Nov 2, 2017

fire alarm phobia

I used to fear two things: capital letters, and mechanical voices. Even beyond my JC years, fear would creep up on me whenever I had to call for a Comfort taxi, because I'd have to encounter that mechanical female voice. Whenever I had to call a cab, I'd put the phone on speaker mode, leave it on the table, and sing to drown it out. People always gave me weird looks when I told them what I feared, but I got tired of trying to explain them in rational terms.

In Year 1 of college, the fire alarm went off a couple of times. Initially, I didn't have a problem with the shrill scream of the alarm bell. What I had a problem with was the announcement that followed the ring: a mechanical female voice that declared that the alarm had been activated (duh), and commanded us to remain calm (how?!). Whenever the alarm sounded, I'd jump into bed and lie like a plank and stuff my fingers into my ears. I think so, at least. I don't really remember. What I remember is staring at the damn speaker on my wall in the afternoon light.

In Year 2, the fire alarm went off very frequently. I don't remember exactly when my fear of mechanical voices transitioned into a fear of the fire alarm itself. I was still alright in Semester 1. I know this because I remember that the fire alarm went off as The Scheduling Club was making its debut, and I managed to continue filming their performance without budging.

One particular night, I remember hearing rumours that there was going to be a fire drill at 10pm. I really needed to pee at 9.40pm, but I decided to hold it in just in case the alarm went off early. At 10.10, there was still no alarm, so I made a dash for the toilet. As I was peeing, the alarm went off. For the next two weeks, I dared not leave my room after 8pm.

In Year 2 Sem 2, I was sitting in the Wellness Office's suite on Level 4, typing away on my laptop doing whatever I was doing as a Student Associate. The next thing I remember is the shrill ring, the black of my eyes squeezed shut, and my realisation that the wild scream I was hearing was my own. I remember being hunched over, my fingers in my ears, and a kind Wellness Office staff member trying to pry open my firm huddle in order to get through to me. She guided me down four flights of stairs, an arm around my back in a half-embrace. Later on, I said that I was embarrassed by my meltdown, and that I was sorry. She said it was okay. It was okay to feel scared. Her response reassured me considerably, and the gold crucifix around her neck provided an added layer of comfort. I wasn't just receiving her love, but also the love of Christ through her.

In the summer of Year 2, The Wallets had to go back to school for a practice with Prof. Fenn on the day that they were testing the fire alarm system. Before we began, I let everyone know that I had a phobia, and that I was sorry in advance. Halfway through our Medley #2, it rang. I must have shouted the F-word, or shouted something, because the next thing I knew, my world had gone quiet and everyone was staring at me. I had crumpled to the floor, and I only know this because the last thing I saw before my tears began to fall was a towering Amanda hurrying over, her knees bending as she approached, her arms open and ready to receive me.

"Okay, it's time, we're moving," the rest of them said, and they started to head towards the corner of the room to get their bags. I gladly followed them to the corner, but didn't want to move after that. For goodness' sake, the bell was out there in the corridor. I remember feeling entirely sober and rational as I said that I would stay here instead. I didn't even realise I was acting irrationally until Amanda said "no, no, we have to go, Karen." She kept her arm around me as we walked. Carmen scurried to the bathroom to get me a giant ball of tissue. When we eventually reached Cendana Common Lounge and got ready to resume practice, I realised that it was my turn to take the solo*. Prof. Fenn asked, "Are you ready?" I said yes, and I felt ready, but it was only when I began to sing that I realised my heart was still pounding, and that slivers of flight-mode adrenaline were still coursing like tingly glitter through my veins.

In the beginning of Year 3 Sem 2, I had a suite all to myself. I was afraid. I was afraid of everything. I could see the fire alarm from my room, and it terrified me. I instructed Carmen to check on me every time the alarm went off, because I'd probably be alone in my room, paralysed in terror.

However, my fear of the alarm was only an exacerbation of another fear, an embellishment on the tiered cake of something deeper. What I really feared was loneliness. The previous semester, a boy had decided to weave his way into my life, like a worm squeezing down a tunnel-hole. Three, four nights a week, we'd spend hours studying together. Then at the end of that semester, he disappeared. Now, my fear of being alone in the suite was really a fear of being alone. The fear amplified itself, calling out to me from the shiny red bell outside my window, from the empty space around me, from just beyond my door.

I felt too small for my room. My presence couldn't fill it. I slept with the light on. My music was always on, through the night, even in the shower. I consciously strove to keep fear an arm's length away. If I wasn't careful, if there was a second of darkness or silence, I just might fall into an irredeemable pit.

Now, somewhere in Week 2 of this semester, I decided to bring my fear of the fire alarm before God. I don't know why I had never prayed about it prior to this, but that day I finally admitted that I was afraid of the sight of the alarm from my window. And I felt God say to me, "Don't worry; I will protect you."

And I thought, what on earth does that mean? Protect me from the alarm? How? Make me deaf? Cut off my ears? I'm always in school, and if it rings it rings; I'd definitely be able to hear it, no?

But that week, the fire alarm went off twice (? thrice? four times?), and it just so happened that I was off campus both times. And I almost never leave the Yale-NUS campus, so you can imagine my surprise when Carmen texted me and I hadn't heard it at all. Twice.

That semester, the fire alarm went off very many times, and I was never around to hear it. Sometimes I was at home (and I rarely went home too!); other times I was in Kent Ridge (for what?? no idea why I was there) or coming back to campus from UTown (why had I even been out??). Once, I think, I was in the car with my schoolmates when it happened; we had spontaneously decided to go get some fresh air. Every single time it happened, Carmen texted me to ask if I was okay, and every single time I said "Oh, it went off? Praise God, I'm not around!"

One Thursday in Year 4 Sem 1, the day of the first proper CF session, I was informed that there was going to be a fire drill at 9pm. I had two options: to leave CF early and escape, or to stick it through. This time, I decided that I was ready to stick it through. God was bigger than my fear, and God was more important than my fear. I had two options that day, and I chose to trust Jesus.

That night, I marched down the corridor with the rest of CF without covering my ears. I was redeemed from the fear that night. It was a night of victory. Since then, my fear for the alarm and for mechanical voices seem to have gone away. I haven't felt the same fears since. Nothing remotely close to that intensity, at least. Praise Jesus, that we have redemption; praise God, that He protects us until we're ready to be strengthened. He is gentle and patient, and He wants you to grow.

"On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. /
You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot"

* Interestingly enough, the song I was solo-ing for the medley was Xi Shui Chang Liu, the most well-known Xinyao song! This was before I even know what Xinyao was! And I ended up doing research on Xinyao (and interviewing the guy who wrote/sang this song) for my capstone! Heehee fate has a way of working out wonderfully.

P.S. Nat '19 created a fire alarm remix. I'm not kidding. Link here. (I'm not listening to it tonight, for obvious reasons, but you can have a go)

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