Why Fire Alarms Give Me Anxiety as a Person With Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is a condition that affects movement and/or motor control issues to varying degrees. For me, living with mild left hemiplegia often includes instances of tripping over my feet and busting up my knees and elbows, or frequently feeling like an 82-year-old woman trapped in a 22-year-old body because of muscle stiffness, cold weather, or fatigue.

I also have a significant amount of anxiety about fire alarms. Barking dogs, fireworks and popping balloons take a close second.

It’s a side of my CP that I don’t like to let anyone see, and a symptom that most people wouldn’t even think to relate to my tight muscles. Until recently, I didn’t realize it was something related to my condition. The Moro reflex, commonly known as a “startle reflex,” which all babies are born with, goes away after birth. However, this reflex doesn’t completely disappear in individuals affected by cerebral palsy, which can explain our heightened and “jumpy” responses to loud or unexpected stimuli.

As a little girl, school fire drills in particular gave me an overwhelming amount of anxiety. I just couldn’t take the anticipation of an upcoming blaring, screeching noise. By second grade, I started to cry in the middle of class at even the mention of an alarm. I can even remember times where my pencil would shake during lessons if I had overheard adults talking about an upcoming drill. No one really understood why I was so nervous. Once or twice, a teacher would walk out with me, but needing a “buddy” wasn’t the issue. The startle still came as the alarm went off, and then I was fine for the remainder of the drill.

Honestly, I was embarrassed. This was also before the days of typing symptoms into Google, so none of us made the connection between my startle response and CP. I went to school trying to figure out when the alarm would go off, would be relieved for a few weeks because we weren’t due for another drill, and then become nervous all over again. This went on until I graduated high school!

Finally, one of my favorite teachers broke that cycle of my fire-alarm-induced panic. It was a morning during my senior year when the principal announced “Please ignore all fire alarms because the system is being tested.” Great. So now I was expected to sit in class and try to control myself physically and mentally while this fire alarm could start blaring repeatedly at any moment.

The alarm went off, and I felt my muscles tense and jerk. Once again, my heart started pounding, and it felt like the room was closing in on me. The last thing I wanted to do was begin hyperventilating in the middle of fourth period history. So I did the most logical thing I could think of — I hid in the bathroom.

She must’ve noticed I was gone for a particularly long time, because she came over and whispered, “Are you OK?” Thankfully, she was one of those few people in school who knew about my CP and who would take me seriously if I told her the truth.

“No, um… my body doesn’t do fire alarms very well. I’m so shaky right now!” I answered.

“Do you want to go outside?” she asked.

My head popped up. “I can do that?”

“Sure, go get some air, to help you calm down.”

Needless to say, I practically bounded down the stairs and out the door. Finally, I could breathe! I regained composure of my body, no longer feeling so trapped by an impending loud noise. I didn’t just feel better physically either; for the first time, I finally felt like someone cared enough to help me handle my startle in a way that actually made a difference. I only wish I could have figured out a solution like this sooner, as it probably would’ve saved me many episodes of misunderstood panic and tears.

Thanks, Mrs. K, for letting me “bend the rules” for a few minutes that day. It seems like the smallest thing, and makes me laugh now, but it helped me regain control for a little while. Plus, I’ll never forget how nice (and partly rebellious) it felt to stand on the curb outside my high school at 11 A.M. on a Wednesday. And just for the record… I still twitch at fire alarms, I don’t plan on getting a big barking guard dog anytime soon, and please, please don’t ever sneak up on me because I can almost guarantee you I will jump across the room.

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