Archive for August, 2011

31
Aug
11

Tattoos as Colorful Scars

I realized after I was burned that tattoos are actually just scars with color in them.

I was among the first of my friends to get a tattoo. I was 17 years old. My friend Scott and I drove to Camden, NJ in search of Sailor Eddie Evan’s tattoo parlor. I had been to Camden as a child with my father (he was born in Camden and we had family that still lived there), but not on my own. Our lack of familiarity with Camden and maybe a few too many beers landed us in Jack Dracula’s tattoo parlor instead of Sailor Eddie’s. Jack was a very intimidating fellow; probably 6′ 2″ or 6′ 3″ and tattooed from head to toe! He was a former sideshow freak at Coney Island back in the day and he wasn’t a very nice man. As if that weren’t enough, there was a sign on the wall that read, “You came in for a tattoo and you are leaving with one.” It worked. We were too scared to leave. Both of us grew up in rural southern New Jersey (aka “the sticks”), and we were way out of our element. I left Jack’s with a hideous tattoo of a snake and dagger on my right forearm. Scott had an executioner on his shoulder! I don’t know about Scott’s folks, but my mom wasn’t very happy.

Thus was the beginning of my love affair with body art. I was getting tattooed when tattoos were considered anti-social. Most people equated them with criminals, drunken sailors, motorcycle gangs and assorted other unsavory fringe-of-society type characters and groups. Probably the most negative connotation attached to tattoos is their use by the Nazis during WWII to mark concentration camp prisoners. It was said that Adolph Hitler even had a lampshade made from human skin with a tattoo on it. Yikes! Today tattoos are mainstream and more socially acceptable because so many people have them. People who don’t look like criminals or drunken sailors either. I’m not sure they have any significance except to the people who have them. For some, the only significance may be the statement having a tattoo can make — rebellion, FTW, I got drunk and ended up with a tattoo, I look cool, you’re not the boss of me, etc.

Some folks might assume I’m trying to hide my scars with tattoos. Not true. I actually struggled with the thought of not seeing my scars as clearly because of the tattoos. I’m proud of my scars in a weird kind of way. They are a testimony to the journey I’ve been on thus far. They say in no uncertain terms that I know and understand pain. They say I am a survivor. My first tattoos were about fitting in and being cool and macho. My oldest brother had a couple and I thought he was really cool! But later, especially after my run-in with Jack Dracula and my burns, tattoos became a form of self-expression.

I lost something in the fire that most people wouldn’t think about. I lost certain natural ways to express myself. I cannot grow a beard or mustache, for instance. This is something I totally missed out on, as I had never grown one before the accident. It may not seem that important, but it’s still something I missed.  Because of the scars on my face and around my neck, I have lost some of my ability to form certain facial expressions. Since I lost both ears, I can’t wear an earring anymore, which I had done since I was 16. I also lost all of my tattoos. They were burned away.

I never realized how these were forms of self-expression until much later in my life. Now my tattoos or body art make up for other forms of self-expression I have lost. My hair is rather long too. Another form of self-expression. I’ve found that my woodworking serves me in the same way. They all bring to the physical world what we have in our spirit, in the unseen world inside. My tattoos do have meaning to me. They tell a story and show what is important to me — my family, relationships, principles, spirituality, nature, freedom and love. I chose them for myself and they are a part of me. I don’t ask that you like my tattoos or even that you like me. I’m just being who I am. And because I can be who I am and accept who I am today, I can do the same for you. And that’s pretty cool.

07
Aug
11

Should I ask?

Approaching someone who looks different is a quandary for most people, and asking what happened to them shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s difficult to tell if someone like me who has a lot of facial scarring is approachable or not.  Should I look? Should I not look? Do I just ignore them?  What’s the polite thing to do?  There are no hard and fast rules.  In fact, if I were on the other side I’d probably not ask at all.  I’d just try to be kind and treat them like everyone else.  Some people might say, “It’s not polite to ask questions like that,” but neither is staring at someone while wondering what in the world happened to them.  Maybe nothing happened to them.  Maybe they were born that way and have some genetic defect or physical challenge or both. Or maybe they were involved in an accident, like I was. People who looked different always intrigued me when I was a child. But I can’t recall ever being rude or staring in an inappropriate way or making comments that were cruel. Maybe I was already sensitive about such things. I grew up with three developmentally challenged cousins. I saw the way people gawked, laughed and made wisecracks about them. It hurt me even though I wasn’t the focus of it.

I believe there is an acceptable way to look at someone who looks different or even ask what happened to them. First and foremost, remember that I’m no different than anyone else; I just look different than most people.  I want to be treated like anyone else.  One of the reasons for writing this blog and book, Beyond Recognition, and participating in the documentary, Trial By Fire: Lives Re-Forged, is to educate the general public.  I believe that many people don’t’ know how to respond or react when they see someone who looks like me.  Some people have never seen an actual burn survivor.  Advances in medical technology mean that more burn victims than ever actually live to become survivors, leading to more and more opportunities for interaction.  I hope that by going mainstream with burn survivors, we can overcome the stigma attached to our appearance.

I personally do not mind if people ask me what happened. But first ask yourself a question.  Why do I want to know?  What’s my motivation?  Is it just morbid curiosity of the train wreck variety or something that is heartfelt and sincere?  I really believe this makes a difference, and the person you are asking can tell the difference, believe me!  Here’s what I like: ” Do you mind if I ask what happened to you?”  It’s a direct question, and I’ve been given a choice.  I can either say, “Yes, I do mind,” or, “No, I don’t mind at all.”

Saying, “Do you mind if I ask what happened to you?” is a lot different than asking, “What happened to you?!”  Yes, people have blurted that out to me.  While I didn’t necessarily care for the delivery, I answered the question.  I have to pardon people every day or else I’d be confined to a very small world.  Now my standard reply is, “I was burned in an explosion at an oil refinery.”  The standard reaction is, “Wow, you’re lucky to be alive.”  There was a time when that bothered me a great deal.  I was still very early in the healing process and would think to myself, “Who are you to tell ME I’m lucky to be alive?  How would you know?”  I’ve done a lot of healing since those days and my response usually is, ” Yes, I’m extremely fortunate.”  This too should not be taken lightly.  If you ask somebody what happened and they tell you, you may feel you need to say something back to them. Like, “Wow! You’re lucky to be alive!”  Or, “Oh my God!  You poor thing!”  Here are some alternatives. “Thank you for sharing that with me. I’m glad to have met you.”  Or simply, “Thank you for taking the time to share that with me.  I wish you well.”  This is my experience and I certainly do not speak for anyone but me.  Personally, I’d rather someone ask me.  I feel like I’m doing a service for others and myself when I tell someone what happened to me.  I sometimes even share details if people ask or I feel they want to know more.

There is one thing that I believe is totally out of line — questions having to do with money.  Yes, I’ve had people say such things as, “I hope you got paid for that!” Or, “I heard you’re a millionaire,” or, ” So how much money did you get?”  I would consider this area of questioning inappropriate for just about everyone.  The other area that’s out of line is probing for details.  If the person offers details, that’s fine. But don’t ask for more.  It’s usually not hard to tell if someone is comfortable in his own skin.  But at the end of the day, it’s a crapshoot, and there’s no easy answer. In some cases it’s cool to ask, and in others it’s really not.  Discernment and tact mean everything when dealing with people, especially those of us with obvious differences.

There is an appropriate way to look at people. You look right into their eyes. If they can’t meet your eyes, then chances are they aren’t comfortable.  You can never be sure where someone is in the healing process, or whether they are healing inside at all.  And that’s what it’s really about.  Healing on the inside.  Because that’s what all humans have in common.  We all have healing of one kind or another to do.




Beyond Recognition

An intimate view of a burn survivor's life and recovery

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