I’m afraid of fire. And this will be a long-ass post.
I’m not sure when or why it started, although I know that more crippling aspects of my fear started sometime in my late teens. I’ve often thought about what might have triggered this fear and have so far come up with three possibilities.
1. There was the time when my mom, my sister and I were hanging out in the living room together, I recall it as being around Christmas time, but that’s not definite. My mom was starting a fire in the fireplace so we could all snuggle in and enjoy. She had it going nice and strong and smoke was starting to billow into the room. She had opened the flue, but something was blocking it. She tugged and pulled and jiggled the handle, trying to get the flue to open completely. After a few seconds of struggle the handle came free and the flue snapped open. And a pigeon fell through the chimney, into the roaring fire and burnt up in a flash of feathers and agonized shrieks. I’m so not kidding.
2. There was the time when my parents took my sister and I to a fancy hotel to swim in the pool and enjoy the services and just have a fun night away from home. I’m pretty sure we were in the city, we used to stay in hotels a lot because Ron got free rooms while negotiating for the union (OPSEU). We could have been on route to Florida though, I don’t remember. Point is, my parents left my sis and I in bed, in our room on the 16th floor of the hotel and went downstairs to the lobby bar for a drink. I was young, maybe 10 or 11, but we were asleep and I was old enough to stay with Chops, who would have only been around 5. We were sound asleep when the fire alarm went off. It scared the SHIT out of me and I remember having the sense that I was responsible for making the decision to leave the room or stay put. I remember panicking about, “Do we change out of our jammies? Do we just leave in bare feet? Where were my shoes?” We ended up leaving the room, both afraid and crying, and thankfully a wonderful woman in a room down the hall came over to us and held on to us and told us not to cry. That it was just an alarm, but if we needed to leave, she’d go with us. That we were safe with her. I get teary just thinking about how kind she was. My mother ran full speed up 16 flights of stairs that night to get to us and found us in the hallway dressed in our PJs and bare feet, clinging to this extraordinarily kind woman. I think Mom was more distraught than we were.
3. There was the time when I was about 17 or 18 years old. It was crazy hot summer day and I was sitting with my mom and a friend on the front porch enjoying a cold drink and smoking ciggies. Suddenly we noticed that the house across the street, a detached home for lovely family with four young kids, had smoke coming from the back portion of the roof. Seconds later, chaos. The parents were screaming for all the kids to get out, kids were screaming for the family pets to get out. One kid ran back inside the burning house to save his cat. The mom, clearly in shock, brought the dog over to us so we could hold her while their home, quite literally, burnt up. It was extremely traumatic and sad and it turned out that one of the kids had actually set the fire while tossing burning paper airplanes out his bedroom window. I distinctly remember it striking me as extra horrifying that such a stupid, childish act could have such detrimental and dangerous affects.
So, maybe one of those three events triggered my fear. Maybe not. I found something somewhere that says:
Like all fears and phobias, fear of fire is created by the unconscious mind as a protective mechanism. At some point in your past, there was likely an event linking fire or flames and emotional trauma. Whilst the original catalyst may have been a real-life scare of some kind, the condition can also be triggered by myriad, benign events like movies, TV, or perhaps seeing someone else experience trauma.
But so long as the negative association is powerful enough, the unconscious mind thinks: "Ahh, this whole thing is very dangerous. How do I keep myself from getting in this kind of situation again? I know, I'll attach terrible feelings to fire or flames, that way I'll steer clear in future and so be safe." Just like that fear of fire is born. Attaching emotions to situations is one of the primary ways that humans learn. Sometimes we just get the wiring wrong.
The actual phobia manifests itself in different ways. Some sufferers experience it almost all the time, others just in response to direct stimuli. Everyone has their own unique formula for when and how to feel bad.
I don’t think that I have attached “fire of flames” to any other dangerous situation. I think I’m just honestly scared to death of burning the fuck up, of my loved ones burning the fuck up, and of all my stuff burning the fuck up. That would just so suck.
I respond directly to stimuli, that's for sure. Smell of smoke is the strongest trigger. Sight of smoke is another. Fire alarms and sirens are also triggers for me, but slightly milder than the smell of smoke.
I'm okay with flames, oddly enough, as long as they are controlled and where they are meant to be. I can sit next to a fireplace. Campfires I'm not so good with, too wild and unpredicable. I can light candles, although I'm starting to do that less and less lately and I often blow them out minutes after lighting them, "just in case." I'm still getting used to the gas stove in the new house. I don't like the open flame on the burners or in the oven. And, since getting the gas stove, smell of gas has become another trigger.
My reactions to any of the above stimuli are instant and physical. Increased heart rate, sweaty palms, dry mouth, flight instinct (get OUT of the house). One site I found describes it like this (and it's BANG ON):
Symptoms of Fear Of Fire:
breathlessness, excessive sweating, nausea, dry mouth, shaking, heart palpitations, inability to think clearly, a fear of dying, becoming mad or losing control, a sensation of detachment from reality or a full blown anxiety attack.
Which brings me to the real reason for this post. Everything so far has just been providing the background leading up to what I really want to talk about. Feel free to quit now, if you like, but I swear, the next part is pretty good. Because while I've suffered from this fear of fire, arsonphobia, pyrophobia, whatever you want to call it, for a long time, this week I had my first full-blown panic attack.
See the next post, "Panic Song" for the complete low-down.