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Bipolar Triggers

Robin Kahler is a patient who was diagnosed with affective bipolar disorder in 1988. She works from her home in Tucson, Arizona, as an ...Read More

Some bipolar peers (I call them BPP’s) claim they feel more creative when they are in mania. That’s fine for them; but if I want creative mania I’ll go to a dark theater and watch Stephen King’s, “The Shining”. At the end of two hours I can step outside and smell the fresh air. I prefer to be on solid terra firma. When you’re a BPP, mania follows depression and I don’t want that either, thank you.

My best tools to fight my bipolar and keep me on solid ground are my meds, my doctor, and me. I’ve learned it’s important, very important, to identify my triggers. That’s what the doctors call them; Triggers. I grew up in the projects in a ghetto, and so I call it, “watching my back”. Whatever you call it or them, it’s vital to learn about your own.

Here’s how I look at it and why; ( my ideas are mine and that doesn’t mean they’re perfect for you) but you may find something that jives. I mentioned the ghetto. The projects I grew up in sits in a city near Philadelphia called, Camden, NJ. The projects sits near the border of 32nd St. It’s a street with a legend.

Back in 1949 a man named, Unruh left his house one sunny morning to go for a walk. He carried a piece of half-eaten toast in one hand and a German Lugar in the other. He walked down 32nd Street and shot at anything and anyone who moved. He killed 12 people in less than 15 minutes, and when he ran out of bullets he went back home and told a reporter on the phone that he was too busy to talk; he’d reloaded and was still shooting.

It was the first mass murder in the United States and it happened on 32nd Street, my home town. It’s a street filled with bloodshed even to this day; gangs, drugs, rapes, murders, even suicides, my neighbors uncle hung himself there. I think it might be the Devil’s Triangle on dry land (if such things exist) but you can see why I don’t need mania. You can see why I watch my back.

Some bipolar peers (BPP’s) name their depression, Winston Churchill called it his “Black Dog”, I call mine, simply, “the darkness”, I don’t like to give it a clever name. The first time the darkness hit me I sat on the window sill in my upstairs bedroom and thought about jumping. I’d raised the window and lifted out the screen. I sat on the ledge and looked down, quite a feat for a skinny little seven-year-old girl. I looked down on my mother’s flower garden below; it seemed a shame to crush the tulips, besides I really didn’t want to do it. Unruh had killed Mrs. Best and her child.

Mrs. Best was my babysitter while mom worked at Woolworth’s cleaning out the bird cages for fifty-cents an hour. “Don’t eat the ice cream at Woolworth’s” Mom used to tell me. “They keep the dead birds in the same freezer.” When a canary died they’d wrap the bird and turn it over to the salesman when he came around for store credit. I’d watch the kids at the counter at Woolworth’s. They’d pop a balloon for a cheaper banana split and sit laughing with whipped cream running down their chins. I knew better.

In the decades since I’ve learned to deal with “the darkness”. It’s a creature of it’s own free will. BPP’s have a curse (the disorder), but we also have a gift to fight it with, a special weapon I think we have been given because of our disorder. Most of us have a slightly higher than average intelligence. This intelligence is our weapon, it’s what we have to keep our disorder in balance and we must learn how to use it to survive. We must know ourselves. I like to have a plan of action and I force myself to stick with the plan. If I’m driving down the road and a very dark thought enters my mind, I stop and check it out, I watch my back, like a soldier I snap to attention because I know that I need to address the situation, I don’t let it slide and I don’t analyze it to let it grow.

One of the first things I learned was to not analyze it! I wait until I’m in a safe place to do my cognitive thinking (one day I’ll write about the time I was so deep in thought that I stepped into an oncoming train, I was 13 years old then and ended up with one hundred fractures to my skull; I get a lot of migraines now). It taught me a valuable lesson. (I’m not stupid, can’t get me twice.)

If I get a quick out-of-the-blue darkness thought like that, I don’t stop to wonder, “Golly, gee, why?” If I try to figure out why, my enemy has captured my attention and engulfed me, and soon I’m wallowing in “whys” and the depression becomes so deep it’s a black pit and I can’t crawl out. So in the first moments when the darkness hits, I don’t stop to reason why.

I have to admit these periods of darkness are much less now, medications keep them away. But if it does happen I do have a plan. As I said, my first reaction is to be aware and not analyze. My next step is to go to a safe place. If I’m driving I’ll stop at a store and buy a bottle of water and walk around for a few minutes. Usually that’s all I need to do; sometimes I think the lithium gets “clogged” and it just needs water and movement to get going again. My second step, as I’m walking and drinking my water, (and it must be water, no chemicals like caffeine or sugar right now), but as I walk, I look back on the previous twelve hours: Did I take my med’s? Did I get more than six hours sleep? Did I eat a balanced breakfast? For me these simple actions usually conquer my enemy. I don’t need to go to a darker place because my bipolar is chemical. If I dwell on things in the dark place, I’ll never get out. The time and place to analyze is when I’m mentally strong and with my doctor, not when I’m alone in battle. I don’t let my enemy take over when I’m weak. I know this sounds corny, like I think I’m some kind of Rambo-style grandmom, but it’s the way I keep on solid ground. You need to find out what works best for you.

Keep track of your med’s. It’s hard to keep lithium in a pill box because of the humidity and lithium is a salt. I keep a rubber band on my prescription bottle. When the rubber band is near the top of the bottle I know I did NOT take my pills. When it’s at the bottom of the bottle, I took them. I use two rubber bands, a green one for morning pills and a red one for evening pills. Rubber band at bottom; I’m good to go.

Keep the water intake up. I keep a half-gallon jug in the refrigerator, re-filled each day. I’m the only one who drinks from it and so I know how much I’m drinking. Exercise, but don’t sweat out your med’s. I work out in a pool three or more times a week and I’m an old lady with arthritis and spinal stenosis so don’t tell me you can’t do it. Find something that does work for you.

You’ve heard this before: Stay away from junk food. If you don’t believe me, when the darkness comes, check your last meal. It was either non-existent or sugar or fat filled. I can almost guarantee that.

And get your sleep. You know as well as I do that BPP’s let those wheels spin at night and that leads to mania. I use an old-fashioned pillow speaker plugged in to an old-time radio show, I drift off to sleep with old comics like Lucille Ball and Jack Benny. My radio has a timer and I set it to 60 minutes so I don’t have voices in my ear all night. (I won’t joke about that, although the temptation is strong.) It works for me. You need to find what works for you.

These are the basics. I’m not a doctor although I’ve spent a great many hours among them, I don’t mean to imply that I know all about chemical imbalances and what’s best for BPP’s. I only know what has worked for me for over half a century and I hope something in this can help you.

A Post Script for historical accuracy: The Unruh murders took place a couple of years prior to my incident. Unruh did kill the mother and child, along with several other children and adults that day, but my Mrs Best was the mother-in-law. I’d sit at her kitchen table eating fried bologna sandwiches and barley soup and she’d tell me the story about her daughter and her grand child and how they were shot and died on the front porch. I can still see the porch in my mind, I don’t even have to close my eyes; three steps up then follow the path of the little kid who ran after his mother was shot; every day I’d re-trace the footsteps he ran, step across the place where he was shot in the back of the head. I’d knock at the door he never made it to, I’d turn with my back facing the wall of the house, “watch your back”. I’d twist my head and watch the street as I knocked at the front door, “there are crazies on 32nd Street”. Ironically when I was 17 I dated the son of the man who took the first shot that hit and stopped Unruh. It also stopped my nightmares.

The death I mourned that day on the window sill was the death of my own infant sister who never came home from the hospital after her birth. Parents didn’t realize, back then that children can grieve as deeply as adults, today they have books on the subject and children have counselors. That’s a good thing and I hope parents will remember to use those.

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