When I was about six or seven years old, I was terrified of school bells. This fear came out during the annual fire drills. These exercises existed to teach us how to behave in the event of a conflagration. The bell would ring, and then keep ringing past its regular end point, like a pianist holding a chord way too long. We would get up, leave class in an orderly fashion, and form regimented lines in the back field. I don’t know why a field of long grass with no obvious exits was deemed safe from fire, but there you go.
The fire bell was a hideous noise. The regular bell was annoying, but its cadence quickly became absorbed, an unconscious part of my day. The length of the fire bell twisted the annoying trill into a terrifying scream. I grew to hate that noise. The very idea of the bell ringing too long would make me cry.
The fear of this commonplace ringing object stemmed from my fear of fire. I don’t know where my pyrophobia originated. I have no traumatic experiences. I’m not sure I saw an open flame until at least a few years after I started hating school bells. This didn’t stop me from being out-of-my-skin scared of even the prospect of fire. If someone was holding a cigarette lighter, I would get tense, teary and have stomach aches as I thought of it being switched on. If this sounds abnormal to you, it made me feel abnormal then. I don’t know why, but I intuited that my fear made me weak and weird. I didn’t share it, not intentionally anyway.
This obsessive fear became public when I started to panic when any bell went off. On one occasion I jumped up and started to cry and run around the room during a regular bell. I was able to rein in this fear, and learnt to silently deal with it, suppressing my thoughts before I could display how I felt. The other kids would still look at me nervously on fire drill day, waiting for another outburst.
As a slightly older child, I was ashamed of my fear of the bell. I was embarrassed in my bones by the thought of another visible outburst of my panic. My silent, and ultimately unhealthy, suppression of this fear was a response not so much to a rejection of the irrational fear underlying the dose of anxiety that greeted a ringing bell, but of the opprobrium attached to displaying how upset I was. I remember the look on my classmates’ faces, ones that mixed fear, disbelief, disdain and annoyance. That might sound like a lot to read into the face of a child, but I’m sure at least some readers will recognise this expression.
The other kids weren’t to blame. To them, my behaviour was itself a kind of upsetting and unpredictable breakout of fear and danger into the banal normalcy of school. It was just such a break that I was so petrified of, of imagined fires burning me in my room. The glances my friends shot me reflected my own terrified checking of the clock. I wanted to be sure that a bell was ringing for the scheduled length of time and therefore I could safely assume to be fire free. They checked my face, worried I would begin to cry and twitch and look unsafe. We were kids. No one had told us what anxiety or panic disorder were. No one had told our teachers either.
I got better. By secondary school I still disliked bells, but I learnt to deal with them as regular interruptions. Fire drills made me uncomfortable but not panicky. I would get grumpy, standing in the back fields, irritated at the injection of jumpiness and adrenaline into my day.
I still hate bell noises. I hate their high harsh thrill. I hate remembering and reliving the intense fear. I hate remembering a time when I felt so vulnerable, so open to pain.
Now, though, I understand it. I have the words to describe it to my friends, and the experience to resolve to live through it. I hate to remember being that unaware and unknowledgeable about the mechanisms of my emotional life. I have been given the gift of articulation, and the passage of time only continues to underline the size of that gift.