Will You Be My Codependent Valentine?

One of the darkest questions that arises every year for the senior single is, “What are you doing Valentine’s Day?” You know that even in this time of social distancing, masked men will not be pelting your windows with chocolates and sending you pouches of Viagra and rose petals.


Arguably, the young and single have this same bitter response, but their future is longer than their past, so they can dream. In olden days, loving someone of your own gender meant you were a mentally ill, criminal sinner, and, paradoxically, that very hatred strongly magnified the need for the sanctuary that a lover could provide. It often meant living in the closet together and rushing into relationships that lasted about as long as monogamy was easy. We drank and killed ourselves a lot. And then AIDS killed many of us.


When the AIDS plague first swept the globe, an unrelated psychological epidemic also arrived — codependency. Although not an official psychiatric disorder, it’s a profile of twisted love that was conceptualized at the same time addiction was identified as a monumental problem in America. Let me tell my own story again.


In 1980, I got really drunk with my bartender partner who pissed me off while driving home. I stopped the car, shoved him out the door, and drove away. Next, I found myself breaking the glass out of the back door of a house whose owners stood in front of me, screaming. As I opened the door, I was wrestled to the ground by two cops. The homeowners decided not to press charges, and one cop gave me the option of going to jail or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The choice was difficult, but the next morning, he escorted me to my first meeting. AA really did rescue me, and I never drank again after that night.


However, I was left with that partner, who pretended to also get sober and stop using drugs. I was all but completely blind to his continual relapses, theft, and lies. Friends confronted me; I defended him. I even moved us to Houston to start a “new life,” but he was arrested several times for public sex, causing me to attend two hearings where I dramatically rushed from the courtroom to collapse in front of a toilet and weep, even though it could as well have been me who was arrested. Finally, after three tries, I put his shit on the front lawn. Then I went into withdrawal, alternately feeling angry, guilty, heartsick.


It was my therapist who gave me the codependency diagnosis. I ended up going to California to spend two weeks in a program in the middle of a gorgeous mountain cove. It provided incredible insight, and I ended up doing my psychotherapy internship there for two years. Meanwhile, I confess I’d entered another relationship with a wonderful man. It died, of course, and I moved to an apartment above a crack house whose customers could not come close to my own addiction to sex, love, and drama. I seriously had six boyfriends in the following nine months, one of whom actually moved in. Ultimately, my therapist, noting that I understood my problem but resisted actual change, gave me an ultimatum. He said I had to be abstinent for a year to continue seeing him. I went months without any sex or the delusion of love, spending most of my time whimpering in the bathtub with a scented candle and books, lots of books.


One day, I saw a child crying hysterically under a table at Zesto on Ponce de Leon while his mother cruelly cursed him. In an altered state of some sort, I kneeled by the table and reached out my arms to console the sobbing kid. What did he do? He became frightened and climbed into the lap of the adult who was abusing him. She patted him on the head and sneered at me.


In that moment I viscerally realized that my mother, my father, and the culture had taught me that love without lots of pain was meaningless. If the person I “loved” wasn’t inherently an asshole, I made sure to turn him into one. Seeing this so concretely expressed was life-changing. Yes, you could call it sadomasochism.


Like alcoholism, codependency remains especially common among gay people. If your parents and the culture reject you by pathologizing your love, you’re likely going to have difficulty with relationships. If you’re interested, the world’s favorite book on the subject — which could make the perfect gift for your Valentine — is Melody Beattie’s “Codependent No More.”


Cliff Bostock, Ph.D., is a former psychotherapist who offers life coaching. He specializes in older men and creative people who feel blocked. Cliffbostock.com, cliffbostock@gmail.com, 404-518-4415.