Melody Beattie Helps Anguished Readers Kick the Dependency Habit

updated 08/07/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In desperation late one night, writer Melody Beattie called a suicide hot line. "I don't want to go on living," she sobbed to a stranger. "But I can't kill myself...too many people depend on me." Beattie calls that experience her bottoming out, and she has come a long way in the nine years since. Not only has she overcome the devastating impulse to meet other people's needs instead of her own, she has also written two best-sellers about her recovery.

Beattie's Codependent No More, published in 1986, has sold more than a million copies and spent a year on one of the New York Times's paperback best-seller lists. It was joined there recently by a sequel, Beyond Codependency (And Getting Better All the Time), whose subtitle seems fairly to describe Beattie's life. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, Beattie, 41, has warily been watching her reputation—and her bank account—grow by leaps and bounds. She hasn't moved out of her modest split-level house in a Stillwater, Minn., subdivision, but she does have some new toys. A red Jaguar sits in the driveway, and there is a 42-foot houseboat docked in the St. Croix River nearby. "If I think too much about the books being best-sellers, I panic," she says. "But I'm glad that they met a need out there."

Did they ever. Codependency is an emotional condition that affects tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans. Sufferers become excessively dependent on other people's needs, particularly when those others are involved in a self-destructive addiction. In their desperation to save these people—to control their thoughts, actions and feelings—codependents may become as hooked on the addicts as the addicts are on drugs and alcohol. The classic codependent is the spouse of the alcoholic, who becomes obsessed with the drinker's behavior. "If my husband is happy, then I'm happy," one woman told Beattie several years ago. "If he's upset, I'm anxious, upset and uncomfortable until he feels better." Yet Beattie and many experts now believe that co-dependency reaches beyond families with a chemical dependency. Those who were physically or emotionally abused as children may be affected as well because they were forced at an early age to hide their true feelings and focus on satisfying the emotional needs of their parents.

Before Beattie's books, the only literature on codependency was "scattered and technical," she says. Her books describe the process of "letting go" of other people's behavior. Beattie writes from long experience with the causes and effects of codependency. Her father, a Minneapolis fireman, left home when she was 3, and she was sexually molested by a stranger when she was 5. "The worst part was that it was never talked about in my family," she remembers. "We pretended it never happened. So I grew up wondering why it had happened to me; what was wrong with me." By age 13, Beattie was an academic overachiever and a blackout drinker. After graduation from high school, she began a seven-year descent into hard-drug use. The former honor student had a child out of wedlock (who was later raised by his father's parents) and worked as a stripper on the seedy part of Minneapolis's Hennepin Avenue.

By the age of 26, Beattie had scar tissue all over her arms from injecting her drug of choice—liquid cocaine. In 1973, convicted of attempted robbery for trying to break into a pharmacy, she was offered a choice between five years in prison and rehabilitation in a state mental hospital. Beattie took the cure. "When you're standing in the lunch line and people are shrieking and drooling and you say, 'My addiction brought me here,' " she says, "it's time to get serious."

After two years of being clean and sober, Melody, who was working as a chemical-dependency counselor, married David Beattie, an alcoholism counselor. When she realized he was still drinking (David has admitted to drinking about every six months during this period), Beattie says, "it was like finding out that there's no Santa Claus." Instead of leaving or demanding that her husband seek treatment, as a more emotionally independent wife might have done, Beattie descended into a codependent's nightmare of fixating on her husband's behavior.

Driven by her pain, Beattie researched the problem of codependency in the University of Minnesota library, in psychologists' seminars, in Al-Anon meetings and in her own home. "I drove people crazy," she says. "I was out there grabbing people, demanding to know what it was all about." She gradually found out about the process called detaching and managed eventually to untangle her emotions from her husband's behavior. "I realized that if he wanted to drink, I couldn't stop him," she says. "I gave his life back to him, and I started taking back my own." They were divorced in 1986. (Two children from the marriage, Nicole, 12, and Shane, 10, live with Melody.)

In the same year, Hazelden Educational Materials, the publishing arm of the renowned Minnesota substance-abuse treatment center, offered Beattie a meager $500 advance to write Code-pendent No More. "I had to go on welfare to meet the deadline," says Beattie. "I told the kids that someday there would be a payoff, but right then we were living on hot dogs. I kept thinking about Sylvester Stallone, penniless and writing Rocky because he believed in it. When Hazelden called up months later and told me it was selling like blazes, I couldn't believe it."

Her second book tackles issues of long-term recovery, such as learning to love again. "Relationships," Beattie writes, "are where we take our recovery on the road." It is a road she is cautiously treading herself. The new man in her life—whom she won't identify—is "astonishingly healthy," she says, but not perfect. "Perfect people," says Beattie, "are a pain in the ass."

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