Bipolar disorder is a funny thing. It can come on with no warning. One moment you’re fine, and the next you’re in the infinite doldrums or jagging on a spike of enthusiasm. Most of the time, it’s like that. The moods come on unexpectedly and stay as long as they want.
Sometimes, however, there are things in your life that seem to trigger a bout of depression or mania. This isn’t quite the same as what’s commonly called a trigger. In the usual sense, a trigger is something in your past, like a traumatic memory, that comes bursting through when you read, see, or otherwise encounter a reminder of that memory. Suddenly, you are thrown back into the situation that triggered you, reliving the trauma, feeling as if you were still there, re-experiencing it. Triggers are most commonly associated with PTSD (or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Many people associate PTSD and its flashbacks with veterans and war, but other traumas, such as rape, assault, and natural disasters can also cause PTSD.
Trigger warnings are controversial. Some people need a warning that the content — especially books, blog posts, or films — may trigger a suppressed or otherwise traumatic memory and leave the person caught up in the sensations during a public moment, such as in a classroom. Obviously, people with traumatic memories would prefer to avoid this, so a trigger warning is placed at the beginning of a story, novel, or even a song that deals with rape, domestic abuse, or other traumas, especially ones depicted in a particularly graphic manner.
To other people, reacting to a trigger is an admission of fragility, at best, or at worst, an excuse for avoiding content that most people can easily handle. This is part of the mindset that leads to calling the severely traumatized “snowflakes” for their perceived inability to deal with stimuli that “normal” people take for granted. They do not understand the power of traumatic memories or the power they have over people who have been through trauma. They consider such people weak. They consider themselves strong, even if — or especially if — they have been through traumas themselves.
In general, my life has been less traumatic than some, more traumatic than others. There are memories that invade my dreams, situations that cause me panic, and stimuli that rev me up. I am not in control of these stimuli, or what they do to me.
Most of the stimuli trigger depression in me, as my bipolar disorder is heavily weighted towards depression. (In fact, I was diagnosed with unipolar depression before a psychiatrist finally recognized my condition as bipolar 2 with anxiety.) When I encounter one of these “personal” triggers, I am panicked, unable to communicate, and immobilized, or nearly so, and must rely on the help of others, especially my husband, to get me through. There’s no telling how long that depression will last.
Primary among my triggers is what I call “the rotten ex-boyfriend who almost ruined my life.” It was a toxic, gaslighting relationship that left my soul sucked dry and my emotions shattered. Fortunately, I do not often encounter anything that reminds me of those days. A friend I met during that time, in fact, has helped me heal both then and for many years thereafter.
Still, I have dreams — ones where I am traveling to the man’s house, ones where I am in the house but he is not present, and ones in which he is. I wake feeling vaguely seasick and nervous. The feeling persists like a hangover through most of the next day. It interferes with my ability to do work and to interact with people. My reactions used to be much worse, with specific words even able to throw me into panic and depression.
Another thing that triggers me is disastrous financial matters, or at least ones that I perceive that way. IRS dealings are by far the worst. A letter with that return address throws me into a panic. Once I even collapsed on the street after an IRS engagement and was unable to get up without assistance. Overdue bills and dealing with personal finances are triggers, exacerbated by the fact that I pay most of the bills, despite the fact that I make less than half the money. This is one of my contributions to the household since there are many things I am unable to do. Such situations leave me with my head in my hands, shaking and catastrophizing, unable to do what must be done until I calm down. (My husband is by now adept at helping me do this.)
And I have one of the more “traditional” trauma triggers — a natural disaster. A year and a half ago, our house was destroyed by a tornado. At the time it hit, I was upstairs in the bedroom. I remember the roof coming off. I remember putting a pillow over my head and hoping for the best. For many months I suppressed the trauma. But now it has come out. When the wind blows very hard or the rain blows sideways, I panic. Despite the fact that upstairs is the very place I shouldn’t go, that’s where I end up — in bed with a pillow over my head. (I also avoid movies like Twister. I’m not even sure I should try The Wizard of Oz.)
As for hypomanic triggers, I have few. Most of my hypomanic flights are unexpected, lifting me up with no warning. Although they can be exhilarating, they are also dangerous. One of the hazards is unwise spending, which of course can lead to the aforementioned financial depression triggers.
One trigger that takes me as near as I ever get to hypomanic sexuality, though, is a sensory, rather than a situational, trigger. For some reason, the smell of Irish Spring soap brings up the heat in me. I distinctly remember the first occasion on which I noticed this. A coworker walked past me and I smelled the distinctive scent. It started my juices flowing. Later, we became lovers. My reaction to Irish Spring is less extreme these days, but it still triggers a memory of the feeling. I seldom encounter the scent anymore, as my husband prefers Zest.
At any rate, it is my experience that triggers can arise from sensory memories, from dreams, from upsetting situations. I have few triggers related to textual representations, though I am not immune to those in films (I left the movie “What Dreams May Come” before it was over and waited in the lobby until it was over).
What I can say is that people’s triggers do not make them “snowflakes.” Triggers elicit visceral reactions that are no less real for not being visible to outsiders. While I don’t advise purging any possible triggering material from, say, academic curricula, I do think a trigger warning on syllabi or blog posts is only polite, and possibly psychologically necessary.