To be honest, I had a pretty severe savior complex. I was codependent. And like every human being, I clamored for significance.
I tended to befriend tortured souls. Not merely people who were going through difficult things, but people who, as one friend once described herself, lived their dysfunctions like struggling poetic protagonists in artsy dramatic films, always expanding their roles in the script. I began to believe that God had designed me to be a sidekick, a behind-the-scenes technician for others’ elaborate performances. I believed that He didn’t really want anything more to do with me than that. I believed that He just wanted me to give of myself, and to never deny the requests or demands that were made of me.
As the dysfunctions deepened, some of these friends lost themselves and some truly endangered themselves. With the stakes that high, I thought, one misstep and I might push them over the edge. They might lose themselves, or far worse, the world might lose them. That sounds dramatic, but as a sixteen-year-old, it was the reality I was living, and I grandiosely and comprehensively thought that it was all my responsibility.
The truth is that there is some part of me that loved this, that was addicted to the high of a crisis (and there were many) and to the high of “solving” it. I care about things and people in a way that is prone to radical extremes, as a dear friend often thoughtfully reminds me. This was a potential asset gone wildly astray. I became obsessed with helping other people and had no idea how to ask for help myself. This is always the part where people say, “Isn’t that just selfless? Isn’t that good? Aren’t you just being self-congratulatory?” But it’s not. It’s something sick and twisted presenting itself as something healthy and wonderful. It’s destructive.
There came a point in my life when I drove myself into the ground with all this—when I hit bottom, when I carried others’ burdens to the point that I became physically ill, when I just couldn’t do it anymore in my exhaustion and anxiety. I began going to Al-Anon meetings—meetings for the loved ones of those suffering from addiction. And that fall, my entire life changed. Every assumption I had about myself and others began to shift. It wasn’t so much that I was trying to help people—I was trying to find worth, to get filled up myself. I wasn’t succeeding in fixing people—I was enabling them, preventing them from truly grappling with struggles that might allow them to change and grow. I wasn’t a victim or a martyr—I was choosing, willfully, to put myself in situations where I was treated exceedingly poorly. And finally, I wasn’t helping people—I was hurting them. I was trying to be their savior instead of letting God do what He does best.
Letting go of this, my own brand of addiction, has taken years, and I am still a work in progress. I am both the addict and the drug, in this sense. I am addicted to trying to help others so that I am always the one giving more, so that people will validate my existence and never leave me. And I am the drug in that I unconsciously create systems, craft mutually obsessive and possessive relationships, in which other people are dependent upon me and come to expect the unreasonable from me—and in which I destructively enable the destructive behavior of others. This leaves a lot of fear in me, even today. Even though Christ has transformed me and my life and my relationships, I am still so scared of again becoming that destructive person, the tiny seeds of which I still have somewhere deep inside of me. My most recent battle to fight, or rather, to try to allow Him to fight for me, has been the consuming anxiety stemming from this. Part of who I am is that I deeply desire meaningful relationships with people, but I am also keenly aware of the ways in which I might distort this.
Still, I know now that there is so much more to life and to love and to God. I used to think that real, passionate love for others meant spending my whole life bleeding out, so enmeshed with others’ existence that I didn’t have to confront myself or my God. But when we love others in the right order of things, the way God actually designed it to be, we allow Him and others to fill us up so that He can send us out—to care for people, not to take care of them in ways they need to learn for themselves. He designed us to set up life-giving boundaries and not fear-breeding defenses, to be in authentic connection with others and not in codependency.
Loving others well begins with loving God most and letting Him love me—and in that context, to love from a place of freedom, from a clearly distinguished self and soul, with all I have, for His glory and purpose and not my own. So much more beautiful and powerful than my own overwrought clinging and clutching, this is the vibrant life, the grounded heart—the true selflessness and the real love.