Residual Anxiety

If you’re a long-time reader or know me in real life you probably know that when I was eight, my house caught fire while we were out shopping.

Because it was dark, the dead of winter (January 9, 1988), and the flames were just beginning to smolder … no one knew til my dad opened the door and yelled that one word that changed my childhood  forever: “FIRE!”

Our fire was a tragic piece of my past that inevitably brought my family closer together, but scarred me for life in many ways.

Though I didn’t go into it in this post detailing that frigid January day that changed our lives forever, the residual effects of that day have influenced much of my childhood, teenage years and adult existence — especially with respect to my anxiety levels.

For example, since the fire, I’ve needed to go to sleep with some form of noise — meaning a TV or something. I was fanatical about this, and used to drive my parents nuts, asking them to either stay up til I fell asleep or to keep the TV on just so I could hear the noise. For whatever reason, it was comforting and allowed me to sleep in peace. And as an adult, I still do this … we have a sleep timer on our TV, and my husband likes the white noise before bed, too, so he doesn’t mind. It’s less an inconvenience and more a shared “habit” — albeit for very different reasons.

And I can’t hear the sounds of fire engines (which are very different–to my ears, at least–from police or ambulance sirens) without being traumatically thrust back to being eight years of age kneeling  on the couch at my neighbor’s house looking out into the night and watching the trucks come into our cul-de-sac … stopping in front of our house and then, much later that night, watching my parents come in with their soot-stained faces … saying “It’s all gone.”

I mean, really, how could one not be traumatized, losing virtually every worldly possession and sense of security in the depths of a frigid New Jersey winter? As a child, you grow up knowing your parents would do anything to protect you … and in this case, they simply couldn’t. They, too, were in shock. We were now a statistic.

Now I’m 30, our fire is literally ancient history … but I can’t say I ever truly “got over it.” I don’t know that I will. And while I certainly don’t blame my food-related anxiety issues on this part of my childhood, traces of fear/anxiety have never really left my psyche.

The other night driving to the gym I could feel the sirens wailing before I could see them, a fire engine on its way to a scene. I froze for a second behind the wheel, 100% sure they weren’t going to my house, but fearful for the family who was about to have their lives forever changed. My throat tightened for a minute as I slowed with the other cars to let the truck pass. It bothered me that the sound still, to this day,can make me so upset.

Curious to find out if I was alone, I polled my friends on Facebook to see if there was a specific sound that evoked painful or bad memories for them. They shared their stories of having witnessed a fatal car accident, being in a terrible car accident, witnessing a fire in the apartment next door that could have made its way to a friend’s home, their own house fires, etc. And many of their stories also involved the sounds of sirens coming toward them … and how they associate them with a specific moment in time.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that even years later, these sounds are so far-drilled into our psyches that we are transported back to that dark place time and time again … even when we think we’re OK, that we’re able to “deal with it.” Sometimes those anxieties just never truly go away.

I’ve often said my innocence was robbed that cold January day, but I think what I’ve gained (particularly as an adult) is a deeper understanding of how I think and perhaps why I am the way I am. And while I wish I could have learned it in a less-harsh manner, I do believe everything happens for a reason.

How about you? Is there a specific moment from your past that a simple sound can dredge up painful memories and anxiety? How do you cope?

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One thought on “Residual Anxiety

  1. Wow. I’m so sorry you were faced with this ordeal. Your question is a tough one for me. My first reaction is to say I have no anxieties. But that cannot be true. I think I bury old issues – keep it buried as my way of dealing with it. I think back to some messed up situations, but I don’t get that anxious feeling about it. Like I’m desensitized? I don’t know why or what that might mean. You’ve really got me thinking…..

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