In The Apple and the Shady Tree, a memoir by Lisa Novick Goldberg, she explores her family’s generational battle with mental illness, which was worsened by her father’s role as the money man for the Genovese crime family. Here’s what Goldberg learned from her traumatic childhood in the shadow of the Mafia.
I have suffered from crippling anxiety and bouts of depression since childhood. The genetic component of these diseases was exacerbated by a series of unhealthy familial behaviors known as codependency. Years in therapy gave definition to the behaviors between my parents and me that had served up a bitter cocktail of fear, shame, guilt, anger and helplessness.
Based on my experiences, there are red flags indicative of any relationship mired in codependency, including:
- A preoccupation and dedication to another person’s wants and needs at the expense of your own.
- An inability to establish appropriate boundaries in the roles that each supports in the relationship.
- An enablement of unhealthy behaviors in all parties involved.
- An unwillingness or impotence to stop the actions that limit and destroy each of the participants’ chances for a healthier life.
Codependency has nothing to do with love, though it often hides behind a mask of concern, selflessness, loyalty, obligation or commitment. These excuses have little to do with the interactions that characterize a co-dependent relationship. The “co” part of this destructive connection means that both sides are responsible for maintaining a strangling hold. Both sides get some sort of payoff for their exhaustive efforts, so breaking free from the “dance of codependency can be challenging.
My relationship with my parents was a study in codependency. My mother struggled with severe depression and anxiety that was mostly left untreated. My father, though he lived at home with us, was largely absent from the family’s daily activities and he compensated for this by playing the “good parent” to my mother’s “bad parent.” My sister and I suffered greatly as pawns in their battles.
Early in my childhood, my parents’ often reckless behavior forced me to assume the position of adult in the family. My mother’s drastic and unexpected mood swings resulted in her spending an unhealthy amount of her life in the perceived protection of her bed, in her darkened bedroom, with the drone of the television as her only companion. She tried her best to be the idealized 1960s suburban mom, but she clearly struggled with the role. I became obsessed, in varying degrees throughout my life, with the impossible task of wanting to make my mother whole and to alleviate her suffering. Until just years ago, prior to therapy, we might talk on the phone as much as 10 times a day, with frequent disturbing conversations that rendered me too anxious to function. Our seemingly tight, supportive mother-daughter relationship was anything but: We enabled each other; I was clinging to the illusion of motherly love and she was struggling to maintain control of me. Both of us were operating under the cover of familial love.
My co-dependent relationship with my father was less obvious, but equally stifling. As I describe in my book, his role as the money man for the Genovese crime family involved long hours away from our home; a requirement that didn’t seem to bother him. As a child I could never get enough time with him, an issue of which I made him well-aware, but to no avail.
During adolescence, I became obsessed with the fear of losing my parents to an untimely death. As my father’s job was mostly street-centered, I could not picture him in an office and my mind filled the void with visions of him out in the evil streets of New York City. There was nothing about my father that even hinted at vulnerability, but to me, he was out in the big, bad world with no one to protect him. I begged him to help ease my anxiety by phoning me everyday at the same time so that I would know he was alive and well. He insisted that this was neither possible nor reasonable (it was the pre-cellphone era, though I’m not sure that it would have mattered).
In adulthood, my interactions with my father took on a more complex codependency. To compensate for his parental inadequacies, he tried to buy my love with cars, apartments, an expensive education, trips—material hole-fillers. If I couldn’t get his attention, I could at least get something.
I was smart enough to parlay my advantages into a better life for myself. My dad had strong opinions on how I should live my life and my fears and insecurities were a weak match against his strong personality. I willingly fed right into his need to control. It was far easier to have my father make important life decisions for me rather than to accept the responsibility of taking my own risks. You didn’t have to be a therapist to see the “co” in this codependent relationship.
We were “dancing” fast and furiously until, in my late 20s, I wound up in front of a grand jury investigation of the Mafia’s involvement in lucrative city development projects. Nothing was ever the same after that. My anxiety and depression escalated and our intermesh became even more intensified. I was desperate to break the cycle but didn’t know how. In the past, therapy and medicine had been administered on a crisis management basis, but not as a long-term solution.
Unfortunately, it took the death of my father to help release me from the suffocating relationships with both my parents. I was determined to seek the help that I needed to change. In my 50s, unable to thrive with the behaviors that had fueled my codependency, I began psychoanalysis. I am 61 years old and continue the hard work of exploring the roots of toxic relationships and how to spot and run from their trappings. The lessons learned have gone a long way to foster and enrich my interactions with my elderly mother, my husband, my daughter and even my friends.