Becoming a Young Adult: Directions, Choices, and Connections, Life Transitions, Part 2

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By Jess Irven, MS, LRT/CTRS,CCLS

It may not be the path you set out thinking it was going to be. . .but ultimately, you decide: My direction, my life, my path, my choicesChoices being the key word.

Moving along life’s path brings transitions, both planned and unplanned, and it also brings choices of how to navigate those transitions.

In the previous issue of Burn Support Magazine, we explored the transition for young burn survivors who grow up within the structured setting of camps and other burn support programming. We explored what it looked like to become a leader in such settings, using the structure and support of these programs and the wisdom and talents of young burn survivors to provide service to others.

Not all transitions happen within a supportive and structured setting. Leaving high school means leaving behind its prescribed structure and roles. What happens when this transition brings a time fraught with uncertainty, as well as possibility? This is young adulthood, the time after high school, when choosing and becoming is the essence of what you’re doing. It’s all about choosing your path and who you want to be.

Perspectives From the Path: Independence, Uncertainty, and Interruptions

Carolyn Anderson used her survivor story to establish authentic friendships at college.People experience transitions differently, and some of this depends on how certain they are of the “next steps” along their path. For some burn survivors, the end of high school is a welcome transition. Carolyn Anderson, a burn survivor who was injured as a baby, looked at the ending of high school in a positive light. “The next chapter of my life (college) would be a chance for me to go into an entirely new environment and be the best version of myself,” she explains. Yet even knowing that going to college brought many opportunities, this transition was not without uncertainty. “I was frankly very uncertain and nervous about leaving the last 18 years of my life and starting over. I was excited knowing that good things were in store, but it was very scary. I was dreading leaving all of the people I knew, uncertain if I would be able to form good friendships with people at college.” For Carolyn, her survivor story became a tool she used to establish authentic friendships. It enhanced what she describes as the “unique connections I have made with people.”

“When I first got to college, I had multiple opportunities to share my story with people I met,” says Carolyn. “It was neat to be vulnerable with people, and in turn they were vulnerable with me—which formed some really special friendships. I have met multiple people at college that have gone through very traumatic experiences that have resulted with physical differences, such as scars, and seeing the way they live their lives after coming through those experiences is incredible. I feel like I have a unique compassion and instant connection with people who have gone through similar experiences as me.” Her story was a way to connect with others, to share vulnerability, and, in turn, gain trust and openness from new friends.

For some, the end of high school brings uncertainty. “Coming out of high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself. I felt that I had to make a choice and I had no insight on where exactly I wanted to be. . .” says Justin Rodriguez, burned at 4 years old and now turning 26. “I went to college and being as lost as I was, I wasn’t doing so well. I ended up taking time off so that I could work and then got back to it a couple of years later once I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

It is completely okay to not know, to not be sure of what you want to do or be. Deciding is part of the process, but making choices does not need to happen immediately. In fact, the strength in making informed choices (and taking the time necessary to do so) can bring more clarity that you’re going in the right direction. “Some people knew what they wanted to do and others have to step back to find what truly resonates with them. I guess I was the latter,” he explains. By taking time to be sure of what he wanted to do, he was able to think through his actions and be sure of his support resources.

Casey Peaden says being burned was a key component to her path to medical school.Still others find the transition to young adulthood and the independence it brings interrupted by the occurrence of a burn injury. Casey Peaden’s plans were put on hold when she was burned in a camping/barbecue accident over the summer between high school and college. Casey found herself having to delay her independence by nearly 6 months. Her injury instead forced her backwards, into a state of extreme dependence. “The time between high school and college is when many young adults are starting to prepare themselves for independent living and even distancing themselves from their parents. My accident not only put that transition on hold, but it managed to do the exact opposite by thrusting me into a high-need situation, much like regressing to my toddler years. I once again found myself unable to speak, relying on my mother to do my hair, help me brush my teeth, feed me, etc. In a matter of days to go from one extreme to the other was infuriating. I felt like I would never be on my own, be able to go to school, or even perform the basic activities of daily living (for example, cooking, cleaning, driving, dressing myself).”

Eventually, Casey faced a new uncertainty with the transition to college. Would she be facing too much, between coursework, compression garments, doctor appointments, academic demands, and new social situations? Would she feel accepted, coming into this transition with new (recent) scars? “I struggled to figure out how much I wanted to let my burns define me and what being a survivor meant to me while my whole identity was in flux, ” she recalls. Worried about not being accepted by peers, facing a new place where she did not have a built-in support network, Casey knew there would be no local safety net if she was feeling isolated, bullied, or alone. “I realized the independence I had been demanding was going to be an even greater challenge than the initial recovery from my injury.” Looking back Casey sees that being burned actually informed her transitions and set her on a purposeful path. “Being burned was a key component to my path to medical school, and I wouldn’t have changed anything. Being on the other side of the bedrail, with all its frustration, pain, and despair, is a critical component to the compassion I hope to bring to my patients. Understanding the struggles of severe injury, and the impact of life afterwards, was critical to my development into the person I am today”.

Wisdom from the Journey: Connections and Support

The transition to young adulthood is different for everyone. Some people approach the end of high school eager to re-create their identity and be their “best self” with certain ideas of who they want to be and what they want to do. Some take a while to figure out what the next steps along their path will be. Still others mix feelings of uncertainty with the growth into finding personal confidence to connect with others and make choices for themselves.

Whether you are approaching the end of high school or currently navigating the choices that come with young adulthood, here is some wisdom offered by others who have been there:

  • Use your story as a way to connect with others. Be vulnerable in offering some of your story as a part of budding friendships. This can be returned to you as trust and openness from new friends.
    • I was able to “be vulnerable with people, and in turn they were vulnerable with me—which formed some really special friendships…I feel like I have a unique compassion and instant connection with people who have gone through similar experiences.  ~Carolyn Anderson
    • Being open, honest, and sharing my story created a vulnerability in my conversations and relationships that allowed those around me to do the same…I had the opportunity to turn stares and awkward questions into teaching moments…  ~Casey Peaden
  • Use your support network.
    • Family and close friends have really kept me grounded, and without them I can only imagine where I would be. You don’t need an army in your corner, just a few close friends to stay in the fight…Good support can get you through anything. It’s an understatement how important it is to have someone there to talk to.  ~Justin Rodriguez
  • Connect with other burn survivors for support
    • I would have loved to have been plugged in with a network of survivors sooner, just to have realized how not alone I was. A network of survivors to lean on would have been immensely helpful when starting college and feeling like I was the only burn survivor around.  ~Casey Peaden
  • Keep moving forward and know that some lessons come from learning what does not work for you.
    • It is okay to fail. It’s tough to accept it, but no one is perfect. It is okay to fall as long as you get back up. Failure is essential in life because without it, we end up at a standstill.  ~Justin Rodriguez

More Tools to Support the Transition From High School to Life’s Next Steps

  • Put yourself out on the path you want to take. (You won’t go anywhere by standing still—be the wind in your own sails.)
  • Be purposeful. (Make your choices and steps on purpose, with end-goals in mind.)
  • Be your own advocate. Say what you want and what you need (within your job, studies, continued burn care, relationships, and more).
  • Take care of yourself, including your health care/burn care.
  • Surround yourself with people who build you up.
  • Positive relationships are part of moving forward in life.

Read more about life strategies to be comfortable, confident, and competent at Beyond Surviving: Tools for Thriving After Burn Injury, beyond-surviving-thriving. Achieve the confidence it takes to build up your support network and achieve the next steps along your path.


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support Magazine, Issue 2, 2016.  Burn Support Magazine is a tri-annual publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserved.
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