When the Thoughts Won’t Leave (Anxiety Is More Than Just Worrying)

It’s funny. Today, mere minutes after a friend of mine asked his social media cohort whether they struggled with intrusive thoughts, I was stricken to near paralysis by my own.

This morning there was a fire in my apartment building. I wasn’t able to get any details of the incident but from what I could piece together by eavesdropping on the attending fire crew and residents of the building alike, it seems as though there was a stove top left on and unattended, causing a fire that left the entire floor the fire originated on stinking of smoke and burned food. The fire alarms went off in the building (which I ignored for the first minute because my building tests the fire prevention and detection systems often enough that until today I didn’t panic much at the sound of them) and I grabbed my purse, phone, charger cable, keys, bottle of water, and cat and made the trek from my suite on the top floor (8th) down to the designation muster point: a small patch of grass to the south of the building.

Roughly twenty fellow tenants milled around the grassy patch, looking to each other for some indication of exactly how serious the situation was. I don’t think any of us actually expected to see emergency fire services on site, yet two fire engines and a handful of their flame-retardant garbed crewmen met us at the entrance of the building. It was an unavoidable reality that something could be ablaze or someone could be injured. In our building: a concrete eyesore reminiscent of a Russian ghetto, that for all its faults serves as our no place like home.

I used to work dispatch for an emergency restoration company that attended to fire, flood, mould, and bio-hazard disasters in strata properties. We dealt with some individual townhouses but the majority of the sites attended were in multi-unit buildings that were two levels or more high. If there is one thing I learned from my eight months of reviewing the documentation provided by the attending technicians and formatting it into reports for insurance purposes, it’s that I never want to be affected in a way that would require restoration services. It is a nightmare for every involved party, and the timeline from determining a need for professional services to completed restoration of the property can be glacial. I rate the whole situation a 0/10; would not recommend.

There are other things that I learned from my brief stint as “Administrative Schedule Coordinator” (which really meant you do a bit of everything and work overtime that you don’t get paid for). For instance, I learned that fires suck, but the resulting water damage from the activated sprinkler system sucks way harder. Water does weird things when it migrates through walls and floors and the cavities between. When a sprinkler head goes off and soaks a previously ignited apartment it does not travel straight down to the unit below; it seeps through any permeable material it can reach and follows any path that is not at an incline. Sometimes it can travel upward, as well, given the right circumstances. I had the displeasure of working on site in a building not a ten minute walk from my own home (shout out to my man Steve for being a fucking champion on that job) where a fire occurred and the resulting water damage affected most units from the 19th floor down to the lobby. Common hallways and even stairwells (to a minimal degree) were affected, resulting in a lot of the materials needing to be removed and replaced. It was a massive job with dozens of tenants displaced and needing to coordinate with their homeowners’ insurance for recompense. I left the company before the job was complete, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it wasn’t even the most taxing job the company had undertaken, but one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that it instilled a paranoia in me that will likely prove to be more harm than help.

Zip, fast forward back to present day, where I am huddled on the grass, shaky hands trying to keep my nervous wreck of a feline corralled even as I type the words “building on fire” to my SO, who is working not fifteen minutes by foot away.

Here’s the thing about anxiety disorders: when an attack is in full swing it specifically denies the presence of reason and tranquility. The philosophy of, “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” is tossed right in the bin and replaced with, “fire! fire! everything is ruined forever!” So, the thirty minutes that it took for emergency responders to determine that the fire (which had originated on the 5th floor I learned, which only made me think if it runs out of control my home will be engulfed by the flames) was extinguished and the building was clear to be inhabited, were among the palm-sweatiest, heart-racingest moments of terror in recent memory, second only to that time my doctor mistakenly announced I was pregnant. My chest felt like it was being crushed in an invisible vice grip while images of myself as a wandering derelict played in a looping reel in my head. I was in a state of abject misery and even once we were permitted back into our units I could not shake the feeling that something truly terrible had happened or was about to happen.

It has been several hours now and I haven’t come down from the events of the morning. Anxiety can linger, consequently manifesting in ways that don’t necessarily make sense. I can feel bugs creeping just under the top layer of skin, but cannot see them. Every metal clang of construction work echoing in the courtyard between the various towers in our complex triggers a flight response in me because it so closely resembles the hammering of the fire alarm. Worst of all, I cannot shake what intellectually I know to be a totally unreasonable fear that this will happen again but next time myself or my cat will die.

The words “intrusive thoughts” are popular with self-diagnosing graduates from Google U right now, but I’m not convinced that the entirely debilitating nature of the phenomenon is something fully understood or even recognized by those that so readily claim to experience it. Intrusive thoughts are more than wondering or imagining a thing a lot. Intrusive thoughts propel the individual to fixate to an obsessive, suffocating degree. There is no dismissing intrusive thoughts when they occur at a clinical level like in OCD or PTSD afflicted individuals. A person experiencing intrusive thoughts may even be aware that they are being irrational yet still cannot combat the emotional response to the line of thinking.

As has been very lightly touched upon in previous posts, I have a confirmed diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder from an emotionally and sexually abusive childhood, as well as a home invasion leading to sexual assault in adulthood. Typically, when intrusive thoughts manifest in me, it is because I am reliving a past trauma. My mind recreates all the touches, sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and emotions in a violently twisted hallucination of my own experiences and I am held captive until it passes or I am soothed out of it. Occasionally, they will instead present as an imagined catastrophe, or a wholly convincing premonition. Either way, it is a hell of my own mind’s making.

I’ve spent the day alternately crying and talking to my friends about how all-consuming the stupid not-even-a-real-fire fire scare was, and I am sure that a number of them just don’t understand why I am so worked about this. They do not live in anxiety-addled, funhouse mirrored mind, where passing worries get reflected and magnified back onto themselves a thousand times over until I can’t even make out who I am any more.

I have a very tenuous sense of personal safety from a lifetime of invalidation and danger inflicted on me at every angle. What small sense of security I have managed to grip onto melts away the instant I perceive a threat to its feeble foundation. Today’s events, which are insignificant to all but my paranoia-driven brain, will sit with me for a long time and drive many of the actions that I (don’t) take and tint the way I see the world around me. It is not an isolated event, as so many who live with PTSD are aware; it is an imprint on all future incidents and an echo heard in all past remembrances.

Categories: mental health


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