FIRE ALARMS & PTSD

Fire alarm went off in my apartment building today. Completely triggered my PTSD. Isn’t it amazing how you can feel happy and normal, and then one sound or smell can completely bring you back to a state of anxiety?

I panicked, for three reasons:

1. I wasn’t prepared. I came home to Coquitlam to be close to family and to feel safe. And I do feel safe, all of the time. So I never really thought about what I’d do in an emergency. I didn’t know where the fire exits were, the meeting place, where my things were to grab on the way out. I froze, and stood there looking up at the ringing bell, unsure of my next move. I did remember to at least go to the front door and touch the knob to see if it was hot before opening it (thanks fire training from elementary school!)

2. My cats. I realised that in the case of an emergency, I need the cat carriers. They are “safely” stowed in our underground storage locker. So yes, completely useless in an emergency. The poor cats looked at me in terror and cowered under the bed from the noise. It took me 5 minutes to get them and put them on the balcony, before closing all the doors. That’s 4.5 minutes too much. I should keep them stowed under my bed for emergencies. The sheer guilt of standing outside and seeing my neighbours resting safely with their pets…..it was too much. Anxiety amplified.

3. About fifteen minutes before the alarm went off, I went to use the hot water function on the washing machine to wash a dirty mat. When I pulled the knob to turn out the water, it made a weird noise. I thought “hmmm, this is odd”. But it’s my dad’s machine, so I don’t know much about it. I let it sit “on” for those fifteen minutes, and then the alarm went off. The whole time I was outside, I not only worried about my cats, but whether this washing machine issue had triggered the fire. We could smell smoke.

Three fire trucks came blazing down the street, and more than 20 staff went in and out of the building. They were extremely well prepared. I saw quietly in the shade, and could feel myself tensing up. Anxiety can just creep up on you, before I knew it was there, it was too late. I tried to calm myself and turned to my neighbours, saying “I have PTSD. These alarms and sirens are causing me anxiety.” I hoped their words of comfort would help. But it was simply too much.

Crying, I took a walk down the street. The fire marshall happened to be there and came to introduce myself. He calmly asked my name and if I was ok. I explained that the noises and the stress were too much for my PTSD. He told me to call someone to come over. I called my mom, and headed to a nearby coffee shop. Realising I had no wallet, they took pity on me and let me order breakfast ‘on my honour’.

Then I sat and asked myself why I was so upset. Anxiety is simply an emotion, after all. Where did it come from? The noise? Yes. And for anyone, having a fire in your building can be panic inducing. But for me, it was the feeling of being unprepared. The alarm came unannounced, I didn’t have a plan. When I called my dad to tell him about it, he didn’t seem too concerned. It hurt that he couldn’t hear the stress in my voice, even when I told him I was anxious.

That’s the problem with anxiety. We feel like we’re screaming at the top of our lungs, but in reality, everything is inside of us. The racing pulse, the heat rising to our faces, the clenched fists, the nausea, dizziness. It’s often silent, and for those who love us, they may not know how to help, or that we need it. For my dad, I probably should have just said “I’m stressed out, come home now.” He would have. Instead, I let myself talk myself into a corner, feeling alone.

This was a lesson learned for me. To be more honest about my needs. To have an emergency plan for my house, should anything go wrong. And to accept that it’s ok to move 1 step forward, and 10 steps back – this is part of healing, part of the process.

I’m lucky that the fire was minor, and it was mostly water damage to our building – my apartment was unaffected. I finished my coffee and headed home – after three hours we were allowed back in. The cats were fine, sleeping in the sun on the balcony. Nothing was my fault. Irrational thoughts – heightened fear from anxiety – check. My mind and emotions got the better of me. But I’m ok. I got this.

To those going through summer wildfires right now, I send my love and will pray for rain. A big shoutout to the Coquitlam fire brigade, who were professional, compassionate and efficient.

Much love,

Ella

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