Cindy S. was an honor I never imagined I would earn. And earn it I did, in so many small and humiliating ways.

Cindy had everything going for her, even when she was ten. She was slender and graceful, with long red hair like most of her siblings, always expensively dressed. I'm sure nobody made fun of her red hair like they did mine. I can't imagine anybody ever asked her if she had rusted or if she had a hot temper. In fact, I doubt anybody ever teased her or her siblings about anything, including their retarded brother (insert the PC word of your choice here if you don't like that word) who lived in some kind of institution most of the time and drove around town for hours every day in a brand new car on his visits home.

In contrast, I was a little overweight, a shy red-head who never felt like I fit in. I was watchful, trying to figure out how to navigate a cruel and often arbitrary culture where cutting remarks and random acts of violence, such as tripping or hitting, came out of nowhere…as long as a teacher wasn’t looking.

When Cindy chose me to be her best friend, I was protected from bullies; I was cool…ish. Inside I knew I hadn’t really changed at all, but I could fake that I was cool because I could borrow Cindy’s cool. Even at ten I knew it was a mask, but I was more than willing to wear it if it made the world a little safer. It didn’t, really. Cindy was not only a user, but she was a liar and she had a mean streak. But impressions matter, even at ten. I may not have been safe with her, but other kids gave me some respect, damn it. Oh, I had other casual friends; in such a small school everybody knows everybody else. But Cindy was my best friend….and I was hers.
I have to admit though, being Cindy’s best friend didn’t mean I became one of the popular kids. First, I was a Methodist. Most of the popular kids were Catholics. And second, I think Cindy only chose me that year because most of the popular kids, certainly all of the girls, were in one of the two other fifth-grade classes. And third, I suppose she recognized someone she could use, hard as that is to admit. I am absolutely certain it wasn’t because she liked me, hard as I tried to be someone she would like. In fact, although we were recognized as best friends (the elementary school version of platonic going-steady) because we always played together at recess and belonged to the same Girl Scout troop, I wasn’t invited to the things the popular kids did outside of school—the birthday parties and sleep-overs, the play-dates. In fact, I wasn’t even invited to Cindy’s birthday party, to which she invited both the popular girls and boys. When I asked her about it, she said, “Oh, you should be glad you weren’t there. It was so boring.” I had no answer to that. I just felt small….but evidently not as small as I would have felt if I wasn’t Cindy’s friend. Right?

I never invited Cindy to my house, although that wasn’t uncommon. I was rarely allowed to invite kids over, and Julie had never been invited to my house either. But I was invited to Cindy’s house once. I was so nervous and excited when Cindy’s mom called my mom and asked if I could come over after school to play and stay for dinner. I grew up in a very small town. We played outside in our neighborhoods, but play-dates, at least in my life, were rare.

We walked to Cindy’s house from school—that monstrous brick ranch on a big landscaped yard. It was perfect inside—beautiful carpets and furniture, polished wood tables. I don’t remember specifics, just an impression of wealth and luxury (that probably wouldn't impress me today). Cindy’s room was decorated, not with hand-me-down furniture and hard-wood floors like mine, but all in pink and white. Everything matched. It was more like a TV show house than real life.

But I soon noticed we were the only ones there in that big house. I had never come home to an empty house before. My mom was always there, usually with a pan of brownies or chocolate chip cookies she’d just baked. Often my grandma had stopped by on her way home from the hospital where she was a nurse and they were drinking coffee at the kitchen table. And of course my sibs were always around making too much noise. Cindy’s house was dead silent. And extremely clean.

We played for a while in her room and wandered around the house. Really I don’t remember much of what we did. The house was so big and quiet. And then Cindy said she had to fix dinner.  I asked where her mom was, if she wasn’t going to fix dinner. Cindy said no, she had to do it, and her mom would be home in time to eat. So we fixed dinner, something I had never done before by myself. We fried pork chops in a pan and heated up a can of corn. Cindy poured big glasses of milk and we set the long, shiny dining room table with three place settings. When Cindy’s mom came home, the three of us sat down to eat. Nobody else showed up. Mostly we didn’t talk, at least that I remember. By then I was feeling very uncomfortable. I ate all of my dinner, but I couldn’t finish the big glass of milk Cindy had poured me. I remember the look of disapproval they both gave me when I said I couldn’t drink it all. Cindy and I washed the dishes while her mom disappeared again. And then somehow I got home.

I wondered what Cindy’s afternoon would have been like if I hadn’t been there. I imagined her all alone in that big house, and then just her mom coming home for dinner. I don’t know where everybody else was, but because they weren’t there that evening, I imagined that’s how it always was for her, just the opposite of my noisy, rambunctious house where my dad came home and wrestled with us while Mom cooked dinner, and where we ate packed around the kitchen table. For the first time, I felt a little sorry for Cindy.

But she didn’t really deserve my sympathy. All that fifth-grade year I was her constant companion, whenever she wanted me to be. Of course, she was invited to all the things the popular kids did and I wasn’t, but when she told me about those events, it felt kind of like a privilege just to hear her stories. I ignored her cruel streak, like the time I wrote a story about a boy in our class I had a crush on. In the classroom right before recess, she grabbed the paper out of my hand and ran with it, saying she was going to show it to him. I ran after her and tried to get it back. I grabbed the back of her hair as she got to the outer door to stop her, and even got my hands on the paper, but she scratched me, tore it away and ran out the door, leaving me with about a fourth of the paper in my hand. I stood there while a sixth-grade boy laughed and taunted me for…I don’t know what. Losing the fight? And then I went back into the classroom and spent that recess at my desk with my head down. I don’t remember if she showed it to my crush or not. My impression is that she did.

What I do remember is that I forgave her every time she did something thoughtless or cruel. I wanted that bad to be her best friend. And she wanted someone who would admire her so she could feel better than….well, than me. I wanted so much to be cool: to wear cool clothes, like minidresses and go go boots, to listen to the latest pop songs, to be invited to birthday and skating parties. But I just wasn’t. I remember saving up my money and getting to buy a 45, “Build Me Up, Buttercup,” my favorite song. I ran up to Cindy and told her, thinking I’d get some cool points for that. Her response? “That song is so old. Why didn’t you get “Aquarius”? No, I was not cool. The only cool I got that year was from being friends with Cindy S. It was some painful cool, but it was mine….OK, ours.

Every school year ends though and when summer rolled around, the only place I saw kids outside of my neighborhood was the pool. Everybody went to the pool. I turned eleven that summer, and I hope I never turn eleven again. I started to put on prepubescent pudge and grow breasts and get hair in places I really didn’t want hair. My mom gave me a perm that made my hair stick out in red frizz all over my head. But she also bought me what I thought was a groovy pink swimsuit, one piece with a row of white ruffles down the front. I was never allowed to wear red or pink because I was a redhead, so getting a pink swimsuit was a big deal. I couldn’t wait to show it off at the pool. I couldn’t wait to show it off to Cindy.

to be continued...... 

*Melodie Beattie is probably the most famous expert, although it's a well studied phenomenon.
**This website that describes various types of love or relationship addicts and their opposing partners. I find it depressing, but thorough. However, I do think some of the paragraphs about relationship addicts and narcissistic addicts to be relevant to what I'm talking about here.
***As always pronouns are such a pain in the ass. In order to make this understandable, I'll use "she" for the user or ALA since I’m calling them Cindy people, and "he" for the codependent. None of these terms or pronouns satisfies me, but I need to write on.


  1. Looking forward to part 2. I was ok in elementary school, although not cool I didn't realize it. throughout junior high and high school i found i was an outsider. no cool person ever made me their best friend. guess i was lucky. i just hovered on the outside, being invisible and planning my get away.

  2. I planned my getaway too. I never thought I was popular because I didn't belong to the popular group, but my ex gave me new perspective after my 10th reunion. After the pig roast and the dancing, we went out with a bunch of people and ended up getting breakfast as the sun was coming up. On our way back to my mom's farm, he said, "I thought you weren't popular in school?
    I said, "I wasn't."
    He said, "Then why were you surrounded by people who were so happy to see you all night? There was a crowd around you all the time."
    I said, "Well, yeah, I had lots of friends. I just wasn't popular."
    He said, "Who were the popular kids then? I couldn't tell."
    I said, "They were the small group who sat in the room with the dance floor by themselves during dinner. I talked to all of them later though."
    He said, "Somehow I would have thought those were the outsiders, sitting in the other room by themselves."

    Funny how a real outsider's perspective can change the way you think about the past.

  3. And funny how long it can take to see what was really happening at any given time.