Covert Incest: One Story of Addiction and Recovery
My mother is seated next to me on the loveseat in my living room, and her new husband is across from us. I haven’t seen her in years and I’m nervous about the visit. My relationship with my mother has been strained, at best, but I invited her here, hoping we can start fresh. As we sit, she chats happily. Her voice fills up the room as though everything is wonderful and I begin to think for a moment that it is.
She leans in close, her shoulder to my shoulder, her hip to my hip, and begins to lightly brush her fingers along the inside of my right arm—from the wrist to that tender place at the inside of the elbow. She used to do this to soothe me when I was a child, but now as she strokes my arm, she stares seductively at her husband. Her voice turns low and hushed, thick.
“Look how beautiful she is. Don’t you find her attractive?” These are words my mother is saying to a man who is effectively my stepfather. She sweeps my hair back over my shoulder and continues stroking my arm.
In this moment, my blood rushes like the Colorado River. My chest begins to visibly heave. Yet I sit speechless, frozen.
Later, I will remember a torrent of other moments like this one, other times in which I felt betrayed by my mother but somehow unable to defend exactly why. She sees nothing wrong with these invasions. Even as a small child, I had a job: I was my mother’s keeper, her confidant, her companion, her confessor. She vented to me regularly about my father and confided in me every detail about their life together, whether I wished to know or not. She kept me out of school just for company sometimes and other times refused to let me spend the night with friends, crying that she couldn’t bear to be without me. I knew details about my mother’s sex life—details I did not ask for but couldn’t evade—first with my father, and later with husbands three through seven (my dad was her second husband).
Learning Boundaries After Covert Incest
It took me many years to learn how to establish and maintain healthy boundaries, not just with my mother, but with nearly everyone else in my life as well, even with myself (telling yourself no can be impossibly hard sometimes). As a result of the enmeshed relationship I had with her, I grew up believing that love was claustrophobic, that it would eventually consume me. It was in my teen years that I first began to struggle with addiction, and it wasn’t long before it manifested in my romantic and sexual relationships. I needed to have the intensity of sexual contact, but couldn’t tolerate the emotional intimacy required of lasting relationships. I compulsively sought out sex—again and again with people I barely knew—but ran from love, and any relationships I managed to have—however brief—were fraught with chaos. I drew in people who were needy, dependent or demanding, while I chose to shut down without communicating, and eventually just to run.
Choosing Recovery After Covert Incest
None of this was healthy and much of it could be traced back to the enmeshed parenting and covert incest in my relationship with my mother. But I distinctly recall the first time I told her that her words felt inappropriate and that I would no longer tolerate what felt like invasions. Her reaction, of course, wasn’t great, but that didn’t matter. I’d stood up to the fear and protected myself. I was 28 years old, and this would be the beginning of my recovery from both addiction and mental illness (for years I had suffered from intense generalized anxiety, an eating disorder and OCD). My mother is still in my life—on my terms—and after 10 years, she has begun to honor my boundaries. Ultimately, it’s not my past that determines the degree of my health or sickness or how susceptible I am to relapse; it’s my willingness to continue to heal with the knowledge that things may have once been outside my control, but today, I hold the reins. And I choose to steer in the direction of recovery.