Give my girlfriend peace of mind when sleeping home alone
June 2, 2008 1:23 PM   Subscribe

I travel frequently, and my girlfriend has an (admittedly) somewhat-irrational fear of someone breaking into our apartment when she's home alone, asleep. What can we do to make her feel more comfortable when she's home alone?

Googling things like "home security" or "security alarm" unloads a wrath of bad links filled with questionable, expensive hardware. Are there some decent, quick, effective home alarm systems that can be easily installed by a non-professional?

We live in a loft-style apartment with a front door, back door that leads out onto a deck, and one large window overlooking the deck. Other than that, the floor plan is completely open. Ideally, I'd like to secure both the window and back door that leads to the deck. And by "secure," I mean both physically -- making it tougher to breach -- and audibly, so that it can be immediately obvious if someone tries to break in.

Finally, are there any other products or systems or philosophies that we could use to make her feel more secure? We've read books like Strong on Defense, but simply having a better of idea of what to do if it happens doesn't alleviate her fear of it actually happening. It doesn't give her peace of mind.

The reason I said "somewhat-irrational" is because she knows if someone is going to break in, they're going to break in, and no amount of security alarms or baseball bats is going to keep that from happening. She knows this, but still occasionally has a hard time getting to bed at night.

A big, scary dog would be nice, but not what we're looking for at the moment.
posted by wordsmith to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I used to have anxiety sometimes sleeping alone in a home, and found just having a cat with me alleviated it. Obviously it's not going to scare away a burglar, but like you said, it's psychological, and that helped me. I find just thinking about the neighbours that I like helps, too, kind of positive thinking I guess you could say, like, Oh, if someone broke in, the neighbours would hear and help me.

You could install pretty wrought iron over the back door and window - I had this done at my old apartment, because a lot of break-ins were occurring through that window in the suites. It was painted white and decorative, so looked nice.
posted by Penelope at 1:36 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I know for Glass 3m makes a film so glass is shatter proof.

Simple door stop Alarms

And Wireless Window Alarm System
posted by bleucube at 1:37 PM on June 2, 2008

As far as audible/notification goes, we have a number of solar powered motion activated lights that kick on at night if they see anything and for when I'm not home we have a motion detector along the long side of the house that transmits to a bell unit that plugs in to an outlet inside the house, this unit can also kick on a light inside the house if needed.

Total install was about 30 minutes for both units and they don't leave anything more than a couple of screwholes that can be patched and painted over outside. Total cost? About 100 bucks for 2 lights and 1 motion detector thingy. Available everywhere too btw.

For physical security one of our backdoors consists of mostly panes of glass, you can do this yourself or hire someone to do it, but we put 3m security film (ourselves) on the glass panes. When it's fully cured you *can* break the glass but it won't shatter or come out of the window frame without significant effort, noise, and risk of being cut to ribbons. We've also done this for windows that could otherwise be broken and allow easy entry.

Finally, you can make sure the plates where the lock interfaces with the door frame are substantial in nature and are screwed in to the frame with 2inch+ screws. Since I was replacing all the hardware when I moved in anyway we used 3 inch deck screws in ours and upgraded the plates.

For security, in my book, nothing beats a loyal loud dog. You've mentioned that it's not in the books but when they are properly acquainted with what is and isn't normal as far as noises go they really do a wonderful job.

I think you'll find motion lights a great deterrent, we live next to an abandoned house and haven't had any problems since I made that side of the house a light up like there's a portable sun shining on it.
posted by iamabot at 1:39 PM on June 2, 2008

Here's a link to the 3M security film. If you're local to the bay area you can probably have what you need from our roll, we've got something like 20ft x 5ft left.
posted by iamabot at 1:45 PM on June 2, 2008

Seconding Penelope that a pet helps. In addition, when I come home late at night alone, the cheerful (potentially menacing?) face of PointyCat in the window helps reassure me that all is well inside.
posted by pointystick at 1:45 PM on June 2, 2008

I am constantly, endlessly afraid of someone breaking into my apartment, especially when alone at night. It's completely irrational, but knowing that certainly doesn't do anything to make me less afraid.

You definitely should have something that works to make the apartment more secure, but, as you say, the problem won't go away with greater security. Knowing that the door is locked and deadbolted helps a bit, yeah, but it can't get rid of the what if they still get in??? thought. This is a problem to solve psychologically, not just through added security.

The most important thing for me is one you have already noted: noise. I thankfully got an apartment with a security system. When it's set, any window or door that is opened causes a painfully loud noise to scream throughout the apartment. Man, that helps. Why? Because it means, if someone breaks in, I will be woken up. Sure, it also means that the person will probably run away, but that isn't what makes it so useful. Instead, it's helpful because it means I won't be taken by surprise, I will have some sort of warning. Being afraid of break-ins is, to a large extent, being worried about losing control, of being powerless. Knowing that no one can get in without me at least being aware of it lets me feel a little bit more in control of the situation.

Another thing that helps me is keeping a phone by the bed. If anything happens, it's within my reach. I won't be attacked without having some way to call for help.

It could also be helpful for your girlfriend to try to know your neighbors better. First, it'll make them more likely to report anything suspicious, but, more importantly, it'll make her feel more like she's in a larger community rather than a solitary figure in an unsecure location. If there are people out there who are nice, friendly, and helpful, then it is easier to avoid thinking about the mean, scary people who might also be out there.

(Some people also keep a knife or other weapon by the bed, just in case. This is a bad idea, though, considering all the different ways that it can lead to accidental injury.)

None of these things are actually that great at making it harder for someone to break in. I know, if someone got in, I'd be in trouble, no matter what -- I know neighbors are really unlikely to see anything, that I seriously won't have time to use the phone no matter what, that the noise won't stop a determined attacker. It doesn't matter. Again, this is about pinpointing certain behaviors that can make your girlfriend feel better, not just securing the apartment. Work with her to find something that can make her feel like she has control over her environment.
posted by Ms. Saint at 1:49 PM on June 2, 2008

Haha, the menacing face of PointyCat. ; )

Truly I think barricading yourself completely just augments your fear. Ditto to reading books about break-ins. Probably your girlfriend has some music that soothes her that she could listen to, or favourite books to read. And all hail the soothing pet! : )
posted by Penelope at 1:50 PM on June 2, 2008

I get this fear sometimes. It has next to nothing to do with the actual possibility of someone breaking in, since I live on the top floor of a pretty secure building and have nothing worth stealing. There's just something about being all alone in a big empty apartment in the dead of night that's kind of scary. Intruders are the easiest thing to think about, but it's not too hard to jump to a late-night fear of nuclear bombs, ghosts, aliens, Armageddon, what have you.

It might be a good idea to deal with your girlfriend's fear instead of your apartment's security. Do you guys know your neighbors? Go meet them, get on friendly terms with them. It's less scary at night knowing that the couple downstairs will call 911 for you, or knowing that they are just physically there. Getting text messages at night helps me, too; it distracts me, and it reminds me that even if I'm alone in my own personal space, I am not completely alone, and help is just a phone call away. A pet, as Penelope mentions, probably would help too.

If you haven't already, read The Gift of Fear. It's a scary read, but it's got sound advice on when and in what contexts you should be suspicious/afraid, and might help you both.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:52 PM on June 2, 2008

Response by poster: We do have a soothing kitty, and that definitely helps. Thanks for all the great answers so far!
posted by wordsmith at 1:56 PM on June 2, 2008

I have the wireless window alarms bleucube mentions on my front door and my balcony doors and windows. I live alone in downtown Chicago (in the tourist district) in a building with a doorman and those two things (doorman and alarms) make me feel safer in my place than in my mom's place in the suburbs. I highly recommend the alarms.
posted by MeetMegan at 2:09 PM on June 2, 2008

Could your girlfriend take self-defense classes? I notice you mention that you travel a lot, so do you mean her fear is connected to you being away? Also, she admits that at a certain point no iron bars can give 100% protection against anyone. So perhaps what she needs is not more protection from people or pets or bars, but the assurance that she can protect herself.

Sure, so realistically, unless she is willing to invest years of work, she is not going to turn into a Kung-Fu Ninja Power Woman! with Crotch-Kick Action! who will be able to fight off waves of super-strong vampire-zombie cat-burglers. However, knowing a little bit of self-defense, and more importantly having confidence in your own strength and your ability to react calmly and a controlled manner to an emergency situation can do WONDERS for your own psychological comfort.

Martial arts and fighting sports can help develop an aware mind that will take action during an emergency rather than freeze up. That action could be taking a baseball bat up between someone's legs, calling 911, or simply having the presence of mind to hide or escape while the guy rummages through your house. The point is, she could be pretty sure she could handle herself if something happens.
posted by Anonymous at 2:20 PM on June 2, 2008

Just call the alarm guys and do it right. It will cost you about $600 a year and get you a discount on your home owners insurance.
posted by mrbugsentry at 2:23 PM on June 2, 2008

I've got these sorts of fears, especially the first few nights I have to sleep alone. Here are things that would definitely help, if I had them:

1) Noisy-maker things on the downstairs door and windows. I sleep upstairs, and our house is very isolated acoustically. If I was assured that I could hear someone breaking in, then when I get afraid, I can imagine hearing the noise, throwing on my robe, and escaping out onto the roof before the intruder can reach me.

2) A corrolary to that: Thinking through escape scenarios REALLY helps my anxiety. There's something empowering about having an escape plan. Like I mentioned above, my plan is to escape out my bedroom window onto the roof, then drop down onto the grass next to the house, where I can run next door to get help. I don't think full-on martial arts training is necessary, just awareness of options.
posted by muddgirl at 2:29 PM on June 2, 2008

We live in a loft-style apartment with a front door, back door that leads out onto a deck, and one large window overlooking the deck. Other than that, the floor plan is completely open.

The layout probably isn't helping -- I think I'd feel vulnerable, at least at first, in this sort of apartment as well. It's a bit unusual to sleep in a room with door(s!) directly to the outside. Do you have any sort of partitions around the sleeping area?
posted by desuetude at 2:29 PM on June 2, 2008

Wow, no one's mentioned....guns?

I think an alarm and a shotgun should be pretty foolproof, no?
posted by nevercalm at 2:42 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Although you specifically mention not being interested in a big scary dog, maybe you can consider smaller dogs. Nice thing about it is that they can act as alarms, in the sense that they will hear noises before you do and bark. Some dogs also have a pretty big and scary bark, which is useful against potential intruders, while still being pretty small and manageable -- like a basset hound, for example.

I also second self-defense classes. Being prepared is a good way to deal with irrational fears, or so I read recently in a TIME magazine article. Self defense classes will teach her not only how to fight back, but also how to react, and suggest effective ways to get help. As mentioned before, having a plan can be reassuring, but it also helps to focus your mind when anything happens -- you will know what to do next, basically.

As for alarms, I have seen quite a few houses and apartments with a central alarm system, which can be configured to beep if any door or window is opened even when the alarm is not activated. This way it is easy to know if someone opened anything if you are home by yourself, without having to have the alarm on. The nice thing about these alarms is that, when activated, they also have panic buttons, so then even if they do not go off for whatever reason, they can be used to get attention in case of anything. I would not be able to say anything about prices and whatnot, but they seem to be pretty standard in new homes in the suburbs here in Canada, at least as an option, so I don't expect it would be too hard to find info about it out there in the real world.

In the particular case of my parents, they decided to stop paying for the option to have the alarm contact a security company when anything goes wrong. They alarm still works fine, it costs a lot less, and to be honest, it is probably just as effective. But if irrational fears are at play, maybe forking out the extra cash would help, although when you realize what kind of services you are paying for beyond the system itself, you will see it is a waste to spend money on much else other than the hardware.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 2:55 PM on June 2, 2008

I know the feeling. My husband works out of town a lot. I don't live in an apartment though, just a really big house on a decent sized lot. I got a small dog (dachshund) who is a great alarm system (and snuggle monster) and a Baby Desert Eagle. But, I am comfortable around guns; and a lot of people aren't, so this is just one solution.
posted by PossumCupCake at 3:06 PM on June 2, 2008

i second the idea of having several escape plans. knowing how to quickly get out of the house/apartment, especially if undetected, is a great ease for me.

also, getting to know the neighbors is helpful advice, too. you might even exchange phone numbers.

alsotoo, i have at least 2 non-traditional weapons in every room of my house. i'm not a gun person, and am therefore quite fearful of having one in the house (which could be wrestled away from me and used against me). but i have a baseball bat or golf club in every room, as well as daggers and such. (i'm a minor collector). i also have a couple canisters of pepper-spray-type-product stashed as well.

re: dogs: just do your research. it's true -- you don't have to get a big nasty dog to have a canine deterrant. lots of smaller dogs have menacing-sounding barks. however, not all dogs will have the instinct to protect, or even alert you if they hear/smell something fishy. for a decade, i had 2 dogs -- one of them just recently passed away. the remaining dog, goddess love 'er, is positively useless when it comes to security issues. she either doesn't notice odd noises or -- what's worse -- gets more afraid of them than i do. :)

which is not a problem for me -- but, if you're considering a dog, but are not sure, it's something to doubly-check-out. the worst would be to adopt a dog neither of you especially wanted, only to find out that s/he couldn't care less about protection.

good luck!
posted by CitizenD at 3:21 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

No one's mentioned my odd coping mechanism, so here goes:

I too am irrationally more afraid of break-ins when I'm alone, whereas it doesn't even cross my mind when I'm not alone. My house has an alarm system and I don't even use it because it doesn't alleviate my fear -- in fact, it heightens it. The only thing that helps, and luckily it helps completely, is that when I'm alone in the house I sleep in a different room than usual. I just take an air mattress and sleep in my office or crash on the living room couch or whatever. For some reason this small change entirely takes the fear away. I think it's maybe because I'm less aware of "someone is usually here next to me but tonight I'm alone," since I'm not sleeping in my usual place. Also, the sounds and light patterns are different due to the new location, so I'm less jacked up thinking, "What was that?! I don't normally hear that!"
posted by xo at 3:56 PM on June 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

In the particular case of my parents, they decided to stop paying for the option to have the alarm contact a security company when anything goes wrong. They alarm still works fine, it costs a lot less, and to be honest, it is probably just as effective. But if irrational fears are at play, maybe forking out the extra cash would help, although when you realize what kind of services you are paying for beyond the system itself, you will see it is a waste to spend money on much else other than the hardware.
posted by TheyCallItPeace

No offense, but that's a whole lot of nonsense.

If the alarm (and I'm referring only to alarms I'm familiar with) is actually connected you're a button push away from help. If the alarm isn't hooked up, that button is dead. If the alarm is hooked up and you forget to alarm it and someone breaks in, hit the button and help is coming. If the alarm isn't hooked up, you're out of luck. If the alarm is tampered with (in most cases) you'll be notified. If it's not hooked up, you'll never know. If you're out of town and you're robbed, you'll be notified. If you're not hooked up, hopefully your neighbors will call you. If you're hooked up and robbed you'll be compensated (up to a predetermined amount). If you're not hooked up, it's your loss.

If someone breaks in and forces you to turn off the alarm and it's not connected, unless someone comes to your rescue, and most people ignore alarms, you're out of luck. If it is connected, they're sending help.

I could list ten more reasons. Hey, if you're too cheap to keep it hooked up, or you simply choose not to, that's fine. But please don't pretend that it's the same protection. Please don't pretend it's irrational to spend the money. It's actually very affordable, and most people waste money monthly on more frivolous items.

You've ignored so many differences between having an alarm hooked up and not that I have serious doubts you know much about alarms at all.
posted by justgary at 5:11 PM on June 2, 2008

Is the deck accessible to others? In any case you can put bars over the window and windows in doors. My front balcony has a door off my bedroom and I don't worry about that one because it's on the third floor and no one could ever get to it, but the back door leads to another balcony and to the fire escape, and has a window which I've put bars over. They cost $35 at Home Depot. It gives me peace of mind.
posted by loiseau at 6:04 PM on June 2, 2008

Ditto PossumCupCake re: dachshunds being great alarm system and snuggle monsters who (in my case, anyway) get along wonderfully with cats.

Also, I think I would be more comfortable with noise-making things on the doors/strung across the windows... the thing that calms me down the most (presuming I wake up) when my boyfriend comes home late from a night of debauchery is hearing the beep beep our door makes when the alarm is successfully disabled.
posted by at 6:31 PM on June 2, 2008

cats help me. and also a nightlight. does she have a friend to invite over? keep the phone by the bed. take a self defense class.
posted by silkygreenbelly at 6:46 PM on June 2, 2008

I'm with nevercalm.

If there are never kids in the house, just get a pump action shotgun and stick it under the bed. Sleep with the bedroom door locked, and put a phone by the bed. If she hears someone breaking in, she calls 911 and sits in the room with with the shotgun until the cops get there.

A large dog is probably a better option, though, since it works even when you're not there, anyone can operate it, and it can't be used against you, or stolen and used against others. Also, if you need to go to the store late at night, you can bring it with you.
posted by popechunk at 6:50 PM on June 2, 2008

Another vote for a gun. A nice small handgun, together with (and this is important) lessons at a shooting range or gun club. No one should rely on a handgun for protection unless she is comfortable with it and knows how to use it.

Or a shotgun, for wider-range protection. Again, some lessons are in order, and the same considerations apply, but a little more loosely.
posted by megatherium at 7:53 PM on June 2, 2008

On the psychological side of things: i keep the radio on 24/7 when my husband is out of town. i find the sound keeps me from obsessing over other sounds in the night, and the occasional voice of a DJ is reassuring.

There's a completely irrational element in this of "if i can't hear them they can't hear me" which I recognize -- and yet it still helps me. Good luck to both of you.
posted by macinchik at 10:30 PM on June 2, 2008

I'm a gun supporter too, but I will caution you: It's more than just a financial commitment. You have to learn a lot of laws, both in gun handling and use of force. You'll have to store it safely or at least have an option to do so. (You might not have kids, but it's not unreasonable to expect a few to show up now and then.) And, of course, you've got to search your soul and decide if you really can shoot somebody dead.

I don't put much stock in the whole "guns can be taken and used against you, but a baseball bat is okay!" theory. It's easier for a bad guy to take a bat from you, since you have to get MUCH closer to use it and its motions are incredibly predictable. Plus, once the bad guy gets it, you're probably going to suffer tremendously anyway. Any weapon is more a danger to you than the attacker if you are unwilling or unable to use it properly. At least with a gun you have distance on your side.

Also, get a powerful flashlight, preferably one that outputs 60 lumens or more (from companies like Streamlight, Surefire, or Pelican) and use your knowledge of your apartment to your advantage. If you hear something and snap on the bedside lamp, you're just blinding yourself. You know your home, the bad guy doesn't.

If you happen to live in LA, and you think firearms ownership might be right for you, drop me a line. I would be happy to give you two a free familiarization. Also, since I'm a Prius-driving married suburbanite Mets fan with a baby and two cats, I can reassure you that gun owners aren't strictly gap-toothed bigots in Montana.

Then, if you develop a taste for it (and believe me, it has a way of addicting people) you should seek professional training, which is FAR more valuable than simple range time.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 10:48 PM on June 2, 2008

What about a virtual big scary dog? Electronic Barking Dog - it's a motion sensor that sets off audio of a dog barking.

From that link: "With his electronic radar eyes, the Electronic Secure Dog can see through thick doors, walls and glass. And once his cord is plugged in, he will stay on duty around the clock, indefinitely."
posted by sentient at 12:06 AM on June 3, 2008

I was in pretty much the exact situation, where the gf felt unsafe if I wasn't around, but I was always there. After we broke up, I think our dog helped her feel safe.
posted by ihope at 1:14 AM on June 3, 2008

What about a small dog, maybe not too intimidating but can still make a lot of noise. Baseball bat beside the bed helps me. Maybe the old action movie standby of a gun under the pillow (with training on how to use it)? You can get standalone glass break alarms. Heavy duty locks with screws long enough to well into the door frame. Lots of options out there, but I do agree you need to talk more to her about what will make her feel safe, and maybe try to figure-out if there's a reason for her fear.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 6:01 AM on June 3, 2008

As a follow up, if you get a handgun, don't make it THAT easy to get to while you're sleeping. You want at least one barrier so that you have to be fully awake before it's in your hand. One night, our cat let out an ear-piercing hellbeast scream at a raccoon outside, and I woke up squatting in front of my quick-access safe. My unconscious reaction was to get the gun, but the combo lock meant I had to be awake first. So instead of having a loaded .45 in my hand, I was able to make the right call. Doesn't have to be a lockbox (though they are kid-proof) but it should be something that requires thought.

Also, to amend my earlier offer, I would be happy to teach you for free. So it's not a business promotion.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 10:08 AM on June 3, 2008

another vote here for a dog (of any size), self-defense lessons, and a baseball bat under the bed.
posted by somanyamys at 12:59 PM on June 4, 2008

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