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Why Fire Drills Triggered My Anxiety From Elementary to High School

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During my first-ever appointment with my therapist recently, the two of us all but established that I have anxiety, and while it didn’t really come as a surprise to me, it felt surreal. Having anxious feelings is nothing new to me, but I thought it was merely periodic, where stressors would come up, make me really anxious, pass and then I’d be back to “normal.” But the truth is, nothing’s ever been “normal” for me.

While I haven’t always known I have anxiety, I’ve always had Asperger syndrome and auditory sensitivity. When I was really young, I underwent a myriad of different types of therapy to try and deal with that. I disliked virtually all forms of loud noise, but if there was one thing that really bothered me, it was the fire alarms at school. They were extremely loud, especially in the older buildings.

As the years went on and I began coping better with the noise, it was the sudden nature of them that started bothering me more. One second it would be relatively quiet, and the next thing I knew, the noise just cut through the air and startled me, causing my nervous system to go into overdrive. In the first month of school, it was even worse because the state in which I went to school mandated that we had to have one fire drill a week for the first month of the year. After that, we would do just one per month. I’ll let you do the math on that one.

Through elementary and middle school, I mainly suffered in silence. Whenever my anxiety got really bad, I would have to disclose it to my teacher, who often wasn’t at liberty to tell me the details of when the fire drill would be. I often had no way to get through my anxiety discreetly, especially in elementary school when we stayed in the same classroom for more or less the whole school day. I’d always put my hands up to my ears when I even thought it was going to happen. As a result, I drew unwanted attention from my peers when nothing actually happened. My teachers would often designate me as the “line leader” out the door so I’d be the first one to get away from the noise, but that didn’t help; all it did was single me out.

Moving to middle school was difficult because I had to get used to a different noise the middle school alarm made (it was much higher-pitched and equally as miserable than the elementary school). My teachers started telling me when the drills would happen, but only just minutes in advance, and the way they did it was far from discreet. More often than not, they’d tell me to step out of the classroom with them and tell me, so everyone in the room saw it. Even when the noise started to bother me less, my anxiety was still visible for all to see.

The beginning of high school, however, was the lowest point. My anxiety about the fire drills boiled over to the point I couldn’t even concentrate in class because I was so anxious. This really affected my grades.

At first, I just sucked it up and dealt with it. But in October, I finally told my parents about the full extent of my anxiety, and we then came up with a plan between myself, my teachers and my case manager for my IEP. The plan involved the date and time of the drills being disclosed to my parents and I, and they would take me out of school early or drop me off late (depending on when the drill would occur), and I would have the full opportunity to make up any work I missed during that period — no questions asked.

In theory, it was a good plan. It worked well on the first few occasions it was put into action, with my teachers being completely understanding and going along with it. In fact, throughout my entire high school career, I never had a teacher that gave me a hard time about it. In fact, most of them never even mentioned it to me, since they were briefed on the accommodations I had with my IEP. Even the attendance secretary caught on after a while, and barely even mentioned it to me when I was signing in or out.

I’ll always say that the plan solved some problems, such as me not panicking because of the noise or acting strangely in class because I thought it was coming, but it caused other problems, most of which were not my fault at all. One time during freshman year, my parents had dropped me off after the time that we had been told a fire drill would happen, but the people in charge had taken a bit longer to sound the alarm than they said they would, so I found myself stuck there, about to be triggered with no way to stop it. My case manager and the dean (who was in charge of the drills) apologized to me, which I accepted, but it was still embarrassing. On another occasion during my junior year, the alarm just rang one day out of the blue, and I had not been warned about it at all, which as I was later told, was because the school board had made us do it spontaneously, and it was actually supposed to have happened the following day. This time, however, within an hour, my phone blew up with emails containing apologies from not only my case manager and the dean, but also my principal, the facilities coordinator for the whole district and the person from the school board that had given the order for the drill to happen. I appreciated their apologies and was very quick to accept them and move on, because I was embarrassed by all the attention I was getting and I wanted to put a stop to it.

Even though those were the only two times there was really a big mistake during my high school years (that I can remember), they caused my triggers to only get worse, to the point I was having panic attacks on a regular basis in the middle of class. Like whenever I heard the school security guards walking through the hallways with their radios on, I would be triggered because it could’ve been someone giving the order to sound the alarm. Or if I heard keys jingling in the hallway, I would be triggered because it could’ve been someone getting ready to pull an alarm. This didn’t start in high school either — I experienced these things in elementary and middle school as well, sometimes after we had our monthly (or weekly, if it was September) fire drill. At the time, I never realized I was experiencing emotional trauma. Almost 12 years of that happening on a monthly basis really took a toll on me, one I’m only realizing now, at 21 years old and almost three years removed from my graduation.

This also made dealing with my peers difficult, especially because none of them seemed to have any problems with fire drills. In fact, some of my peers even liked them because it meant a shorter class period, which I thought was ludicrous at the time. Most of the time, the fire drills occurred at either the first or last period of the day, so I was always subconsciously thinking that there were one or two of my classmates that were suspicious at my repeated absences from those classes. I know their opinions on my plan wouldn’t have mattered in the long run, but since social skills were never (and still aren’t) a strong point of mine, I was worried they would find out and start making things up about how I was scared of the fire alarm.

Believe me, if I could’ve just “gotten over” this, I would have. My nervous system just went into fight-or-flight whenever I even thought it would happen. I was given all the warning in the world most of the time (heck, I was forwarded the exact same email that went out to the teachers), but I couldn’t relax until my case manager let me know that the drill was over and it was OK for me to relax, and even then the anxiety didn’t just disappear.

I never felt truly “safe” from this until I was finished with high school. There were lots of good things about grade school, but this was not one of them, and I was more than ready to put it in the rear view mirror after graduation. While many of my classmates went back to visit during breaks from college, I’ve only been back inside the building once, and it was on a Saturday night for a musical that my sister was in. I still wonder what I missed out on during all my entire grade school career because I was experiencing that fight-or-flight sensation. Maybe I would’ve gotten more out of my schooling if only I was neurotypical. That being said, while the plan we made at the start of high school was by no means 100% effective, I don’t know what I would’ve done without it. It gave me a sense of relief knowing I had adults that were on board with all of this, and I’ll forever be grateful for that. But the process of unraveling those wounds from 12 years of suppressing my feelings is just beginning as I approach the three-year anniversary of my graduation. With a great group of friends in a major that I’m very passionate about at an excellent college, however, that process has been a little easier. And now that I’ve started therapy, I’ve began learning even more ways to recover and heal.

As tough as it was, I survived. Now it’s just a matter of healing from 12 years of suppressing my feelings.

Getty Images photo via Red_Hayabusa

Originally published: July 5, 2019
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