Human Fire Alarms

Fun fact about fire alarms – they’re not just there to alert you to fires.


A fairly recent study showed that if a person saw smoke or suspected a fire but didn’t see anyone else reacting, the incredibly powerful and wonderfully British urge to NOT MAKE A SCENE would have them sit tight pretty much up to the point that flames engulfed the room and it was too late to run. It seemed that people would much rather risk catching fire than appear unnecessarily dramatic in front of other people. However, this doesn’t happen when there is a literal signal that tells people “this is real, leave the building”, e.g. a fire alarm.


Basically, fire alarms let people know that it is socially acceptable to panic.


Often when I’m describing how my mind works, I use the word “reality” a lot. My version of reality is quite different to yours. Sometimes the wobbly line in my head that clearly separates fact from fiction gets a little too wobbly, and my reality shifts into an odd place where it’s difficult to tell the difference between what I’m really seeing and what is just my brain’s fun sense of humour – this happens especially when I’m tired or stressed. I may see a shadow in the corner inexplicably move. When I’m very tired, I tend to see and feel spiders on my legs. You get the picture. When I’m discussing this with other people, a question that often comes up is: “If the world gets so frightening, how are you not panicking all the time?”


Honestly? Because I’m looking at you.


Yes, on a very bad day when the reality line is playing jump-rope with my brain, I do just close the curtains and hope for the best. But on okay days, when I’m out and about, I use the general public as my fire alarm.


An example: say I’m sitting in the library and all of a sudden the lights flicker and a shadow moves across the wall. This is fairly disturbing, right? So I look around. Has anyone else reacted? Nope. Then it’s just in my head, and I simply grit my teeth and ignore it instead of running from the room shrieking and having my library card permanently revoked.


Another more recent example: I’ve not long moved to an area near an airport and I am not used to hearing or seeing planes fly quite so low. At least three times now I’ve been sat in my room when suddenly I’ve heard a prolonged, awful rumbling that sounds like thunder only worse. Instantly my brain asks if a bomb has gone off etc. so I run down to the window and see people going about their day. I’m a little shaken, but no longer getting ready to find cover.


If you met me, you’d notice that my mannerisms sometimes seem a little off or strange – this is probably because I spent so much time growing up watching everyone else to see how normal (ha) people react to things and it was only after my diagnosis that I started to try and act as myself. But to be honest, my human fire alarms have been quite a lifeline for me, and I bet everyone else uses them too – have you ever heard an argument in the street and turned to see what other people were doing about it before you reacted?


So, here’s a general thank you to anyone who finds themselves in a public space with me – thanks for being my fire alarms, guys.


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