When Bipolar Disorder Makes You Take On the Feelings of Others


As if it weren’t difficult enough to deal with my own feelings, at times, I’ve had to wrestle with the feelings of others.

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 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. 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 was a fractured mess.

Later, in my 20s, as I went out in the world and began to interact with different people, I realized 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 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.

The bad feelings didn’t 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 until 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 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 I’ve learned better ways to manage what emotions I allow into my life.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure.

TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Related to Bipolar Disorder

Woman face illustration

The Myth About Mania That Doesn't Represent My Experience With Bipolar Disorder

Mania is often described as “euphoric” highs and extreme lows. Some people who have bipolar disorder enjoy the highs so much that they are reluctant to take medication. And who among us hasn’t read “Touched With Fire,” which is all about the creative genius that tends to accompany this disorder? While the consequences of actions [...]
young woman in darkness looking depressed

What I Wish I Could Tell You About My Bipolar Disorder

To my loved ones, I wish I could tell you exactly what I need from you. But I can’t. Having bipolar disorder means my symptoms often change, so what I need from you one day may be different the next. I have bipolar I, which is to say that my manic episodes are severe and [...]
woman in the dark shining a light

Young and Bipolar: The College Search With Mental Illness

The day I got into my dream school, I cried approximately three times. Twice, due to crushing anxiety prior to the 5 p.m.-release of decisions and the third at 5:01 when I opened my email to a flurry of “Congratulations!” and digital confetti from the college. I cried that third time for a few reasons. [...]
13 reasons why

The Missing 'Reason' From the '13 Reasons Why' Discussion of Suicide

Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. The hype is whirling around the new Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why.” It is the latest binge-watching event that many people cannot wait to talk about. Now perhaps I [...]