Milestones and Life Events: The Cycle of Healing (Part III)

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By James January and Karen Badger, PhD, MSW

Over the last two issues of Burn Support News Dustin Wise, James Bosch, and Kimberly Calman, burn survivors who served as panelists at last year’s World Burn Congress, have recounted their experiences with milestones and major life events. They reflected on the obstacles they have encountered, as well as the growth they have experienced as they progressed along their life paths. The stories they told resonate with a statement made by Dr. Vicktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Our panelists also have shared thoughts about their recovery process, their changing views of themselves, and the meaning of their lives, as well as the role and value of self-empowerment and support in healing. In this issue, James January, our fourth panelist, brings our series to a close by sharing insights he has gained as a burn survivor progressing along his life path. 

Moving Through Life’s Milestones... 

James January and his wife Tish on their wedding day.I was 21 when I was burned in September of ‘91.....a HUAH HUAH Army guy in the best shape of my life. I was burned at the beginning of my last year in college—prior to graduating and prior to getting my bars. Branched, but not commissioned. A fancy way of saying, “I got burnt.”

Though I faced many surgeries for years after the injury, I consider the physical recovery as ending at the point when I knew it wasn’t going to kill me— which was around the time I left the burn center. I remember saying, “January is outta here in January.” It took me 4 months to recover physically—when I could answer a simple “yes” to the “Am I going to live?” question.

It took much longer to get “right” in the head. Many back then would tell you, jokingly, that “he ain’t all there”...(not much has changed today). So my bar was getting back to a baseline that was recognizable to those who knew me. It took a while for me to get through the mental recovery process—especially the “Lieutenant Dan” stage of recovery, when I wasn’t pleasant to be around. Lucky for me, I had family (both burn and blood) who were there regardless. I eventually drew upon the leadership, motivation, self- esteem, and even the observation and battlefield skills “Uncle Sam” had taught me. It took more than a year to recover mentally—when I could answer “Yes!” to the more complex question, “Am I going to LIVE?”

At the time, being burned was the biggest milestone in my life. It has since been downgraded—surpassed by marriage to my wife and the births of my three daughters and all that I have experienced in my life with them. Sometime last September, shortly after turning 42 the month before, the amount of time I have lived as a burn survivor surpassed the time when my body did not have all of the “surgical artwork” it currently has. I catch myself staring a lot nowadays. I watch people as much as nature...but I spend most of my time staring at my wife and kids. I could watch them all day long! 


These reflections and some of James’ following thoughts about coping connect well with a quote from author Pema Chöndrön that was part of the closing of our panel presentation at the 2012 World Burn Congress: “If there’s any possibility for enlightenment, it’s right now, not at some future time. Now is the time.” 


On Coping: Speaking Of Watchin,’ Lookin,’and Starin’... 

A burned friend once told me that sometimes he got upset when he was at the mall with his wife and would see children stare. I can relate to the possible pains of both, but chose to focus my advice on the stares of children. I see situations such as this as like a two-way street—how you approach the world will make your job of living in it easier or harder. I asked my friend to consider that maybe the children were staring because they were observing someone exotic—someone unique in their little world. The fact is, we can choose to be upset when we think people look a little too long— whether they are children or adults. It is your right, I guess. It is also a hard fight to fight, let alone win. In situations like this, I choose to smile, wave, or make funny faces. I do the latter mostly with children—and this exchange sometimes results in the child’s parent trying to force the child to stop looking just as we’ve begun playing “stare down” or while we are in the midst of a face-making contest. Whether the parents are in on it or not, we both usually end up laughing (and it also makes walking around the mall with my wife a bit more bearable!).

The most rewarding moments are when a child comes up to me and asks, “Why are you so ugly?” I see the child’s question, presented with genuine innocence and curiosity in his voice, as progress, when compared to a child who stares from afar...and it is a moment you will miss if you get hung up on the words in his limited vocabulary when he is really only asking, “Why do you look the way you look?” I usually just get on one knee so I can be at his eye level and say, “because I got burned—don’t play with matches.” The moment ends with a fist bump as he runs away, leaving me to think I’ve created a little soldier who will spread the word about me. I tell those who will listen that I don’t get stared at. It is all in how you define it. I make eye contact with grownups and I don’t count children looking. Looks that come at me from behind my back are not worth any effort because I am focusing on what’s in front of me. That justification keeps me focused on what I consider to be the more important matters.

Some may say that this is just a fancy way of my telling you about how I deal with this—or why it seems like a smaller matter to me. I am okay with that—and I encourage you to find your own “fancy ways” of dealing. I have plenty of fancy ways of dealing with or looking at the world I live in—some that might make you say, “He ain’t all there.” As long as you are saying that with a smile on your face like many of my friends do, it’s all good. All that matters is that your ways of dealing are positive and work for you.

James, the father of 3 girls, in 2009 with daughter Sophia, then 11 months old.I was taught that the best attack in the battlefield comes from many angles and makes sure no one gets caught in the crossfire. Adapting this for the “burn world” means that the more positive ways you have for dealing with a problem (or a milestone), whether it be stares, words, relationships, or a life event, the better chance you have of finding what works. Don’t be afraid to search out advice from others and reach out for support. Seek out raw information so you can soften it yourself and mold it to fit your needs. No one will ever walk exactly in your path, but there are plenty of people who walk nearby from whom you can get advice on the many things you may face in the life you live. Gather bits and pieces of knowledge from others and keep what works for you.

The world is too big for a “one way fits all” approach. For example, I have what some may term as an aggressive approach in addressing problems and an approach like this may not work for doesn’t work for me in all cases! So I sometimes have to adapt and soften my approach. I have found that my arsenal of positive methods with which to deal with things associated with this “burn business” has grown over time. And...many things I considered heavy matters when I was first burned, though still important, have become extremely light now that I have gotten “long in the tooth.” 


James January is a father to three daughters, a husband to Tish, and a “burnt guy.” He is part owner of Top of the Hill Brewery and TOPO Distillery in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Karen Badger is an associate dean and associate professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work. 


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Issue 2, 2013. Burn Support News is a quarterly publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery. All Rights Reserved
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