Object Constancy: How COVID-19 Lockdown Triggered My Borderline Personality Disorder
I’m halfway through a long-term group therapy program, which was extended by six months due to lockdown as we didn’t meet for a while, initially, until we began to use Zoom and then Microsoft Teams for our sessions. In therapy, I’ve made good progress with my borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms. Some of them seem to be barely there anymore, and others are much reduced. However, recently, I experienced a flare-up of some old feelings and behaviors, triggered by lockdown.
The first lockdown wasn’t so bad for me. Initially, I really struggled with working from home, and this caused a flare-up of some anxiety symptoms, but once I’d got over the initial change, I settled down and more or less got used to it. It was novel, and had its benefits. I saved money by not going out. I also hadn’t long celebrated my 40th birthday. I was lucky — my wife and I had had a holiday to Iceland, and when I got back I had my usual birthday do with friends. I also went for dinner with my parents, and drinks with work colleagues.
During the lockdown, I stayed in touch with friends regularly. I had one friend from work whom I rang once a week on my lunch break, and from time to time I rang other friends. I arranged quite a few video calls with friends and took part in some organized by family. Working from home, my manager had arranged an optional daily video call to keep in touch, after my initial struggles, and I had a close friend in my team who I could message whilst I was working, if I struggled.
When lockdown eased, I met up with a few friends and family. It wasn’t the same as usual, but I made the best of it.
The second lockdown was shorter, and I got through it fine. I’d spent time with some friends and family in the intervening period, so I’d had plenty of social contact.
When the third big lockdown started before Christmas, it was initially not too bad. I was upset at not being able to see my family for Christmas as usual, but my wife and I enjoyed a Christmas to ourselves and it was novel to make dinner together and spend the day with our new dog and with our cat, who is usually on his own whilst we visit my family.
However, it soon lost its novelty and started to drag. Coupled with a big change at work — change often triggers my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and BPD symptoms — I started to slip back into old patterns of thinking and acting. Working from home, I suddenly felt really lonely. My friend in the team had left several months previously and I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about how the changes were affecting me at work. The friend I used to ring every week was now on maternity leave, with another friend and my manager also shortly due to do the same. A friend at therapy had decided to leave the group and due to the group rules, I wasn’t allowed to talk to him for over a year.
With other friends, I started to read things into our interactions. If a friend didn’t respond to a message quickly, they must be sick of me. If they didn’t reach out and ask how I was doing, they must hate me. I thought about arranging calls with people, but started to think that if they hadn’t asked me for a call, they weren’t interested in talking to me. I tested people, waiting for them to get in touch to prove that they cared. It had been so long since I had seen my friends that I was sure that I didn’t have friends anymore. And that made me feel worthless.
I started having self-harm and suicidal thoughts partly to punish myself for my perceived inability to have friends, and partly because I just wanted someone to care. The old BPD push-pull thinking reared its head again. I really longed for someone to reach out to me, but when I did get friends contacting me, I wanted them to leave me alone and could barely say anything to them.
I had to take time off sick from work for a few days. I was sitting there at my desk crying and every time I answered an email, I felt like it wasn’t important. It seemed so insignificant when I was questioning whether I even wanted to be alive. I started to feel anxious, my head felt foggy and when I went to bed to read on my lunch break one day, I couldn’t force myself back to my desk afterward.
A while ago in therapy, we covered object permanence and constancy and how people with BPD struggle with them. Object permanence is the idea that objects or people continue to exist when they can’t be seen, touched or sensed. Object constancy is the idea that someone still loves and cares about us even when they are not there.
For people with BPD, childhood trauma has often meant that they did not fully develop these skills. Their fear of abandonment leads them to see temporary absences as another abandonment and they can doubt that the other person is thinking about them or even remembers who they are.
I have certainly struggled with these. Working at home, I sometimes feel invisible and unimportant. When I was triggered recently, it felt like no one cared because I was alone. I was sure that everyone had forgotten about me, and that sent me into a spiral. I wanted to reach out, but I was sure that no one cared and when it got really bad, the push-pull behavior of BPD meant that I isolated myself even further.
Then, a friend got in touch asking how my week had been and suggesting we have a chat soon. At first, I was so paranoid that no one liked me that I had to check that my wife hadn’t put her up to it (she had got in touch with another friend and asked them to contact me as I was feeling bad, so my concern was that people only wanted to talk to me because she had asked them to). Yet when I had established this wasn’t the case and texted my friend back telling her how I had been feeling, I started to feel a bit better. I went back to work, and although I was still working from home, the contact with people helped. Slowly, I pulled myself out of the negative thought spiral. I had a couple of video calls with friends and let people know how I’d been feeling.
Lockdown has been hard for many people’s mental health and I am likely to experience further struggles working alone at home and not being able to see people. My trouble with object constancy does mean that I am liable to feel ignored when I am so far removed from anyone except my wife. But I need to try and remember that people do care, and try to reach out next time I feel like this.
Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash