Inner Fire Alarm

I used to work in an older building which – while it felt reasonably comfortable – had a lot of problems within the walls, which manifested themselves in fire alarms.

After 9/11, these problems became more obvious because building management upgraded the fire alarm system, as many NYC buildings did. Our system had whooping sirens and flashing strobes of the kind of brightness that they warn epileptics about. This was accompanied by overhead announcements giving direction, which sounded like an adult in a Peanuts special: wha wa wa-wa wa wah; wa-wa wah wha wa. The announcements, we were told, were necessary to direct us towards the right staircase, the one that wasn’t smoke-filled. Or because there might not actually be a fire; there might be an active shooter.

The active shooter risk felt more real than the fire risk. From the window of our lunchroom on the 2nd floor, we looked across the street into the offices of a fashion company where, one day, some asshole decided that his (possibly ex-) girlfriend or wife was in a romantic relationship with a coworker, showed up at their office, and killed three people. As far as I remember, none of us saw that happen, but we watched in horror as the silent-movie aftermath played out less than 30 feet away from our morning coffee.

In addition, our company experienced frequent bomb-threats because of the business we were in: bookselling. Our experience in the early 2000s should have predicted the crazy political atmosphere that is visible to everyone now. I mean, there had always been crazies upset that we were selling Salmon Rushdie or whatever; but, during the Bush presidency, the volume went to a whole new level. Our buyers would invest a lot of energy selecting a spectrum of political books that balanced left and right for a display. But the supply chain couldn’t keep up with the growing fervor. So, in a conservative community, the right-wing books would sell out first, leaving a table filled with left-wing books; and vice versa. Customers seeking, for example, the latest Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin-ish diatribe wouldn’t accept our explanation – and didn’t see why we were carrying the trash published by the other side anyway. There was a lot of attribution error going on, fueled by 24-hour cable channels devoted to one side or the other, who encouraged their viewers to “take a stand.”

So there were a lot of good reasons why we needed to take these fire alarms seriously. And yet, because the wiring in the building was old or the system had been badly installed or something, it kept misfiring. As far as I remember, we never actually had a fire in the building or an active shooter or a true bomb threat. And our actual fire drills were initially planned for once a quarter or so. But the system went off at least once a week and, it felt like, once a day. The system went off so often that the building was paying huge fines for false-alarms to the city; and, at one point, I believe the fire department even threatened to stop showing up when our alarms went off – because, in addition to the sound of the fire alarm itself, there were the sirens of the approaching fire engines.

Imagine trying to do your work in this environment. When the alarm went off, there would be a collective sigh. New hires would gather their belongings while the rest of us paused our day to wait for the overhead announcement to disregard the alarm. Eventually, building management called more frequent drills since it was obvious no one was responding to the alarms. Which only added to the chaos.

It occurred to me this morning that this is what my anxiety disorder feels like: it’s like I’m constantly exposed to the flashing lights, whooping sirens, and incoherent instructions from authority, accompanied by the inner monologue which says that this time it might be real. This time, it might be an active shooter or a fire like 9/11 or a bomb, and I’d better be ready.

Oh, it’s not like this all the time. When I am managing my stress, it’s more like when we were working at our desks, focused on work; or having a moment in the lunchroom where we were laughing and connecting with other people. We weren’t thinking about bombs or fires or active shooters; we were just working or swapping stories. We were just living.

But, at any minute, without warning, the fire alarm could go off.

What helps me silence my inner fire-alarm?

Silence helps. Sitting in meditation, just being in the moment. When I was at my best with meditation, I could meditate in the dentist’s chair; I meditated through a crown replacement once. Meditating didn’t make the pain or noise of the procedure any less invasive; but it helped me manage my stress-levels. Having the TV on, especially if it’s a channel with a lot of chatter, like ESPN or news-talk, raises my anxiety because the outer voices are competing with the voices in my head. Or the radio, like 1010 wins or the commercials on a pop-station – that sends me off the edge.

Having someone who can acknowledge what I’m going through helps: “This is a stressful situation; that person said something really crazy. That would make me feel anxious.” That reality check helps a lot because sometimes you need to hear that the anxiety isn’t all in your head; that the stress is real. It sends me off the edge when people say they are fine in a situation where things are clearly flying off the rails and things are not fine. All shit is breaking loose and they’re saying things are fine?!? Hey, I’m not someone who presses the panic button unnecessarily. I’m a project manager. People come to my office because it feels calm and they tell me that I make them feel calm and help them sort out the chaos in their heads. When I tell you something is wrong at work; something is wrong and we need to do something.

Taking action on little things that I can take action on helps. Cleaning up the clutter around me. When I’m with relatives at Thanksgiving or Christmas, and there’s a lot of loud cross-talk at the table, I will sometimes escape to the kitchen and do dishes. The act of cleaning up calms me down. (My relatives, convinced I am a Martha, keep trying to encourage me to put the dishes aside and participate; they don’t understand that a lot of loud banter – especially if I am trying to participate and getting talked over – sets off my anxiety.)

In 2020, when my anxiety was a peak levels, I took action by working the polls. Yes, I was concerned about being exposed to so many people during the Pandemic; yes, I was concerned about possible violence at the polls. But I had to take action to lower my inner anxiety levels.

Exercise helps. Doing yoga or going on long walks, especially in nature. Breathing deeply helps; having a healthy body helps. It also helps that, the act of yoga or tai-chi or going on long walks, precludes sitting around my apartment watching TV and snacking. (Because those things don’t help.) People often ask me if I listen to podcasts while I am walking: No. I don’t even listen to music. Ideally, I am trying to be present where I am, to stay in touch with the physical reality of the color of the sky, of reflections in puddles, of the patterns shadows make on the street, or the reflections of one buildings windows onto another building, of the sound of a bird that I haven’t heard before. That grounding in reality calms my anxiety.

When I went to Antarctica several years ago, the cruise director recommended in the first briefing that we make it a point to not always be doing: that we look for moments when we could just stop and get by ourselves, and take in where we were and what was going on around us, because that would help us remember this unique experience that we were about to have. And, it is true, that the moments I remember best are the ones where time seemed to stop: when I was standing on the balcony, looking at the mountain that we were passing that stretched up out of the still water and shot up into the sky, so close it seemed I could touch it. Or leaning on the deck rail watching whale after whale bubble feeding not 10 feet off the bow of the ship: the sigh of the ring of bubbles, then their huge mouths appearing from beneath the water, rising, closing, and then they’d slip away again. The color of the sky as the sun “set” (which it didn’t actually do because there is 24-hour sun in the Antarctic summer), changing from gold to copper to silver, reflected in the placid waters around the ship. The feel of settling back in the snow, breathing deep, penguins braying a few feet away, smelling as only penguins smell, the eternal blue sky stretching from one side to the other. Guides and other passengers asked if I was okay; I said Yes, I’m just taking it all in…

In moments like that, moments of awe, anxiety diminishes and I feel like anything is possible.

The fire alarm stops ringing.

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