I was visiting my aunt, who had just moved into an Alzheimer’s assisted living facility. Her long-term memory is still pretty much intact, which makes conversation tricky, because often she seems totally with it--until she begins to talk about the men who are stealing her toothbrush, or about how I am living in the room next to her. “Have they been calling you for dinner on time?” she says. “You know last night they canceled it entirely.” Or “Did they tell you what’s wrong with you? They won’t tell me, but I think I have some kind of vitamin deficiency.” I stayed with her for a little over an hour, trying to divert her--as I had been instructed--away from conversations about her health, her future, or why she no longer has a phone or a stove. I complimented the pictures on the wall (water colors she painted in her youth); we sang a funny song the family used to sing together at Thanksgiving dinner. I tried to counter her fearful inquiries about the drugs “they” were giving her with cheerful observations about how good I’d heard the food was, and how excited I was about the community garden she would be able to be involved in.
But after I said goodbye, a weird thing happened to me. I suddenly found myself confused about the location of the facility’s exit (to be fair, this was due partially to the building’s design―as naturally, they don’t want the residents getting out.) Moreover, I became unaccountably anxious about my temporary disorientation. I began to feel unusually frustrated, until after what felt like an eon, a staff member kindly showed me the way out. Later I realized what had happened: I had been influenced―no, infected--by my aunt’s state of mind.
Though my ailing aunt can certainly not be held responsible, the experience I had is an example of a common social phenomenon―a form of social infectiousness I think of as “the Transmitted Vibe.” The Transmitted Vibe occurs when you pick up, or “catch” the strong energy of the person with whom you are interacting. My spending an hour with a person with memory-loss dementia was the cause of my inability to negotiate my way out of there. My brain started to mirror hers (I even found myself blathering to the receptionist on my way out, apologizing too much, and feeling oddly unfocused.)
This kind energy transference between people occurs all the time, albeit usually in more normal social circumstances. For instance, you go to a party where everyone around you is happy about some recent triumph and find yourself feeling abnormally buoyant. You go to a family dinner where everyone is stressed out and argumentative, and you become unaccountably pissy. You go to a dinner party where everyone is laid back and telling funny stories, and suddenly you are laughing and relaxed, and find you can even remember a joke you used to tell in college. You go to an event where everyone is bored, and you suddenly feel there is a cotton around your brain and all you want to do is go home.
Just like the flu, the Transmitted Vibe is a form of contagion. If what you are catching is of the positive variety, so much the better; however, there is no simple immunization against a person with bad vibes. (They don’t make Airborne for this.) All you can do is to be aware when someone’s negative energy is affecting you and try to remove yourself from that person if possible.
More important, always try to remember, when preparing to enter into a social arena, that you yourself are potentially contagious. If you are in such a bad mood that you are not sure you will be able to have a good time, remember that donning your best attitude is as important as donning your best dress. Not just for you, but for the people you might unwittingly infect. Most of us are more susceptible than we would ever imagine to the moods of those around us. And, just as we should cover our mouths when we cough, we must endeavor to avoid spreading social dis-ease.
Laugh and the world laughs with you―cry and you may just depress the heck out of someone.
*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, May 4, 2011