This is going to be a really heavy post. It may have to be a two-parter. Or a several-parter. I don’t know. We’ll just see how it goes.
I’ve done quite a lot of navel-gazing these last three-and-a-half years. It’s not hard when there’s a pandemic, the kids are at school 40 hours a week, and all the house chores are finished. When I cut off contact with my mother, it felt like a death and the first thing I did was make an appointment with a therapist and begin counseling. My old therapist had taken a leave from work due to health reasons and she suggested someone new. Michelle was nice, effusive, and helpful, but then after six months, she uttered the words I did not want to hear.
“Someday, when you re-establish a relationship with your mother…”
You know, how when you watch Scooby-Doo, and Scoobs and Shaggy are running away from the scary ghost or monster, and they start backpedaling, and their legs just turn into blurry circles? My brain was doing that. That simple phrase absolutely terrified me. I felt so healthy, so happy, so relieved to be away from her and now? Now I was supposed to someday talk to her again? Have my boundaries violated again? Feeling less than worthy again? Being used again?
I’m not proud to say it, but I ghosted my therapist and haven’t returned to her since. Or sought any other therapist in the intervening years. Instead, I read. Write. Watch. Absorb.
I found communities online where others went through similar experiences with their parents. I began reading books about parents with borderline personality disorder. And I kept a journal where I would write down what I had learned while also trying to put memories on paper to remind myself, “This is why I no longer talk to Mom. This is why I need to be a separate entity from her.” I wanted to understand myself and her. Why this happened. And try to be self-aware enough that I don’t repeat the “sins of the mother.”
Through all of my reading, something interesting happened about six months ago. While reading yet another post in a borderline personality disorder subreddit where the OP lamented the horrible relationship they had with their mother, they used the term “emotional incest.”
Lord Jesus. Here I am, a native West Virginian who staves off jokes of being married to a cousin by jokingly telling people, “I’m from West Virginia and I did NOT meet my husband at a family reunion,” and I find out I may have been a victim of emotional, or covert, incest.
In the simplest of terms, emotional incest is when a parent uses one of their children as an emotional spouse. There is no physical relationship. No actual sex or rape or molestation. It’s all emotional. Mental. The parent “parentifies” their child. They expect their child to provide them with the emotional support a spouse would normally give. The more I began to read up on emotional and covert incest, the more I realized that I wasn’t just my mother’s daughter. I was my mother’s completely and utterly enmeshed spouse. For well over 40 years.
It’s really hard to wrap my head around. This little-talked about type of emotional abuse is damaging to a child and when I started learning more about it, I realized that ohmygodthey’retalkingaboutme. The invasive parent in this type of relationship is enmeshed with their child in order to meet their own needs that are not being met in their adult relationship. Meanwhile, the child is often treated as “all good” and is favored to the exclusion of other children or, in my case, the other spouse. The needs of the child to develop as an individual, to make mistakes, to receive structure and discipline, are neglected because, surprise surprise, it’s all about the parent here. I’m supposed to make her happy not the other way around. As the invasive parent turns to the child for their emotional needs, the left-out spouse is shut out of this exclusive bond and may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms (in my dad’s case… FOOD) in order to deal with his or her unhappy home life.
Yeah. It’s a lot to take in.
And then? I started reading up on the behavioral signs that could point to someone having been a victim of this type of abuse.
People-pleaser (Oh. All day. Every day.)
A need to be invisible (I HATE. DESPISE. Talking about myself. I don’t like “tooting” my own horn. I hate writing this fucking post, tbh.)
Self-advocacy is nonexistent (Yep yep. Don’t like asking for stuff.)
Difficulty understanding and finding yourself (This. ALL of this.)
Inability to share authentic feelings with others (If I share my true feelings with you, you’ll turn on me like Mom did.)
Can’t say no (See number one.)
A reduced sense of significance (I don’t matter because I never mattered. Only she mattered.)
Very judgmental of others (I won’t say it to your face, but I’m judging you. Because I had to judge her and her moods and make sure she was always happy. And I hate that about myself.)
Attracted on some level to narcissistic people (I have a trail of narcissistic people who used to be friends but I gradually became self-aware of them and quietly said good-bye.)
An unrealistic view of what a family should look like (It’s taken me 26 years to figure out what a family is supposed to be. Thank goodness they all stuck around long enough.)
Anger and rage toward the enmeshed parent (I can’t even describe in simple words my incandescent rage toward her that I have kept bottled up inside otherwise for many years. If quiet rage was punishable, I’d be in prison.)
Yep. I just ticked right on down that list. Every. Single. One.
When your mother tells you, as a teenager, that she hasn’t had sex with your father since 1982…
When your mother tells you, as a kid, that her father abused her, sexually propositioned her, that she married your father to get away from her family…
When you later discover that those are all lies and that she’s told you all of that so that she guarantees she’s the only person left in your life and you have no choice BUT to turn to her for emotional support…When your mother expects you to call her, every day, without fail, and is cold to you when you don’t…
When your mother bitches to you about anything and everything your father does, no matter how big or small, and makes fun of what he does and who he is…
When she wants to be included in everything you do and say with your friends…
When she gets offended that you don’t like the same things she likes…
When she makes you feel guilty for taking time to yourself, even if it’s a one hour nap, and yet berates you for not spending enough time away from your husband and children to be with her…
I could go on and on and on. But I think I’m probably boring you with the details.
On the flip side of all of this is my father. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I’m now pretty pissed with him. Why didn’t he stand up for me? Why didn’t he tell his wife, “Hey, this is wrong!” I realize that he, too, was pretty damaged, but dammit it’s been 24 year since he died and I’m angry. And I can’t yell at him. And I’m feeling guilty because I’m feeling angry.
I don’t know why my mother was like this. Was it her own mother? Was it environment? DNA? Was it a random aberration? Like, she was raised just fine and turned out this way just because? Was she enmeshed with her mom because her mom was enmeshed with her mom… because some great-great-greatx10 grandmother started the whole generational shit show? Did Mom marry my dad on a whim, figured out she didn’t love him, and took the chickenshit way out by enmeshing me instead of divorcing him? I don’t know. And I refuse to get the solid answers I need because it would mean talking to her. And I will not sacrifice my well-being in order to do that.
One of the many videos I’ve watched from licensed therapists who talk about this condition mentioned that in order to repair the damage done by emotional incest, one must establish boundaries, advocate for yourself, parent your children the opposite way you were parented, yada, yada. But one item on the list is, “Talk about it and share your story.”
So. Here I am. Sharing it.
Hi. My name is Heather and I was a victim of emotional incest.
*The title of this post is taken from the title of the titular X-Files episode “Home” where Mulder and Scully discover the Peacock family who practice extreme inbreeding. I don’t know. I love the X-Files and I thought, “Why not name this post after an episode that involves incest?” My brain isn’t right, y’all.
You are amazing, Heather. I love you, sis. And I am here holding space for you whenever you need it. (sending bear hugs)
Love you, too, Sis! And thank you! XO
I have been reading It’s Okay to be Different with my son, and one of the things it says is, “It’s okay to do something nice for yourself.” Dumping that therapist seems pretty darn nice. You don’t have to have a relationship with anyone you don’t want to, parents included.
As for your dad, are you sure he knew the things your mom was telling you? Did she say anything in front of him? Maybe he was going through his own kind of abuse. Not to excuse him, but he isn’t around, and I know how much you loved him.