I’ve wanted to write this post for a while. I said I would write about the sexually-charged aspect of enmeshment when I wrote my first post on this topic – Enmeshment + Codependency: A Tangled Web – but it’s difficult because I’m embarrassed and ashamed. Is it possible to isolate the idea of sexuality from the term seduction? How can I explain that as a child I sometimes felt seduced by my father’s gaze? In a way, it’s funny. People love to throw the term “daddy issues” around but they’re less willing to explore the sexually-charged facet of some dysfunctional parent-child dynamics. In one episode of The Big Bang Theory, Leonard’s mother tells him that if he wants to sleep with his love interest, Penny, he should wear her father’s cologne. Cue the canned laughter. I remember telling a friend at university that I had “daddy issues” as a joke to which she responded: “Did he love you too much or not enough?” When I said: “Too much”, she said I was lucky.
When I was 17, I temporarily moved in with my half brother and his then fiancé. My mother’s alcoholism had gotten quite bad and I’d also started to distance myself from my father. One day, I was walking around the supermarket with my brother’s fiancé, who I got quite close to around that time, and we rounded a corner and my Dad was there. My stomach flipped. I could barely look him in the eye and when I did, it was like an invisible string was tethering itself to me from him. “How’s life?”, he said, looking me dead in the eye. “Fine”, I replied, trying to be as in control of the situation as possible and not be lured in by him. If I’m making the exchange sound eerie and uncomfortable, it’s because that’s how it felt. My brother’s fiancé clearly felt the tension and said we’d better get going. We went our separate ways and I spent the rest of the shopping trip feeling sick and anxious about seeing him again.
Where did these feelings come from? Why is it that when I see my father now, I feel sick and get probably every symptom of anxiety you could think of? It has to do with the blurring of boundaries inherent in enmeshment and the subsequent emotional abuse that took place over the years. Have you ever been made to feel vulnerable and humiliated, then been treated like it was your fault? That’s how I felt when my father put me to bed naked when I’d fallen asleep one night on the couch, then berated me for walking back to my room from his with no clothes on in the morning. That’s how I felt, at 7, when my Dad called me into the bathroom to talk to him when he was standing in the shower naked and then told me to stop looking at his penis. That’s how I felt when he used to smack my ass for fun then grin when I got upset and told him to never do it again. It was this feeling of impotence, of being out of control that made me feel so anxious and uncomfortable. He used to wait behind doors to frighten me, he used to look me up and down the way someone would look at their girlfriend and I found myself looking for his approval with my appearance. I knew what he liked me to wear, I knew how he liked me to wear my hair and this was always in the back of my mind. He said to me once that if I was older, I’d be his girlfriend. Without wanting to evoke ideas of feminism, it was like I was this object, a thing to be played with and manipulated; and yet, most of the time he was all I had so a part of me thrived on it. And half the time we got on like a house on fire – we had great conversations about music and politics, we liked the same books and the same humour. So, being in the middle of this whirlwind of emotion, of attachment and dysfunction, of joy and repulsion; made it impossible to see straight and really analyse what was happening and why I felt so low and anxious.
It’s no surprise that intimacy was terrifying to me as a teenager. I realised through counselling that I felt as if I’d already had so much stolen from me and that physical intimacy was the only thing I really had left that was mine. And if I gave it away, would it become something to be manipulated as well? I think I also had a fear deep down that the smothering and emotional abuse by my father would turn into something physical. This is probably why I wouldn’t let my first boyfriend kiss me and I was cold and distant with him, trying to mask my confusion and anxiety. This is probably why my first kiss happened when I was on drugs and I completely dissociated and felt empty. And when my next boyfriend, who had already touched places in my heart, leaned in to me for the first time, I froze up as if it was an attack and stuttered that I didn’t want to. The joys of dating for the first time were stolen from me and replaced with self-loathing, anxiety and fear that I was gay. At the time, I was so confused and didn’t understand what I was feeling. I felt like such a loser because all my friends were dating and none of it seemed to come naturally to me. I was so insecure.
When I started to put 2 and 2 together and realise my Dad was the main factor in all of this, my decision to stop speaking to him wasn’t fully supported. This was extremely difficult because I was already burdened with so much guilt. My brother, who lives with my Dad and was no doubt getting an earful from him, was incredulous about it, saying: “So you’re never going to speak to him again??” Even one of my social workers at the time – I went into care for a year when I was 17 – was confused about why I’d stopped all contact with him. The words “emotional abuse” were met with a seemingly blank expression. If you grow up being called a stupid waste of space and that you’ll never amount to anything, it’s horrible but at least you can repeat that and be understood – be taken seriously. But how on earth was I supposed to explain what happened to me?? When it’s so insidious and snide, when it’s manipulation and mind games that make you question yourself, and when your own brother who you’ve grown up with isn’t even aware, how on earth could I explain?? That was one of the hardest parts.
I’ve already mentioned the book – Silently Seduced – that helped me come to terms with the reality of the situation in another post. A few months ago, I sent a copy of this book to my father along with a short letter explaining how the book had helped me and how it explained why I cut off contact with him. This was scary and liberating for me. It meant I was able to free myself from much of the guilt I was feeling because now I had given him a real explanation. Other than this, I had had no contact with him until he texted me regarding a health problem he was facing. I’d agreed to have contact with him if it was about health issues because I thought it was only right. The way the text made me feel was very revealing. It turned out he was okay for the time being and there was nothing to worry about. He’d written the message in his usual humorous way and said how much he missed his daughter and reading it was almost like old times. I found myself smiling and laughing at the message but I stopped myself abruptly when I felt this strange feeling deep in my stomach. I don’t even want to write this but it was like some form of arousal. I put the phone down and cried. Cried because I felt icky and strange again; cried because I felt weak and it only took one message to reel me in again; and cried because I realised in that moment that I could never have him back in my life.
Part of me can’t believe I’ve put this on the internet. I carry so much shame around this but it’s not my shame to carry. If anyone can relate, I would love to hear from you. Thanks so much for reading.
– SMUT. ❤ xxxx
Art by Kirby Shaw