Understanding Object Constancy

Living with a mental disorder such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), I’ve found few people truly know what BPD is about, in terms of symptoms and diagnosis. I am also seeing however, it is the flavor of the month diagnosis, rapidly growing in mental health circles of recent. Growing up in the 1970s, the diagnosis of BPD did not exist. Instead they earmarked me with the labels of Depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

Getting into the minutiae of the diagnosis of BPD is not what this blog is about, however. Suffice it to say there are several categories of Borderline, nine symptoms listed on the check list in order for diagnosis to occur, and more often than not, coexisting mental disorders piggyback BPD. A person can be diagnosed with BPD, along with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) even a dual diagnosis of Borderline and Bipolar. Borderline, just like Bipolar, can have a genetic component. Things such as PTSD or GAD, are situational and occur from outside or environmental factors in a person’s life.

I have often compared living with multiple mental disorders with the arcade game Whack The Mole. In the game, which I often played at Chuck-E-Cheese, a mole pops up from it’s hole and you use a rubber hammer to knock it back down. No sooner having done that, another mole pops up, then another and so forth.

I never know in any given 24-hour span, which of my five disorders I’ve been diagnosed with will come out to play. I have spent an entire lifetime, playing Whack The Mole, with the symptoms from my disorders.  Any person that suffers with a mental disorder, gets to have the same fun time I do in dealing with their symptoms.

Having undergone both psychiatric treatment along with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and talk therapy, for over 20 years now, I kid myself that I have my symptoms under control. For the most part I do. Then again, I have never lived through a pandemic before.  I have not undergone extended periods of quarantine, social distancing, and the basic shut down of Life as We know it. This COVID-19 Pandemic has turned the entire world on its head.

Being a part of the mentally ill community, I share that we have suffered greatly in this pandemic. There is one symptom in BPD that is extremely difficult to explain. It is also exceptionally difficult to live with. That symptom has been kicked up a notch during this pandemic. In rating my symptoms on a scale of 1 to 10, this one would probably be a 15. It is known as having a lack of Object Constancy. I will try to do justice to the hell one goes through in living with it. First, let’s look at how it develops in the brain.

Object Constancy is defined as “an inability to remember that people or objects are consistent, trustworthy and reliable, especially when they are out of your immediate field of vision.” Please re-read that one more time. The last part, “especially when they are out of your immediate field of vision”. This is real. It is not a made-up symptom of the disorder called BPD. Why would this happen to a person? It actually happens in the time frame of development, infant through toddler. Another definition would be “Lacking Faith in Reality”.

Living with Object Constancy issues is something I would never wish on any human being. Object Constancy is considered a developmental skill which a child does not fully develop until about the age of three years.  It takes time, and continuous experience as to the reliability of the key people in their world, typically Mommy and Daddy, to develop brain synapses for Object Constancy. These synapses tell the child, when Mommy leaves the room, she’s still on planet earth, and will come back.

Infants typically experience Separation Anxiety whenever they are separated from a parent, even for a second. Have you ever tried passing a newborn to a relative, only to have the baby begin screaming their lungs out? Unless they can see their parent close by, an infant will be terrified they have “lost” their parent. As the child grows to toddler, and begins to venture out with walking, there is the ever-present glance back to create the brain synopsis of connection with the parent.

During this developmental time, if the parent raised the child to feel secure in the connectivity of their relationship, confidence sets in and you have a sense of well-being and fully developed synapses in the child’s brain for Object Constancy. If however, from infant through toddler, the child was left alone for extended periods of time, screaming their little lungs out with a wet diaper or needing a bottle, the synapse regarding Object Constancy never forms properly in the child’s brain.

There are many who grew up as children of parents who were alcoholics during our formative years. Add in the fact that, those of us with BPD, typically endured childhood trauma of some type. Having a traumatic childhood is practically the baseline for a diagnosis of BPD. I am not blaming my parents, albeit the blame falls on them, I have just released the fault and replaced with forgiveness. Suffering with the symptom of Object Constancy they endowed me with, will never go away however.

What I live with, is a lack of the ability to understand that some things or people remain constant – even if I don’t see them for an extended period of time. There will always be a need for me to check and verify those in my life that I love, are “still there”. With BPD, our lack of Object Constancy stems from issues we also suffer, such as fear of abandonment and dissociation. The term dissociation is defined as “disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity.”

My family has lived through the constant repetition of my need “to check”. It never stops. I need to check if they are still here, as in if they don’t text back in 15 minutes are they alive or dead? The constant questioning as to whether or not they love me? It has always been there, in any relationship important to me, like a cruel taskmaster causing me to question my very existence at times.

Things like quarantine and social distancing, have taken this symptom to a whole new level. Add in the fact that our only daughter is about to give birth to our first grandchild during this pandemic, for me, is indescribably hard to cope with. I have imagined our daughter’s pregnancy and birth of our grandchild. What I never imagined, was forced separation during that time. The inability to touch my daughter’s belly and feel the kicks of our grandchild. I had that ability briefly and then it was stolen by the pandemic.

You may think, how rude of me to not be able to suck it up and just get over it. I do realize there are people taking their last breaths, without a loved one there. God bless the medical community, who are stepping in to hold the hands of the dying at this unprecedented time. My, what they call in psychiatric circles “wise mind”, or, logical mind, understands what is happening and why. I can be triggered, however, and I was. When a person is triggered, the symptoms they suffer from come to the forefront.

This past week, realizing our daughter’s baby shower was long since canceled due to the pandemic, she asked to pick up flowers for the centerpieces we had designed for use in another project. The act of placing those flowers in a plastic tub and her taking them away, put me in a state of mind with my Object Constancy issues I had never experienced before. This symptom exploaded in my brain, aided by fears from the pandemic I thought I had under control.

Since those flowers left the house, I have not been sure what is reality and what is not. I have been having bouts of dissociation, at times cycling every five minutes. I trust no one, and don’t know who I am at times. The restaurants my husband and I frequent, the stores we shop in, are closed and in my mind, they no longer exist. At times I feel I as if I am evaporating. If my husband comes to touch me, I scream and recoil like a scared animal. The reason being, my mind is not capable of separating what is real at those moments. I have not wanted to talk to or see my daughter for a video chat. A part of me is scared to death at the thought she is not really there anymore.

The people I know in my life, friends, family, I am not sure if they exist. Then, even if I think they do, but I don’t hear from them, I am convinced they hate me. In my brain, I am no longer worthy of their love or friendship. If a text message or phone call goes unreturned, I am a wreck. I isolated in our bedroom for about four days this week. There were moments of lucidity when I could talk or text someone back. Most of the time however, I could not speak and felt I could barely breathe. I existed in my own special hell.

Why am I sharing this dark experience with you when it is currently a very dark time? I live with mental illness, yet I am also an advocate on behalf of the mentally ill. This is just one symptom that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. I am blessed to have my husband by my side for 30 plus years, and a family that loves me and understands, for the most part, my symptoms.

What about those out there like me, who are alone, now further isolated by social distancing? They may lack a support system. I am extremely disillusioned with how the mental health community has stepped up to the plate, in the county I live in, during this horrific time. Now, when they’re needed more than ever, they are not there. As of today, things have yet to get situated virtually, so the mentally ill have a safe place to turn. Up until this symptom hit me so hard, I was checking in on those I work with as a facilitator for a local mental health organization. I made as many phone calls as possible, even fielded suicide attempts, in an effort to do my part during this difficult time.

I realize the mental health organizations were not prepared for this pandemic. Who was? Many who work with the mentally ill, like me, also suffer with mental disorders. This means they are taken out of the field, if symptomatic, as I have been this past week. I feel the need to lend my voice loudly on behalf of the mentally ill community. Those with mental disorders often do not own computers or have smartphones. They may not possess transportation to get their required medications to keep symptoms at bay. It is a known fact, family members hold the most stigma toward the mentally ill. Therefore, most are abandoned by their CORE family unit.

If you know someone that suffers as I do, would you please find time to reach out to them? Place a quick check-in call? Please don’t be afraid of them. Although we hold the title, we are not monsters. Consider we are human beings that suffered a genetic gift or situational upbringing that damaged us. It damaged us in the brain. We never asked to have mental illness. No one would. We need to know you are there, if we might need you, and that we are going to make it through this okay. Although we may be too afraid to pick up the phone if it rings, that’s okay, call anyway.

I will step down off my soapbox now. The good news is I am starting to come out of Object Constancy hell little by little. It enables me to share this blog with you. My story is just one of many, whose lives have been turned inside out this past month. I pray for God to keep you safe and well during this time. Let’s pray we will all value what we don’t have access to now, more than ever, on the other side of this.

With you in the journey, Alice


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