When I visit people in the hospital as a Phoenix SOAR Peer Supporter, one of the most pressing questions is how their injury and appearance will affect their lives and relationships when returning to the world.
Of course, I always say that no one's recovery is the same, just as no one goes into a burn injury with the same story.
People may stare, ask intrusive questions, and make snap judgments. They may have trouble looking at your scars. Even people who know you and love you may react poorly to your appearance.
But that's not the whole story.
Just take my dad and me. We were both in a small private plane above the mountains of Colorado when it stalled and began falling fast. While the plane crash brought us both into the same burn center for three months with burns on 35% of our bodies, our return to life was very different.
As a newly retired 53-year-old, my dad already had a solid sense of who he was, so recovery for him was about returning to that baseline. On the other hand, I was 16. I really didn't know who I was yet. At that adolescent age, I was just starting to define myself. And as someone who had most major life milestones ahead of me (high school, dating, college, employment, marriage), I would face them all with a burn injury, a visibly different appearance, and significant PTSD.
I coped with the challenges of returning to life after burns in many ways—some unhealthy at first.
I did a lot by trial-and-error. With my fresh red scars, glistening skin from oily lotions, and pressure garments on my arms and legs that didn't match my skin tone, I felt like I had a big sign over my head reading, "LOOK HERE."
When people stared, I would often stare back aggressively. When someone asked invasive questions, I might lie to them with some overblown war story involving flamethrowers. In an intimate moment with a partner, I would try to distract them from my scars.
My brash and evasive reactions helped me feel less vulnerable in the moment, but deep down, I knew I would have to face up to my changed appearance.
I was never going to change human nature and magically make people not see my scars.
I had to learn how to feel the hurt in my body, resolve some of my trauma, and stretch some of my scars. Yoga, meditation, and massage were tremendous tools that helped me do just that. Simple yoga movements and stretches, finding stillness, and the warm touch of a skilled massage therapist all helped me become more comfortable in my mind, in my body, and about my appearance.
The new comfort with myself spilled into my social life, career, friendships, and intimate relationships. Sometimes I felt so confident in myself and my story that I began to embrace the opportunities my scars gave me to connect with others.
Whether it was an honest conversation with a new intimate partner about what to expect with my body or the unexpectedly deep conversations with curious strangers, my scars have given me a special key to connect heart-to-heart with others.
I can't say that I did any of my growth quickly. It happened gradually. I am still learning ways to speak compassionately with people staring at me. I am still learning not to take it so personally. I am still learning how to receive care and support. My healing has been a journey of continuing to learn who I am in relation to others and in my own right. As I returned to the world after the hospital (and still today, 21 years later), I am amazed at what my burn injury and the ongoing healing process has taught me about myself, others, and how to engage in the world with my chin up and my smile wide.
I wish I could have understood this simple point sooner: How others respond to your appearance is out of your control. I think knowing this takes a lot off your plate. You can skip a lot of heartache and truly focus on yourself—for your own sake.
You can’t always control other people’s biases, but self-confidence can pave the way for authentic connection and quality engagement. Even if a visible difference creates barriers in your life, adjusting your mindset can provide inner peace that allows you to live a life of joyful engagement.
So, I encourage anyone embarking on the journey to a full life after a burn injury to focus on feeling good first through mind-body skills – and then to trust that the rest will follow in time. Soon, you might start seeing opportunities to practice letting your true self outshine your fear in social interactions. And later you might even take one of those opportunities to connect deeply with others around your scars and your story.
Let’s face it, burn survivors are absolutely remarkable people. What we have endured is a powerful testament to life that can touch and inspire many.
Phoenix Society has many resources to get you started in building confidence, managing social interactions, and cultivating self-love. You may also find professional support from burn professionals, including physical/occupational therapists, social workers, psychologists, and recreational therapists.
The burn community is here to help you build confidence and get back out there.
Blake Tedder, MSW, RYT, is a burn survivor from Hillsborough, NC. Blake's long journey through disfigurement and PTSD has created a desire to help others heal their own physical, emotional, and soul wounds. He is a certified yoga teacher. Blake is a long-term volunteer with Phoenix Society and the UNC Jaycee Burn Center's Aftercare Program. His Blake Tedder Burn Endowment funds healing initiatives for burn survivors in North Carolina. Blake enjoys writing and playing music, being in nature, podcasting, and spending time with his wife, Amelia Vogler. He currently works for Duke University.