A Fear of Fireworks

I hate Bonfire Night. I really, really hate it.

When I was fifteen, I was at the cinema with my two best friends. We were in the middle of a film when something brushed through my hair and landed between mine and my best friend’s feet. I don’t remember now if I knew it was a firework or whether my survival instinct just kicked in automatically because I was out of my seat in a split second. I tripped over a bag as I raced down the row and someone hauled me back up, dragging me with them. My memory of those few seconds is weird, almost as if belongs to somebody else.

But, fortunately for all of us, someone from the row in front of us had stamped out the firework before it had gone off (while threatening to cut the balls off the person who’d thrown it). The lights switched on and a cinema employee came running in to see what had happened. Someone had come up the back stairs, thrown a firework into the crowd, and then done a runner. It looked like someone had thrown a pebble into a pond, we’d all moved outwards, standing almost in a circle with the firework in the middle. There were offers of compensation and calling of ambulances but everyone was okay, apart from the shock of it. I don’t think it had really sunk in because they rewound the film and we sat through the rest of it, although the three of us held on tight to each other until the film ended. On the bus home, we all jumped every time someone hit the buzzer for the next stop.

I was freaked out but I didn’t really take it in until the next time I saw fireworks. I was with my family, we were a significant distance from where they were going off, but I went into a panic. I felt like my ribcage was shrinking or like my lungs were swelling and I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to run. I wanted to run until I physically couldn’t anymore. And after talking to my Mum about it, I realised where that feeling had come from. Worst-case scenario, that firework could’ve gone off in our faces. I don’t want to think about the consequences of that.

Over the years, I’ve avoided fireworks wherever possible. But I haven’t been able to block them out completely. Even when I’m curled up in my room, I can hear them. I don’t have quite the same dramatic response as I did but they’re still a source of anxiety. Every time I hear one go off, my stomach twists. I can’t relax; it’s like there’s a current running under my skin.

As much as I’d like to order the world to stop setting off fireworks, that’s just not possible. I can’t control that but there are some things I can control, things that make the experience a little bit easier:

  • Create a calming environment – Fireworks going off outside my window is stressful enough without adding extra anxieties. So I try and remove the unnecessary ones and surround myself with safe things. For me, that’s familiar things. So on Bonfire Night this year, I took myself up to my room and curled up in bed with my cat and one of my favourite TV shows.
  • Try to distract myself – Giving myself something to work on helps to shift the focus from my anxiety. Otherwise I’m just waiting for the next firework to go off, amping up my anxiety even more. What works depends on how anxious I am or how tired I am. Sometimes it needs to be something simple, like playing a game on my phone, something that doesn’t require a lot of brainpower. Sometimes it needs to be something that takes up every inch of my brain, like playing the piano.
  • Making sure I have support – While there’s nothing anyone can actually do to help, having people checking in on me and making sure I’m okay (or at least not completely losing my shit) does make me feel a bit better. Or a little bit less panicked. And I’ll take what I can get. I think it just brings me back to Earth a bit when my anxiety starts to spiral out of control.

None of these things fix the problem or remove my anxiety but as I’ve written before, sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes all you can do is get through it and try not to make it worse. This anxiety has gotten better over time; the sound of fireworks no longer sends me into a panic attack. Maybe one day I won’t even blink when I hear one go off. Maybe I won’t even notice it. But until that day, I’m just trying to make it through with as little anxiety as possible.