I have had a relationship with Janet (not her real name) that started in the early ’90s. From the very beginning I knew that there was something different about her. Her problems, all of them, were expressed in descriptions that can only be said to be extreme. Her problems with her daughter and her grandchildren, with whom she lived for a few years, to the problems with her health and her relationships with others, all of them, were painted in very bright colors of red and orange, nothing soft about it. Everything was an emergency.

She was seeing a very good friend of mine who is now deceased, at that time in the early ’90s. In fact he was one of the elderly that I helped to take care of from about 2002-2006, when he finally died of a massive heart attack. The last three years of his life were very difficult because his Alzheimer’s then became very pronounced. Janet found this very difficult to deal with and stopped seeing my good friend because of that. I sort of became a go-between. Janet has very little tolerance for suffering in others, or for that matter, any kind of chronic problem in those she knows. She is both bi-polar and suffers from a severe anxiety disorder; so she seeks out ‘friends’ who can help her and do not call on her for anything urgent or ongoing; she can’t deal with the problems of others, they only increase her anxiety.

About the time when my friend started to fail, in 2003, Janet had to leave her daughter’s house and moved into one of those long stay motels that you see in every small town. It is not a bad place. She has a small room, with a very tiny kitchenette and a bathroom. It also has a very good TV which she watches a lot. She is totally out of communication with her daughter and will not allow me to let her know where she lives. I have talked with her daughter a couple of times and she really seems to want to reconnect with her mother.

When speaking to Janet about this, she told me that she suffered a lot of abuse from both her daughter and her grandchildren. That they only wanted her for her money to help with rent and would often leave her out of family activities. When I talk to Pam about this, she only said that there are two sides to each story and dropped it. She did however tell me that she loved her mother, though Janet never seemed to care much for her. It seems that all of her love went to the elder daughter, who is in fact also out of contact with her mother. The older daughter wants nothing to do with her. It tore at my heart to hear Pam speak, but I could not divulge her mother’s address. She does however have Janet’s PO Box number, so she can write to her and I think she has a few times.

Janet has tried to share an apartment with different people over the last 15 years, but it never worked out. She tells me that they were all crazy and she could not understand why she did not see that before she moved in with them. I guess this has happened about four times, with the same outcome. So thankfully she has given up going that route. I doubt with her emotional problems she can really live with anyone for any length of time. Even with her meds, she can barely keep her anxious concern over just about everything, under control. Her life is not easy and because her mental and emotional problems are hidden, those who live with her, or near her, may become very impatient with her actions. Which is very understandable, but this only adds to her isolation. Which insures that her neediness and clinging increases with those who are trying to help.

So over the years I have become more involved with Janet. She is on a limited income and her brother, who does not wish Janet to know that he is doing this for her, pays for one week’s rent, and there is also a little left over for other things. When there is a fifth week to pay the motel, which happens I think four times a year, I also help with that. I pay about half the rent for the fifth week. In the meantime, all of Janet’s problems are still ‘huge’ and she is at her wits end about just about everything.

My friends sometimes get a little exasperated with me and say I am co-dependent in my relationship with Janet and I do too much for her. I do not like the word co-dependent, for I feel that it is used too often and misunderstood. Yet, it is a concept that is also useful and from time to time I try to revisit this word and to ponder and pray about it. Janet is very fearful, so she spends a great deal of time trying to get others to do what she can. It comes automatically to her and over time her dependence on me and a few others to help her, becomes obsessive and oppressive. Which is of course my fault, for it happens slowly over a period of time and then a point is reached in which I have to rethink boundaries and also my own attitude towards Janet. So yes, I do become co-dependent and it tires me out. My fault, not hers; so again I pull back a bit and rethink about what I am doing, yet again, in my relationship with Janet and how I can make it healthier for both of us. Lately for instance I have been doing way too much shopping for her, when she can in fact do it herself. Her tendency is to throw out suggestions to those who know her and some take up on it (me for instances) and do for her, what she can do for herself.

Last year I tried to get her to contact some apartment complexes that help out the elderly with a very limited income. For instance, she would not be able to live in her motel if her brother did not help, or if I did not pay part of that weeks rent four or five times a year. Her car is shot so often she cannot drive. The taxi service here in Conyers is very reasonable and she could make a shopping trip for $20 round trip, this would include the tip. Also she gets food stamps. So as difficult as this will be, I am going to limit what I can do for her and let her know that. She will have to do her own food shopping and if needed, I will help with the cab fare. She only gets $400.25 dollars a month, so yes she needs help, but she can also do for herself. She is 72 but looks much younger and has lots of energy and actually quite strong. So we did talk for about an hour about finding a place that would better serve her needs. However she really ‘freaks’ when trying to think of the future, so I dropped it, but let her brother know. He recommended waiting, for there is no pushing Janet when it comes to her anxiety about thinking about the future. She only focuses on today and what is in front of her. So I guess one day, hopefully not too soon, her brother will have the sad job of placing her somewhere. It would be easier and better for Janet if she could do it herself, yet she seems incapable of doing that.

She has a safety net of friends, but over the past years many have reluctantly dropped her, because of her extreme self-centeredness in how she out of fear, uses those around her. So I am trying to save our relationship and hopefully she will do what she needs to do to get through the week. It is not much, but because of her anxious concern about everything and her insistent phone calls at night, people just shut her out. I put her ringer on silent, but listen to most of her messages. Though I have told her that she needs to get her main concerns out in the first two….which she does.

Janet is not a friend, nor is she just an acquaintance, for I do love and care for her. She is intelligent, funny and yes in her own way a fighter. Yet, I am afraid that one day she will be alone if she won’t learn to do as much as she can for herself before she calls on others to help. So inadvertently I can be making things worse for her by doing too much. I am not young and I have some health issues looming on the horizon and I don’t know how serious things will be. Her dependence on me can be detrimental for her if she does not learn to do more for herself.

So I slowly learn through my relationships, my own tendency to be co-dependent but it is also teaching me about boundaries. Not a high wall keeping others out, but one that gives me a place to stand and to be able to understand my own limitations in trying to make another’s life easier. Making another overly dependent is not the way to do that. While at times this kind of situation can seem like a ‘Gideon’s knot”, in reality it is untrue. I don’t have to use a sword to cut through it, no, I just need to deal with my own compulsion to want to over do in helping others. In the meantime as the saying goes “I will do it anyway” in spite of my failures.

I don’t know why Janet is the way she is, nor do I need to understand her completely, I just need to take responsibility for myself, my mistakes, and when I need to recreate myself with her, to use gentle language to get my point across and not argue. I do respect her, she is not helpless, though my over helping can make her so….and for what, so that my ego can shine? A very poor reason, not one worth pursuing, for in the end it can actually hurt another human being.

People talk about unconditional love. I am not sure humans are capable of that, though the love of parents for their children is probably the closest thing there is to that in the human sphere. Yet, that does not mean that striving for the ability to actually love that way should be abandoned…..just one day at a time Sweet Jesus, one day at a time.

Over the years I have written a few pieces about my interaction with Janet, I will most likely share some of them here on the Dew. She is a good teacher, a lovely human being and if I had to carry her burden I am sure I would not do as good as she is doing. The problem is me, not her….for co-dependence (as much as I hate that word) will perhaps remain with me for the rest of my days, not a reason to stop trying though…..for I believe that it is love we are called to and nothing else will heal the seeking heart.

Mark Dohle

Mark Dohle

I am 62 years old and have lived in the Atlanta area since 1971.  I am Catholic and my faith is important to me, yet as I age the mystery continues to deepen, so I read broadly and try to keep things somewhat open ended. I work with the aged and the dying. I was in the Navy for four years and I guess I am life of center when it comes to politics, but not too far left. Actually, I am kind of a political moron.

I am the third of  11 children; ten still alive, one died in in 1958, three days after birth.

  1. Independence is a myth. It’s a myth perpetrated by people who do not want to recognize or meet their social obligations–i.e. they are anti-socials. It is good to do for others. If others ask for help, it is good, because then the helper is more certain that the help is appropriate. On the other hand, if the request for help is burdensome, then there’s that nice little word ‘no.’ Some people do not like to hear the word ‘no,’ but that’s their problem. If a person’s privacy is to be recognized, then the person’s right to say ‘no’ has to be respected.
    Perhaps you feel abused because your needs and concerns are never noticed by this particular person. If so, consider that’s just how some self-centered people are. They have no awareness of other people because they have no awareness of themselves and thus no basis for comparison. That the self-centered are lacking in self-awareness may seem contradictory, but if you look for it, you’ll see that awareness in general is missing.
    The military puts great store by what they call “situational awareness” and try to instill it through training. I don’t know how successful they are. Socrates, way back when, said “know thyself.” Who knew that’s impossible for some people? It may even be organic — some disconnect in the brain, like color blindness and tone deafness.
    That young man in Tucson, Daniel Hernandez, had situational awareness in spades. Gabrielle Giffords is still alive because of it.

  2. Mark Dohle

    Thank you Monica your points are well taken and very well put, I love the way you write in such consise and yes blunt terms, a gift that you have. It is my problem more than hers, for I have to set the boundaries and am doing that at this time. It is an ongoing process and I am still learning.


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