“What happened?” they asked.
“What?” I responded.
“What happened?” they said again staring at my visible scars…
‘Oh, they are referring to my scars,’ I thought.
“I was burned in a house fire when I was two years old caused by careless cigarette smoking,” I responded with the rehearsed response I was trained to given from a young age.
I hated answering this question and questions like this growing up; and at times today it can still be draining. When asked this as I was growing up, I often felt obligated to answer so that people would ‘understand’ and ‘accept’ me.
But I often thought, those without scars weren’t asked invasive questions like this, right?
A younger me felt like this question was essentially asking “What is the worst thing that has ever happened to you?” and seeking a story of my once ‘victimhood,’ and then opening a door for them to give me unwanted pity or sympathy. I often felt that I had to respond and had no control over how the conversation went. I came to understand that this was likely not the person's intent. As I grew older, I learned that I didn’t have to answer peoples’ questions. I could re-direct and/or take control of the narrative of my story! A story from a little girl that was once a victim, to now a strong woman who has learned to thrive today! I learned that I had a choice on how I shared my story.
When I began on the journey of writing a book and blogs about my story, I realized sharing my story would be no easy task. It went so much deeper than the initial rehearsed response. Like any survivor story, it had complexity, layers of pain, trials, resiliency and overcoming beyond what could be shared in a short sentence or conversation.
I found myself asking:
What is my story?
How do I want to share my story?
What other stories are mine beyond the one everyone asks about?
What do I even want to share?
What is the meaning behind what I am sharing?
How much or how little do I want to share?
I found myself going through a big learning curve through my healing journey analyzing all the ins and outs of my story, my life, my trauma responses and how I became the person I am today. I had to own all parts of my story, the good, bad, and ugly.Through this journey, I realized that the story of a little girl who was burned needed to be re-written. See, I was no longer that little girl that fell victim to the flame; I hadn’t been that girl in a long time. I was the girl who survived. The girl who had overcome all the odds, and is thriving today in my career, with my horses and my dog, and with my friends and family. I am a person who loves writing and so much more!
As I re-wrote this narrative through my successes and healing, it also meant re-authoring the narrative in my story and the way I shared my story with others.
“Narrative re-authoring work is about ways of being and working with people that seek to ignite the dignity, beauty and honour of their lives. As the authors of our lives we are invited to re-author (take back the pen in) our relationship to the moments, narratives and communities that have shaped our lives in ways that move us forward.” (Re-authoring Ideas and Practices).
Re-authoring is our way of taking ownership of one's story and ultimately one's perspective on their life and past. It is taking our story and re-writing our narrative. The way we talk, write, and think is powerful because it shapes and changes the way and how we see the world and our relationships with others and how we influence others.
Here are somethings I have learned to help one control the narrative of their story and re-write and re-author and control the narrative of their story:
Identify the What.
What is my story? What other stories are mine beyond the one everyone asks about? What do I want to share? What is the meaning behind what I am sharing?
Identify the How.
What are my boundaries? How do I want to share my story? How much or how little do I want to share?
Identify the Who I am sharing my story with and the role they play in your life.
Is this a medical professional asking to best decide your care? Is this a stranger? Is this a potential relationship partner? Is it a friend and what type of friendship?
Identify if they are a safe person to confide in or not.
Have they and will they respond with empathy, love, and compassion or will they use it to target and against you?
Identify the Why, the meaning and purpose you are telling the person your story.
Are you asking this person for work accommodation? Are you telling them to deepen your relationship with them so that they can support you? Or is this a stranger you don’t really want to talk to and want to leave you alone so you can go about your day? Or are you telling someone to relate to their hardships and support them?
I learned that my story doesn’t have to be the story of a little girl who was burned. My story is so much more than this and it can be told in so many ways.
I can share:
My story is never letting anything stop me from hiking up mountains, riding horses or pursuing my dreams.
My story is of making accommodations while riding my horse, so I don’t get open sores on my legs and hands.
My story is of training my service dog to help assist me so I could thrive.
My story is taking my experience as a burn survivor to help others through my writing and equine assisted activities and therapies.
My story is getting my Masters degrees so I could better learn how to lead and support others.
So, let’s practice together.
Say I ask, “What happened?”
Why are you telling them what you are telling them?
What boundaries do you have in this situation?
Is this person a safe and trustworthy person to be vulnerable with?
Does the story I am sharing a story of victimhood or survivorship?
I re-authored my story to be filled with hope, perseverance, resilience, passion, love, and empathy rather than darkness and pain.
Will you join me on this journey of re-authoring your story from a place of victim to survivor and thrivership?
Rehearse Your Response (RYR): Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors' resource Rehearse Your Response is a great way to control the narrative of your story. It is done by practicing and preparing a brief response to when people ask what happened so that you are prepared for when people unexpectedly ask.
Re-authoring Ideas and Practices. Transformations. (2021, March 13). https://transformations.co.za/re-authoring-ideas-and-practices/.
Tools to handle questions and teasing. Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2023, from https://www.phoenix-society.org/resources/tools-to-handle-questions-and-teasing
Michelle Lauren Anderson, MA, MBA, is a Minnesota native. At 2 years old, she was burned on over 91% of her body. She learned how to navigate life with her scars on her sleeves. After attending a camp for burn survivors in Colorado, she fell in love with horses and spent years training and competing horses. She is now an Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning and a Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor. When Michelle is not spending time with her animals, she is a consultant and is writing a book about her burn survivor journey. Visit her website for more information.
Photo credit: Jamie Sukow.