I am in denial about the depth of co-dependency I feel toward my mother. Of course, I didn’t know this until I was in my late 20s when I started going to couple’s counseling with my then-boyfriend (now-husband). I suggested therapy because I have a history of childhood trauma, the effects of which manifested in unpredictable psychological ways, e.g., inexplicable nausea, panic attacks, emotional withdrawal, unwarranted relationship abandonment, etc. (I didn’t use the word depression back then because I was in denial about being depressed.)
Our counselor asked us to write about our families of origin, so we could discuss this in our next session. She assigned books for us to read—Toxic Parents for him and Boundaries for me. I thought those book referrals somewhat extreme. The very title, Toxic Parents, is so incendiary! And my boundaries were fine. But as the weeks progressed, my boyfriend and I read and discussed our books and our family cultures, and I came to believe that these books were perfect for us. My boyfriend agreed that his parents were toxic, and I told him that I learned a new word that perfectly described my relationship with my mother: enmeshed.
en-mesh (verb): to catch, as in a net; entangle
Enmeshment is a description of a relationship between two or more people in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear. This often happens on an emotional level in which two people “feel” each other’s emotions, or when one person becomes emotionally escalated [when an]other family member does as well.
That was the first adult acknowledgement I had made that something was wrong with my relationship with my mother. For months after reading Boundaries, I kept thinking of Newton’s law of motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And I kept wondering, “What is the opposite of enmeshment?”
My mother and I hated to be apart. When I was 18, I went to an out-of-state college. I was so proud that I had been accepted and awarded a posh scholarship. All my hard work had paid off. Within a few days of starting college, I felt excruciatingly homesick. I called my mother crying every day. My mother cried too. My long-distance bill was astronomical. Two weeks into the semester my mother said, “Baby, why don’t you just come on home?” So I did. I left behind the scholarship and the college I had been dreaming about since junior year in high school.
The moment I stepped into my old room back in New Orleans, I knew I had made a mistake leaving school. I had to sit out a semester, and when I did start school again, I went to a state college with the same classmates I so desperately wanted to escape. I eventually learned that most people who go away to college are excruciatingly homesick even if they come from the unhealthiest home in the world. The homesickness passes as one develops new relationships and begins to self-identify, but because I was so enmeshed with my mother, I didn’t believe I could exist without her.
When I was 22, I left New Orleans for a study abroad in Europe. After I returned from Europe, something changed. I was no longer just my mother’s daughter. I was the world traveler. I had finally created a granule of self that was independent from my mother and my home life.
I eventually returned to the same out-of-state college that I had left a couple of years prior. I was even awarded the same scholarship. Yes, I was homesick, but I was also flourishing. I was doing well in my classes, my instructors loved me and I had lots of friends. I volunteered at a local school, got great work-studies and was selected to be on hiring committees for new professors, all of which helped me to build a strong professional résumé. Eventually, I was selected for and completed internships in The Netherlands and Kenya.
I graduated and moved back home. My sister (yes, the abusive one) was terminally ill. My mother, understandably, was struggling with seeing her oldest child die. My mother asked me to come home, so I did. My old boss from the internship in The Netherlands had asked me to come back to Europe to help him establish a new office in Belgium. I turned him down without a second thought. My mother needed me—that was more important that a fly job in Europe, with great pay and easy access to some of the most beautiful cities in the world. Nine months after my sister died, I moved to the city where I currently live.
I spoke to my mother three to five times a week for most of my adulthood. By southern, Christian standards, this is perfectly normal. In fact, it’s expected. We talked about everything: my boyfriend, how much she missed my father, my sex life, her sex life, my work experiences, her work experiences, her childhood, my childhood, the child abuse she had experienced, the child abuse I had experienced. During any given conversation, my mother would apologize for not protecting me more then in a subsequent conversation, she would tell me to let the past be the past. Slowly, over several years, I found that I could not abide the sound of her voice. The sound of her voice felt like a noose around my neck. I stopped calling her, and I wouldn’t return her calls. That was the beginning of nine years of our off-again/on-again relationship.
After my mother died, I kept trying to convince myself that I had wasted valuable time because I didn’t speak to her for years at a time. I told myself I should feel remorseful now that she’s dead. The truth is I do not feel remorseful. I do not feel ashamed. I feel that I am precisely what my mother and father taught me to be: a survivor.
Being in an enmeshed (i.e., co-dependent) relationship is the emotional equivalent of standing still while a 13-foot boa constrictor slowly coils around your body and crushes your bones until your lungs collapse and your heart explodes. A survivor would never allow herself to be so powerless; she would not remain in such a deadly situation. Maintaining ongoing communication with my mother was a deadly situation for me. Some like to categorize elderly people as inherently harmlessness. I beg to differ. Enmeshment is a form of abuse. A person who uses enmeshment as a means of control is an abuser, regardless of his/her age.
The opposite of enmeshment is self-identification. Enmeshment requires the melding of the self into another person’s selfhood. When I allowed my selfhood to be fused to my mother’s, I could not think my own thoughts, connect well with other people or grow my own spirit; thus, my relationship with God was compromised. I actively started to self-identify when I got on a plane and flew to Europe. It was a baby step, but it was my baby step. Once I started to self-identify, I would not allow myself to stop.