the smell of my desperation has become a stench

Fire drill

The last three days have been a clumsy stumble through my thoughts and over my feet, and suddenly I’m gripped with almost paralyzing fear. I expected to feel profound sadness, but I didn’t know I’d get this scared. Fear over absolutely nothing and then everything all at once. It’s like a scene in a movie where you suddenly notice the ghost of a little girl peeking inside the window.

This morning at 5 AM the smoke detectors in my room and Leta’s room started beeping. The piercing sound lasted about ten seconds and then stopped just as abruptly as it had started. Five minutes later the smoke detector in Marlo’s room followed suit. This duet between sets of detectors continued every five minutes, and I held Leta in my arms the entire time, her body trembling with the idea that the house was about to burn down, her quivering lower lip a physical manifestation of what is going on inside my heart.

I turned on the monitor to check on Marlo, and since she was just lying in her crib singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star — well, a sort of warbling hybrid of that and the Isty Bitsy Spider because songs are just continuations of other songs, it’s all just music to her — I decided to leave her to her party while Leta and I checked the house to see if anything was amiss. She gripped my leg as I walked, the same way I used to grip my mother’s leg when I was scared. My older child looks almost nothing like me, but the differences stop there. Every molecule of blood in our bodies flows to a shared rhythm.

Nothing in the house was out of place, and while I looked at the map of circuit breakers in the basement with my wild-haired miniature worrier wrapped around my waist the smoke detectors decided to go back to sleep.

“Why did they make that noise, Mom?” she asked.

I shrugged. “I’m not sure,” I answered. “I guess they just malfunctioned.”

“But why?” she pressed.

“I don’t know, Leta,” I said. “I’m sorry. Sometimes I just don’t know the answer.”

  • crooked_teeth

    2012/01/26 at 12:59 pm

    Ain’t that the truth? Just because we’re the grownups doesn’t mean we know shit.

  • Cosmo3807

    2012/01/26 at 1:00 pm

    Maybe you’ve already figured this out, but some smoke detectors go off when the battery is going dead. You know, to let you know to plug in a new one. Have you been in your new place long enough now to need replacement batteries? Also, some devices detect things other than smoke, so I truly hope there is nothing harmful in the air at your home!

  • dooce

    2012/01/26 at 1:03 pm

    @Cosmo3807 these only detect smoke, not carbon monoxide. They are equipped with lithium batteries and are connected to a circuit, so we’ve called an electrician. Hope to find an answer by the end of the day so that they don’t continue to wake all of us up that early.

  • karala

    2012/01/26 at 1:03 pm

    you wrote: wild-haired miniature worrier
    i read: wild-haired miniature warrior

    same thing, i think.

  • DesertMary

    2012/01/26 at 1:07 pm

    Just to scare the hell out of you, that’s why it went off. Love the heart pounding at 5am.

  • lisdom

    2012/01/26 at 1:12 pm

    I know I don’t really know you, but I want you to know that you’ve been in my thoughts.

  • reneewvu

    2012/01/26 at 1:13 pm

    My dad always told me that I would press for answers too, even when he said he didn’t know. I really did think my dad knew the answers to everything. Sometimes I still do… and I’m 34 years old.

  • Doghouse Mama

    2012/01/26 at 1:17 pm

    Ours did that about 5 one morning also. They are part of our ADT system so we called them to see if they could tell why they randomly went off and they had the exact same response. That made me feel…not much better.

    Oh, and we have the added benefit of a female voice yelling “Fire! Fire!”

  • littlewords

    2012/01/26 at 1:19 pm

    Most of the time I’m not scared of anything.
    But sometimes?
    I’m scared of…nothing.
    Nothing tangible, anyway. Just scared.
    It doesn’t make any sense, even to me. Sometimes I think we just need it to gain a little perspective, to appreciate how we feel when we’re not scared of anything.

  • NCMelissaB

    2012/01/26 at 1:20 pm

    I can relate to paralyzing fear. I am so sorry that you’re experiencing it. I hope that feeling fades away. I wish I had something more to offer. I simply wish the best for all of you.

  • Cosmo3807

    2012/01/26 at 1:26 pm

    @dooce – ah, glad to hear that! And I hope you (or your readers) don’t feel like I insulted your intelligence. If so, I offer sincere apologies.

    I don’t think straight when I’m freaking out but of course that doesn’t apply to everyone. Hope you get some answers soon.

    (Plus, I had just woken up when I read your post so I posted in my morning fog).

  • Amy J.

    2012/01/26 at 1:27 pm

    Check the code Heather…you probably have back up battery power that is in the box for the alarm…it’s a big battery, not just the lithium ones in the detectors themselves. This is the system battery for the whole alarm system in case of power outage. They rundown about every five years. You’ll get a warning beep from all the fire alarms and the security alarm letting you know it needs to be changed. It will give you a code on the alarm…if you call that should confirm it. It’s costs about $100 to have the system battery replaced.

    Sorry about that last night. My husband works alot of nights…so I know that feeling all too well. I’ve walked the floor with a sledgehammer before worried about something breaking in after vandalizing our Halloween decorations one year. You never realize the security your husband gives you, until he’s not there when something frightens you. My heart goes out to you and the girls.

  • Amy J.

    2012/01/26 at 1:30 pm

    Btw, it will first sound off at random…but over time it will start to beep, beep, BEEEEEEEP all the time. You can shut it off by keying in your code, but it will sound again…at 4 a.m. generally. It will continue to do so until the battery is changed or the battery completely runs out…at which time you wouldn’t have the system working if you lost power : ).

    All this passed on to you from personal experience ; )….I let mine beep for weeks before addressing it (which was totally stupid and pointless I will admit)

  • threeblindmoose

    2012/01/26 at 1:31 pm

    Hoo boy, do I know that fear. I’m an independent woman and I can take care of myself, but hot damn, when those stupid smoke detectors go off I wish there was someone else there to make it better or at least think clearly while I quietly panic. My smoke detectors used to do the same thing, hopefully the electrician will be able to figure it out. (Or a battery replacement will do the trick.)

  • Daisee

    2012/01/26 at 1:37 pm

    This same thing happened to me and my girls about 3 years ago, and though the detectors are wired electrically, they also do have batterys. We called the fire department because I thought they were sensing something we just couldnt see. Of course by the time they got to the house they had stopped – I called the builder and asked him if it could be an electrical malfunction and he said no way – to replace them all and all should be fine and he was right! Saved me from the electrician cost which was next on my list. I replace my batterys every Spring at Day light savings whether they need it or not 🙂

  • salvationamy

    2012/01/26 at 1:43 pm

    Heather, is it a system, connected to monitoring, or is it individual smoke detectors not tied to one another? My husband’s got 27 years in the design/installation/maintenance, etc. of these systems. If you have questions, feel free to send me a personal message and he can trouble shoot it for you. He’s the rain man of fire systems.

  • katjack55

    2012/01/26 at 1:47 pm

    Same thing happened to us…turned out it was just dust that had gotten into them (we’d just had work done outside that kicked up a lot of dust). They’re all wired together so when one goes off they all do.

  • dianemaggipintovoiceover

    2012/01/26 at 1:56 pm

    the other day there was a fire drill at lio’s “school.” he was walking out with his friend henry, who saw his brother. henry said to lio ” i love winslow” and lio replied, loudly “I LOVE FIRE DRILLS.” just a funny for you ….

  • Rivercat0338

    2012/01/26 at 1:56 pm

    Why do smoke alarms only malfunction in the middle of the night/early dawn? Nothing like being jolted awake by a life safety device to add confusion and adrenaline to the party.

  • Fridaymom

    2012/01/26 at 2:19 pm

    Heather, sometimes that is all you are going to be able to say to your girls during this time — and that’s OK! Hang in there.

  • filmlady

    2012/01/26 at 2:24 pm

    Dust. At least that turned out to be our problem with our hard-wired smoke detectors. They went off regularly like that, never for long. The electrician that we called told us to vacuum around and inside each one. We haven’t had a problem with them since. But who knows. Maybe he just knew how to sling the BS.

    I’ve got sympathy anyway. It scared the crap out of everyone in the house. Even Nugget the Wonder Dog was upset, and he wasn’t even inside.

  • Carol Shwanda

    2012/01/26 at 2:25 pm

    I remember when I was first separated from my ex-husband. I was trying to put air in my bicycle tires and was having trouble and I just got overwhelmed and started crying. It was then that I realized just how alone I was. Eventually I got stronger and became very self-sufficient. Now I’m happily remarried to a gorgeous man who always makes sure that there is enough air in my tires.

    It gets better.

  • mybottlesup

    2012/01/26 at 2:26 pm

    i would react similarly. my husband deploys in 6 weeks and my anxiety is unreal already. it’s both incredible and terrifying when we realize that we are taking on a new role within our own family.

    it’s going to be ok. (at least that’s what i keep telling myself.)

    also, “Every molecule of blood in our bodies flows to a shared rhythm.” <--- that was absolutely gorgeous.

  • SPM

    2012/01/26 at 2:35 pm

    I often get scared being alone in the house when my husband is out of town, even more so since I’ve had a baby. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask a friend to stay with you to get you over the hump.

  • rockygus18

    2012/01/26 at 2:42 pm

    I have read your blog for a very long time and I am so sorry you are going through this pain. I know how much it hurts and how scary it can be because I am going through something as well, it just hurts, plain and simple. I would much rather go through physical pain. This month has been difficult for so many people, maybe there is something in the air.

    Anyways, thank you for writing about it, it helps to know I am not alone and it will get better for you, of that I am sure.

  • Tobie

    2012/01/26 at 2:43 pm

    I’m definitely NOT a home repairs expert but my one tip is – “When something malfunctions, the first step is to Clean It.” (Assuming there is not an actual fire, you know what I mean).

    So in this case that would be – take down each smoke alarm, wipe it with a cloth/duster, get all the dust out, replace the battery, whatever else you can do to clean it. More often than not, that will fix your problem.

    (And the same with your fridge, vacuum, garbage disposal etc…try just “completely cleaning it” first, and see if that fixes it).

    And yes I realize this is the equivalent of tech support asking “Did you try RE-STARTING your computer????” 😉 , but, sometimes people don’t think of this.

  • Anxious Annie

    2012/01/26 at 2:44 pm

    Bugs. Sometimes even a tiny spider can set those off so clean and dust around them. I hate how those things are tied together so if you replace batteries, just do all of them. I’ve been living alone now for almost 4 years and I haven’t even tested my smoke detector or checked the battery. Bad, I know. I’m sure if I get it off the wall I won’t be able to get it back on. I’m even nervous about testing it – afraid it won’t shut off or something. I know I worry too much.

  • Lauren3

    2012/01/26 at 2:46 pm

    Fucking idiot smoke detectors, picking NOW to act up.

    You’re doing it… everyone has got your back.

    Here is a squirrel stealing a french fry.

  • rockygus18

    2012/01/26 at 2:46 pm

    Also the fear thing is natural. I got back together with a… lets just call him “bad idea”, after losing my dog for a day in the country. It really shook me up in every way possible and I crumbled. Just take deep breaths and one step at a time… It all works out.

  • TrinaManey

    2012/01/26 at 2:48 pm

    Hi Heather, I am quite sure you know how many lives you have touched but what you don’t know is how many people there are in the universe rooting for you. You’re going to be fine, better than fine even. You’re going to be as great or greater (it’s a word, look it up) as you’ve ever been. Although the smoke detectors were undoubtedly extremely annoying, they were probably a test of what you’ll do in situations you don’t know how to handle. The good news is, you passed. There will be a lot more tests, it’s not the end result that matters, it’s the journey to finding solutions to problems you never thought you’d have to deal with. Even at the ripe old age of (almost) 50, I am learning and you will continue to learn. Your girls are in good hands and at the end of the day, that’s what really matters. Sending you love from across the country.

  • mnigbur

    2012/01/26 at 2:53 pm

    Dear Heather,
    (this has nothing to do with your mishap, of which I am so sorry that happened!) I am just wondering if you are just in a temporary seperation, or if this is going to end up in a divorce? Have you guys decided on that yet? I know that’s kind of a bold question, but as a loyal follower I am worried about you and your girls, as well as Jon. I wish you all the luck, love and peace that you will be needing.

  • Eggsinarow

    2012/01/26 at 3:00 pm

    I’m sending you big, giant love.

  • SJ123

    2012/01/26 at 3:03 pm

    My husband and I recently divorced. Those first few months after he moved out were very difficult. I couldn’t sleep without the light on and woke up constantly in a total panic.

    I’m an independent person and very able to stand on my own, but it took some time for the anxiety and fear to subside. It really does get better with time.

  • The Bold Soul

    2012/01/26 at 3:08 pm

    I suspect you might feel that level of fear until the moment when you realize that, as hard as it is and as sad as it is, you really CAN make it after all (cue the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song). Having those effing smoke alarms going off like that would scare the crap out of anyone, and your nerves are already on overdrive, I’m sure.

    For what it’s worth, I’m 50 and I married for the first time 3 1/2 years ago (known my husband for a little over 4 years). I spent 46 years mostly on my own; lots of short-term relationships and 1 long-term that wasn’t quite a live-in thing. So I was the Valedictorian of Self-Sufficient-Singleness. Now, ever since I got married, MY biggest fears are something happening to my husband and me not knowing where anything is or how anything works (he’s French so we live here in Paris and I am freaking clueless about so many things I used to totally handle on my own back in America). But I keep reminding myself that somehow, some way, if I need to be independent again, I will figure it out. I’m stronger than I think.

    And so are you.

  • Shea

    2012/01/26 at 3:22 pm

    We’re all screwed. None of us know shit. You are, as every parent is, trying to let Leta know that large fact small incremental pieces at a time. It’s all any of us can do.

    Or that is what I would say if I knew shit and I don’t.

  • hugsNpuppies

    2012/01/26 at 3:31 pm

    Hello Heather,

    just keep rereading TrinaManey’s comment – I totally second that. There’s love, support and wisdom in it.

    You will get through this. All the bets to you, Jon and the girls!

  • Trish has 3 girls

    2012/01/26 at 3:32 pm

    I have started saying that to my girls too (the oldest is 8). I think it is somehow empowering to let them know we don’t always know the answer. But we can still handle things and take care of them. And ourselves.

  • haynic

    2012/01/26 at 3:37 pm

    Marlo is your little light keeper. I can relate. She sings when your world is in panic. Everything moves along whether you worry or not. She’s not worrying – perhaps because she doesn’t understand – or perhaps because she realizes it’s better to sing through the rough waters – and screaming sirens – than to grip a leg and let your heart race.

    Perhaps the Universe was talking to you. Malfunctioning alarms is weird. Ghosts, perhaps? I don’t have the answer either. Maybe Marlo does.

    Everything’s gonna be alright twinkle little star climbed up the water spout don’t worry, be happy…

  • Jeca51601

    2012/01/26 at 3:55 pm

    “Everything’s gonna be alright twinkle little star climbed up the water spout don’t worry, be happy…”

    @heynic, this is beautiful. Well done…

    I know how scary it is, Heather, I know.
    But it will get better…

  • scamels from the rock

    2012/01/26 at 5:02 pm

    I’m a long-time reader, but I’ve never commented before. I just wanted to let you know that I think it’s things like your description of the fear you feel that make people relate so much to your writing and feel so close to you. I haven’t been through what you’re going through, but I’ve absolutely been lost in that fear, and it helps to read the account of someone else who has felt it. My heart goes out to your whole family during this difficult time.

  • TessAnn

    2012/01/26 at 5:17 pm

    What an amazingly poignant way to wrap up what you are experiencing. I’m so sorry you’re going through this, though that fear and uncertainty of where next to step is completely normal. Still sucks though. And…I just have to say Kudos to you for the ‘sometimes I don’t know the answers’ response. That one’s hard to admit for any parent…but necessary for our children to get a grasp of. Hang in there. You and your family are in my thoughts, I admire you all beyond words.

  • Sheena

    2012/01/26 at 5:41 pm

    “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing” (C.S. Lewis, _A Grief Observed_). Just wanted to pass this along: the fear and the grief, they go hand in hand.

  • PlanetA

    2012/01/26 at 6:24 pm

    Heather (and community),

    I recently wrote an article on fire safety that brought several important issues to my attention.

    Hope this is helpful and empowering to you, your girls and other community readers.

    Sending you healing energy during this hard time. I continue to be in awe of your ability to be so vulnerable and strong at the same time.

  • medwards

    2012/01/26 at 6:46 pm

    I find that those things only happen because you’re in a bad place right now and that was the best way to mess with you!!! But truthfully, you have a lot of people sending you a lot of light and love. You ARE stronger than you feel in the middle of the night! Just keep breathing and walking and don’t make any decisions in less than 36 hours. Its just enough time to let emotion wear off.

  • dessessopsid

    2012/01/26 at 6:50 pm

    I once had a smoke detector keep beeping even after it had been unplugged from the electricity and the battery removed. It was just like that episode of Friends where it happens to Phoebe. I hope you get it sorted for sure.

  • tejo14

    2012/01/26 at 7:08 pm

    Often when the temp drops dramatically, such as early am, the condensation can set off an old battery from your backup.

    This is why you are told to change your batteries every time you change your clocks. IMO this is a bit of overkill. I change my batteries about every fourth of July. Yes – it is NINE batteries in the fire detectors, 2 more for the garage and another one for the thermostat, but better safe than sorry, and much better than being woken at an early hour for no good reason.

    I’m sorry you are having to go thru this.

  • edenland

    2012/01/26 at 7:35 pm

    You know what’s awesome? Circuitbreakers.

    My best circuitbreakers involve dancing on my back deck to really fucken loud music.

  • Jen143

    2012/01/26 at 7:46 pm

    Why do they only do that at night?! Does NOTHING malfunction during the day?! When ours did that it was a dust or spiderweb thing, one of the two. We took everyone of the mother effers down and vacuumed them all out. Then, the NEXT time it happened one of the garage doors had been left open and an axe murderer came in to slaughter us all.

    Kidding. BUT, garage door open, condensation built up on the one in the garage, and since they’re hardwired together, they all went off.

    I must say they make a fabulous alarm clock.

    Hang in there, love.

  • Jen143

    2012/01/26 at 7:46 pm

    Oh, and also, why don’t we get up out of bed and follow our fire safety plan? Why do we all just lay there like jackasses? Am I waiting for the smoke and flames? Geesh.

  • momof8

    2012/01/26 at 8:38 pm

    Mine did that! Only the whole house wouldn’t quit! It did it every few months. We ended up having an electrician replace them all. They are supposed to be replaced every 10 years. Still holding hands . . .

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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