Walking Through the Ashes
Discovering There is Color in the World Besides Gray
By Chris Gilyard
Walking through the ashes…. These are the words I use to describe my burn injury experience and the years of recovery that followed. Though my burn trauma happened nearly 35 years ago and I have less “ash” on my feet than during the first few years of recovery, I occasionally look down and realize that the ash is still there, as my burns are still there.
Today at 52 years old, after years of living in the skin I’m in, I’m much more comfortable with having ashes on my feet; dirty feet don’t bother me much anymore. But it wasn’t always that way…
I was 17 years old and it was during a snowstorm when my car was rear ended and the gas tank exploded. I was trapped inside until miraculously an angel named Harold pulled me out. I was taken down to Regions Hospital Burn Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, with second and third-degree burns on 21% of my body, with my face having some of the deepest.
The Unforgettable Intensity of Pain
I was inpatient for 2 months and had two skin graftings. It seems most burn survivors have one or two “worst memories” of pain from their time on a burn center, and, I too, have mine. Like when a donor dressing became infected and was removed with little pain medication. Like when the sutures were taken out of my face by a less than friendly resident. Like the final day in the tub when they cleaned my burns thoroughly. The little pain medication they used in those days was of no help; it was an intensity of pain I will never forget.
What got me through those inpatient days? Family, friends, and the burn center staff…people who brought caring, hope, and humor. People who brought splashes of color into a world that had become incredibly dark.
The Challenges of Emotional Healing
While the pain on the burn center was unbelievable, the emotional healing was equally as devastating. I remember clearly the first time I saw myself after I was grafted. They got me out of bed, set me in a chair next to the bedside table, and put a mirror in front of me. I looked in the mirror and I was horrified. The first thing I thought was, “I don’t look like a girl anymore, I look like a man who has had the daylights beaten out of him,” and then I thought, “Who is ever going to love me?” I was sure I would be alone for the rest of my life.
After 2 months on the unit and two skin graftings I went home with pressure garments and a clear plastic face mask. There was no such thing as support groups, websites, retreats, conferences, school/social reentry, or social skills training. Leaving the security of the burn center, where everyone knew about burns, was terrifying. Everything I was afraid would happen happened. People laughed, stared, pointed, asked the most inappropriate questions, and made rude, hurtful comments. Again, I felt so alone.
It’s not that my family didn’t support me, but they were as ill-equipped to deal with reentry into life as I was—as many burn survivor families are. My family is a loving and fun family. We love storytelling and music. We laugh together and have many happy and loving memories. However, talking about heavy feelings, such as fear,sadness, anger, or dealing with tension or conflict, was not our strong point. We avoided it at all costs. We dealt with it poorly. Such as the time when I was walking through a mall and a couple of boys made me the brunt of their jokes—they laughed, pointed, and made rude remarks. My sister, bless her heart, became enraged and yelled back at them, “What the *&#@ are you looking at?” I was as embarrassed at her response as I was theirs. I was also grateful for her protection.
What I wouldn’t have given to have a program to help both my family and I deal with going out in public and responding to other people’s reactions and questions, such as the Phoenix Society’s Beyond Surviving: Tools for Thriving.
As burn survivors do, I settled back into a new kind of life and faced the challenges that burn recovery requires. Going back to school was a nightmare. Kids I had known since kindergarten, gone to birthday parties with throughout the years, wouldn’t look at me and, in fact, turned away when I walked down the halls. They were as scared of me as I was of them.
What I wouldn’t have given to have someone do a school reentry program for me and them, (ie, the Phoenix Society’s Journey Back School Reentry program) and to have had a camp to go to where I’d meet other kids who were dealing with the same issues.
Several months after I was home, I decided that no one was ever going to want to be intimate with me so I decided that I would find someone who would have sex despite how I looked. I knew there were guys who would. I arranged the whole thing. The night of my graduation party, when I and others were drunk, I asked an older guy if he wanted to “do it.” He said yes and away we drove into the middle of nowhere and had sex. My first time. When I think of it now I feel sad…all I wanted was to feel loved, but it was the furthest thing from intimacy that it could have been.
The Path to Recovery
But as we all do on the path of recovery, I moved on the best I could using the tools I had. I would at times party and drink heavily and at times isolate from everyone. Either way, I seemed to always end up feeling depressed and alone, and realized after 7 years I was a wreck. I was lucky enough to know one person who talked to me about emotions and healing; she changed my life. The most important thing I learned from her—to say no.
What I wouldn’t have given to have a support group to help me then. Or the Phoenix Society website, the Phoenix Burn Support Magazine, or a Wednesday night chat as resources to help me as I walked the path of recovery.
After I learned to say no, there was no stopping me. I learned about the beauty of feeling my feelings, of finding self-confidence, of building a support system of people who loved me, and I learned that I had skills and abilities that helped me find purpose in the world. Granted, it took me another 10 years to do these things, but as I did, I noticed that the path was no longer gray with ash, but green with life.
It was 10 years after my accident that I started having flashbacks about the burn center and panic attacks about getting burned again. I felt crazy. How could this be happening after all the work I’d done to get “healthy”? Today I look at it like there was a part of me that needed more healing, but back then all I could do to deal with the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) was to find a therapist and address the feelings and fears I had.
Was it scary? Sometimes, but it was also amazing. Was it hard? Sometimes, but my therapist was with me through it all. I wasn’t alone… I wasn’t alone. And what I learned: Sometimes you have to be willing to stop and clean a little of the ash off your feet. The secret: it’s much easier to do with someone by your side.
A Commitment to Help Others
Fast forward another 10 years: I’m married with two toddlers, and working part-time as a counselor. One day as I walk in the door I learn that my brother was burned in a propane explosion. Words cannot describe the shock. Same hospital, same doctor, same amount of burns. A different experience for Jeff though—more pain medication, fast grafting, faster healing. As I watched him go through his trauma and recovery I did not have flashbacks, nightmares, or traumatic responses… I had done enough healing to not get triggered. Burn care had changed, and I had changed—so much so that a short time later I went to our burn surgeon and said, “I think I would be an asset to the burn center, I think you should hire me!”
A year later I started working at Regions Hospital Burn Center as a burn support representative, offering support, coaching, and programming for burn patients and their families, both in- and out-patient. I became involved with the Phoenix Society and have spent the past 13 years promoting recovery for burn survivors, family members, burn care professionals, and EMS/firefighters. It has been a privilege to help those whose lives have become covered with ash to know there is hope. To know there is color in the world besides gray. To know there is someone who will walk through the ashes with them.