"Gold Fish Brain" My Struggles with Object Constancy and Mental Illness -
Mental Health Education

“Gold Fish Brain” My Struggles with Object Constancy and Mental Illness

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“You feel bad now but just yesterday you were in such a great mood and all these fabulous things were happening. It’s cause of your little goldfish brain, it’s like you can’t remember things 3 seconds after they happen.”

“Goldfish Brain.”

When I think about this phrase from my ex, two thoughts go through my head. The first being “Ew, what a rude-ass thing to say to someone, I’m glad he’s my ex.”

And the second was that he was, unfortunately, correct.

If he had chosen to say that a better way, it would’ve been to point out that my mood seemed to swing from happy to distraught at a moment’s notice or that I couldn’t seem to remember ever feeling joy even though I knew I had just recently experienced it.

Or that I could only regulate my emotions based on what was happening to me externally in the moment (i.e. I was extremely reactive).

Or that it was curious how I would have an extreme amount of anxiety when he was away from me, causing me to cling and call frantically.

Or wonder why I believed any infraction at my job, no matter how minor, would lead to me being immediately fired.

Or how it was odd that for a long time I didn’t believe people existed when I couldn’t see or sense them.

I don’t think either of us understood, almost 8 years ago, that these outbursts were not random bouts of madness or personality quirks. Rather they were symptoms of a serious mental health disorder, relics of a chaotic and traumatic childhood.

Hindsight is 20/20

Many years later, after a lot of struggle, self reflection and eventually the correct course of treatment and medications: I got stable. (Insert Praise Hands Emojiis Here!)

Now that I’m stable, I can look back and see there was definitely something that prevented me from practicing healthy behaviors but it wasn’t until I read that people who grow up in chaotic family environments from a young age are prone to lack something called “Object Constancy.”

What the What is Object Constancy?

To understand Object Constancy you have to know about its base idea, one that all babies develop in the first 3-4 years of their lives called “Object Permanence.

Object Permanence is the understanding that things and people continue to exist even if you can’t see, hear, or sense them in any way. It’s the thing that gives children the sense of security that their mom or dad will return to pick them up from day care.

OP is vital to the emotional and social development of a child and helps them embrace uncertainty as an adult in the form of Object Constancy.

Growing Up Without OC

What if you don’t fully develop this skill in early childhood? What if you had a primary caregiver that was largely absent, inconsistent or fickle with their emotions, or a chaotic household?

Well you’re in luck – I can tell you because that’s exactly what happened to me.

In my case, my dad died when I was very young and I grew up in a severely chaotic household. Mom, who was doing her very best to raise two kids, god bless her, just couldn’t handle everything emotionally and would shut off.

We were all trying to survive, we didn’t have the luxury of learning basic emotional concepts.

So I ended up with horrible mood swings which made my friends and family walk on eggshells around me. Clingy and controlling behaviors ruled my romantic relationships. Outbursts of emotional and, yes, physical, violence erupted when I couldn’t make sense of the world around me.

I was by most accounts, an emotional nightmare. I feel sorry for anyone who had to deal with me at my worst (I’m sorry Mom!)

I was a mess and do you want to know why?

Because every time someone walked out of my eye sight, I ceased to believe they existed thus leaving me in a cold, lonely, and terrifying world most of the time.

I could only understand what was happening in the moment.

Like, if a partner got mildly annoyed at me, my brain would tell me that they’ve always hated me and were going to dump me post haste. I would then fall to pieces because this triggered my intense fear of abandonment.

Similarly when someone I care for left my side I had constant intrusive thoughts convincing me they’d never return or they would forget about me.

This led to a lot of childlike behaviors like tantrums, constant affirmation seeking, and an intense, almost frantic clinginess. On the other hand, the shame it produced it also led to a deep self-isolation for a few years – I felt like I was ruining other people’s lives because of my clingy controlling self.

The Silver Lining

There isn’t always a silver lining to childhood trauma (and there doesn’t need to be one, it’s awful), but for me I’ve chosen to embrace my struggle with Goldfish Brain.

Why? Because even with all the treatment and introspection, Goldfish Brain still goes on today – I still have trouble understanding that someone can love me especially if they’re away. I still revert to the clingy behaviors sometimes when the stress peaks.

I’m just a lot more aware of it happening than before.

And I’m a lot more forgiving of myself. I’ve learned to be kind and gentle with myself, especially if I make a mistake or have an outburst of childish behavior.

If I get extra clingy, that’s okay – it just that means I need to slow down and attend to my own basic needs, nothing more, nothing less.

If I start throwing a tantrum because my husband takes a walk to cool off while we’re fighting, that’s okay – I’ve got this great skill now which allows me to sit with the uncertainty until he comes back.

If I make a mistake at work, that’s okay – I’ve worked extra hard to be able to own it and move on, maybe not as quick as everyone else but I’m getting there.

In the end, I’m glad I didn’t learn Object Constancy. I’m proud of my Gold Fish Brain.

Why? Because though I will always lack that one life skill, I compensate marvelously with greater levels of empathy, introspection, kindness, grit, curiosity and grace. I traded in one and got many back. That’s a hell of a silver lining if you ask me.

Much Love,

MB

P.S. If you are also struggling with OC “Gold Fish Brain”, a fear of abandonment, intense mood swings, and/or had a traumatic childhood that’s morphed into a chaotic adulthood I suggest you check out this brilliant article on OC and OP as they relate to one’s mental health and well being.

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Mad as Hell Mental Health Rights Advocate. Likes margaritas, long walks on the beach, and JUSTICE.

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