It started when I was a teen. I had already experienced my first major meltdown and was trying to put myself back together. Like most teens, I wasn’t really sure who I wanted to be. But unlike most teens, I was dealing with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and a shredded sense of self-esteem that made me even less sure of who I was, who I wanted to be, and who I ought to be.
I began to notice that I was picking up the characteristics of whomever I was with. When I was around Binky, I was light-hearted. When I was around Marie, I was a misfit. When I was around Fran., I was trying to fit in. And so on. Intellectual, silly, moody, outdoorsy, smart-alecky, boisterous, quiet – I became them all, in turn. None of them, it turns out, was really me. Or at least not completely me.
And when I was alone – who was I then? I was alone a lot of the time, and my default setting was depressed. I cried at unlikely songs. I hid in books. I cocooned before cocooning was a thing. I had a banner on my wall that said, “I’ve got to start acting more sensible – tomorrow!” I blamed my troubles on living in Ohio. I got drunk on ginger ale.
I was a fractured mess.
Later, in my 20s, as I went out in the world and began to interact with different people, I realized that I was picking up on their moods, rather than their character traits.
Most of those moods were unpleasant ones. And I reacted to them with – you guessed it – fear and depression.
Even if I was in a hypomanic state, I couldn’t maintain it if anyone around me was angry or depressed or resentful, or even just crabby. It felt like I was hanging on to my good feelings by my fingernails, and the least inattention would cause me to lose hold and crash.
As for anger and blame, there was no way I could do anything but cringe and apologize endlessly. (It was only much later that I learned how annoying apologizing and self-deprecation can be to those in the vicinity.)
One person became a master at using this to control me. A sigh and a glare were all it took.
Nor did the bad feelings have to be directed at me. I couldn’t be in a room with people who were yelling at each other. At times even disagreements on television would bother me.
I did develop a few coping mechanisms. If other people were the source of the bad feelings, I would make an excuse to leave the room. A breath of fresh air was usually too transparent, and you can only plead a bathroom break so many times, so making myself a cup of tea was my go-to excuse (which also led to a believable increase in bathroom breaks).
My husband has caught on to my interior mood sensor and reactions. Since even raised voices can trigger me, we’ve developed a signal that he needs to take it down a notch, usually when we’re talking politics – sometimes he even manages to chill out the emotional temperature of an entire room. And if he’s having a snit, I can ask him how long it will be till he gets over it and he lets me know whether it’s a big deal or not.
Now even sighing and glaring is a joke with us. He’ll puff like a steam engine and lower his eyebrows until they touch. Then we’ll both start laughing.
After my most recent and worst meltdown (which I’m surprised to realize was about ten years ago), my therapist told me that my shattered, scattered emotional state gave me a rare opportunity to choose which pieces of my former life I wanted to incorporate into my rebuilt self.
Maybe it’s a good thing I tried on those different identities as a teen, so I don’t have to now.
I know it’s a good thing that I’ve learned better ways to manage what emotions I allow into my life.