A trauma, such as a burn injury, can turn the lives of those it touches upside down and create much pain and struggle. Views about life, the world, and the future can crumble. However, the challenge of a burn injury can also bring about positive changes that the burn survivor and others affected by the burn injury may experience as a consequence of the trauma. Some refer to this as post-traumatic growth.
American Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön writes, “When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. Everything that ends is also the beginning of something else…things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing.” New strengths, purpose, or meaning can come about after a trauma—shaping who we are, as well as affecting our life journey.
In part I of this article, published previously in Burn Support News (Issue 3, 2012), James Bosch, a burn survivor, reflected on this topic. Here, Dustin Wise and Kimberly (Holt) Calman, who with Jim served as panelists at the 2012 World Burn Congress (WBC), share their thoughts. James January, another panelist, will share his experiences in the next issue.
A Reflection From Dustin Wise
Recognizing Your Milestones
Growing up, I despised taking road trips with my family. I felt this way for two reasons: (1) because I was very impatient, and (2) I had no way of calculating the distance we had left to travel. It always seemed to me that the road ahead stretched on for days and that the more we drove the less we accomplished. I would sometimes try to figure out how many miles we had traveled or how many miles we had left. I was focused on the traveling itself, rather than the experience of the journey. Things would pass by my window unnoticed as I thought only about reaching our destination and getting out of the car. This misplaced focus often caused me to miss quality time with my family, as well as the many cities, mountains, and exciting places we passed. To me, these missed moments and scenes represent milestones.
I love the way the word “milestone” is defined as an action or event marking a significant change or state in Issue 1, 2013 development. Although some milestones can be overlooked—just as scenery is on a road trip—there are some milestones we never can forget. Some of these milestones are events or experiences that have brought about hurt, pain, discomfort, or frustration, while others are more publicly recognized and celebrated, such as a graduation, a new baby, a marriage, or overcoming adversity. Personally, I believe each of these milestones, whether good or bad, can be used strategically to benefit us in the end.
My Greatest Milestone
A personal milestone that I have endured and overcome is the transition from a typical boy to burn victim, and, ultimately, to burn survivor. At the age of 15, while I was at the stove cooking, my shirt caught on fire. As I glanced down at it, flames engulfed me. I remember the siren of the ambulance screaming in my ear as I was rushed to the hospital. It was a very painful event—one, which I am sure, any burn survivor can relate to. I suffered third-degree burns in hidden areas of my body and was hospitalized for months. The effects of this tragedy were more than physical. My body was burned but my self-image was also scarred. I could not stand to look at my body and the scars. Enduring this event might have been one of the hardest milestones I have crossed in my life, yet, as I reflect on this experience, I can also admit that it has been one of my greatest triumphs.
Road to Recovery
Because of my injury, I began to think of myself as a defeated individual. I allowed my fears, my past, the pain, the depression, and my insecurities to define me and dictate my potential and my capability. Immediately after my accident, I felt depressed and hopeless. I stopped running track. Because I would never take my shirt off in public, I stopped swimming or doing any activity that would reveal my scars. I had allowed my scars to define my identity and censor my happiness. This would not change until I reached another milestone—which occurred unexpectedly during my senior year in high school.
With a senior project due, I decided to volunteer at the Grossman Burn Center. There I helped organize a winter summit for young adult burn survivors. This summit greatly affected me and I was able to find help and redirect my future by choosing to take steps toward healing. I began to attend a support group and other support venues. The summer following the summit, I attended my very first summer camp, Champ Camp. That summer was yet another milestone for me.
I found a purpose—creating hope and passion within the burn community. Through these milestones and many other significant experiences, I have been fully restored as a burn survivor and am dedicated to the vision of showing other young adult survivors that recovery is possible.
My journey has helped me realize that not only are milestones important, they are critical. The milestone that was least expected has brought the most fulfillment and passion to my life. I have also realized that milestones are inevitable. Regardless of the milestones you have experienced, or will experience, it is important to remember that there is always another bend in the road. The next one you experience may be unexpected, but in it you may find help, hope, healing, joy, or peace. Never lose sight of the journey, enjoy the ride, and remember to recognize each milestone as it moves past your window.
During our presentation, Milestones and Life Events: The Cycle of Healing, at WBC in Milwaukee, we shared the following quote from psychotherapist and author Vicktor Frankl: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except for one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” The following thoughts from Kimberly Calman speak to the heart of these words:
A Reflection From Kimberly Calman
I’ve heard all the catch phrases hundreds of times…“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” “It’s not the cards you are dealt, but how you play the hand.” “It’s not where you start, but where you finish.”
I have to admit that I hated those sayings and others like them. You see, when you are a burn survivor, phrases like these just seem to sting a little more—especially when the “event” that radically changed your life was out of your control.
That was my story. I was 17—two weeks into my senior year of high school. More than 65% of my body was burned when fuel was poured on an open fire, resulting in an explosion. The can rotated and the bottom blew off launching a fireball my direction. My boyfriend was so severely burned from the incident that he died 10 days later. I spent months in the hospital, had numerous surgeries, experienced amputations and skin grafts, and physical therapy. I then waded through years of cruel insults, painful life transitions, and a general wondering of what life meant now that “it” had happened to me.
You could say I wasn’t really into lemonade.
That is, until I learned a few things. I learned that the life I was living was still mine. I realized that life happens, but you are in total control of how you respond. That milestone moment for me was even bigger than the event that triggered my scars. Without disowning “the fire” (as it came to be known in my family) and the reality of the pain I suffered as a result, I remember when I realized that “the fire” did not define me. I define me and I have the ability to create some wonderful definitions.
In the journey of recovering, it is easy to fall into a pattern of being a victim and letting that mentality define who you are. I certainly fell for that. Early on I wasted a lot of time crying, hiding, and returning ignorant comments with anger and bitterness. But not one of those choices helped me. In fact, they made me feel much worse about my condition. My “condition” became the defining factor in my relationships. I was destroying the very things that give life to all of us—great relationships.
I never realized this more than when I started my own family. The tension in my home—the tension in me—in my relationships had so much to do with the way I understood myself. Through pregnancy, giving birth to two children, and becoming a parent, I began to see that how I thought and felt about myself created the relationships I cared most deeply about.
And I didn’t necessarily like what I was creating.
I began to understand that my attitude is something within my control. Attitude is a personal choice—whether positive or negative—and is independent of what “happens” to us. While each life event I encountered as a burn survivor carried with it the same feelings of fear and anxiety—about how others would see my scars, gaining acceptance, dealing with physical limitations, not wanting to be a public spectacle—I saw that my attitude had everything to do with the response I got from others. The moment I learned that lesson was a milestone moment—my journey as a burn survivor changed forever.
It’s pretty simple really—my scars are never going away, so I might as well embrace them. They are a part of me now. They are my “new normal.” And…they’re okay. The reason they are okay is because I define them—they don’t define me. Living in this new reality allowed me to start looking people in the eye again. I began to speak publicly in groups and at events and became a peer supporter to help others. I started to once again live in a way that relationships could be a joyful part of my life. My relationships were defined by love, acceptance, grace, and forgiveness—rather than scar tissue, shame, fear, and self-hatred.
I now enjoy the love of a wonderful man in my life. My relationship with my kids has never been better (well, most of the time—they are teenagers). I reconnected with my sisters—who are now my best friends. I deeply cherish my relationships in the burn community that are terrific wells of support.
I enjoy these now because I learned—the hard way—that my attitude really does matter. Without denying the reality of my story, I have found a new way of being that allows me to be the definer of my life—in complete control over that which I can.
Whether you are feeling sad, alone, angry, bitter, fearful, or anxious, I encourage you not to be afraid to ask for help. No matter when you were burned, allow yourself to have “bad days” and ask for help (even if you feel you should be “over it” by now). Remember there are lots of resources—friends or family, the Phoenix Society chat rooms, or local support groups.
Through my journey, I discovered my own catch phrase: “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% what you do with it!” When you see yourself as the beautiful person that you are, life really does begin to take off again.
And the lemonade is pretty good, too.
Written By: Karen Badger, PhD, MSW and Liz Dideon Hess LCSW
Dustin K. Wise, a senior at Oral Roberts University, is a burn survivor, author, and motivational speaker. Kimberly Calman, BA, is a burn survivor, mother, speaker, and Phoenix Society SOAR peer supporter. She also serves on the American Burn Association Membership Advisory Committee. Karen Badger, PhD, MSW, is an associate dean and associate professor at the College of Social Work, University of Kentucky.
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