“If the cops say it’s murder, ‘I’m sorry’ is the wrong thing to say.”
- Elizabeth Zelvin
The quotation above is one of my favorite lines from my new mystery, DEATH WILL HELP YOU LEAVE HIM. I take no credit for it. My protagonist, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, sits there on the inside of my head and thinks these things up. But he’s put his finger on the problem of codependents, who compulsively apologize for everything, whether they’re responsible for it or not.
The codependent in this particular case is Bruce’s sidekick Barbara’s friend Luz, who becomes the prime suspect when her abusive boyfriend is found dead in her apartment. I usually describe Barbara as a world-class codependent. She is always sorry, but she’s also always controlling and helping whether you want her to or not and sticking her nose into everybody’s business. It makes her a terrific amateur sleuth. She’s even found a way to channel her compulsion to rescue and fix everybody around her by becoming an addictions counselor. And she goes to Al-Anon, not only for help with her long-term relationship with recovering alcoholic Jimmy, but also to try to develop some boundaries. She tries really hard, but she’s always backsliding, which is what makes her so much fun to write.
Anyhow, Luz is Barbara’s Al-Anon sponsee, and her abusive boyfriend Frankie (the dead guy by the time we meet him in Chapter One) is a typical addict (he’s been to rehab, but his motivation is questionable) who controls the relationship by concurring with his codependent girlfriend that everything is all her fault. That ill timed “I’m sorry” is not Luz’s confession, but her apology for calling Barbara in the middle of the night and inconveniencing her—and Jimmy and Bruce, whom of course Barbara drags along as she gallops to the rescue—by asking for support with cops in the apartment and her lover dead on the floor.
I’ve been writing and lecturing about codependency since long before I wrote any mysteries about recovery. Neither Bruce nor I made up the line about how when codependents are drowning, someone else’s life flashes before their eyes. It’s a well known phenomenon. Codependents also apologize when somebody steps on their toes. They go through agonies of guilt about saying no to anyone, whether it’s a panhandler asking for a dollar or the boss demanding they work overtime on their birthday. One of recovering codependents’ mantras is: “ ‘No’ is a complete sentence.” Easy to say, but very hard to do if you’re addicted to caring what other people think. If whoever said, “Never apologize and never explain,” (Disraeli?) had said it to a codependent, the codependent would have tied him- or herself into knots explaining why even though it was wonderful advice, they personally could never do that—and they were so, so sorry.
Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist. Her second mystery, DEATH WILL HELP YOU LEAVE HIM, is available for preorder and will be in stores on October 13. The first in the series, DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER, was a David award nominee, and a related short story was nominated for an Agatha. Another story appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and a third will appear in A GIFT OF MURDER, a holiday anthology to benefit Toys for Tots. Liz’s author website is at www.elizabethzelvin.com. She blogs on Poe’s Deadly Daughters.