Archive for October, 2011


Self-Actualization…reaching our full potential

Self-Actualization…reaching our full potential

By jflames


/ˈsɛlfˌæktʃuələˈzeɪʃən, ˌsɛlfæk-/ Show Spelled[self-ak-choo-uh-luh-zey-shuhn, self-ak-] Show IPA

noun Psychology .

the achievement of one’s full potential through creativity, independence, spontaneity, and a grasp of the real world.

After struggling to survive in the burn unit and all of the subsequent surgeries I endured after, I struggled for over another decade with narcotics addiction. It wasn’t until I entered the recovery process in 1996 that I was finally able to address the underlying emotional pain that I carried with me from the past.

The most significant event that had occurred in my life was being critically burned, but there were less obvious issues that existed before my burn injuries; issues which were further complicated by addiction, denial and shutting down emotionally. This was a defensive maneuver created by a subconscious mind that I wasn’t even aware of. It was successful in one regard and damaging in another. On the one hand it probably stopped me from killing myself or going completely insane. And on the other hand it caused more pain and more consequences, not just for myself but for everyone that cared about me. I had literally and figuratively fallen asleep to my conscious and unconscious self. That didn’t mean that they weren’t still operating on some level. It just meant that I wasn’t aware of them.

The first few years after my accident were extremely lonely and painful for me. I had no one to lead me out of the darkness, which threatened to consume me entirely. I did however have a few people who helped me find distractions and other things to do to help me feel human, my dad being the most significant person at that time. Others encouraged me and gave me tiny little glimmers of hope that never lasted very long, but were enough to sustain me between doses. My surgeon and friend Dr. R. Michael McClellan was a big contributor in that regard. He never gave up on me. These people gave me a reason to go on.

This was perhaps the lowest point of my life in terms of literally feeling like I wanted to die. I felt so alone and so hopeless that most days all I could do was get out of bed, shower and maybe eat something. It was what I would describe as my “burn bottom”; the point where I just completely bottomed out physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. In 1996 I hit a very different bottom. This bottom was the result of having everything I used to hide behind stripped away. My family, my children, my homes, my businesses, my money and my dignity were all gone. This was another one of those opportunities for me to dig inside myself and find resources that I didn’t know existed. It was very similar to my burn injury in that it turned out to be a very positive thing. But at the time it hurt like hell and it was no fun being in that state. As a dear friend of mine says, “Sometimes lessons must be cruel to be effective.”

This has been the case more than once in my life. As a matter of fact everything I’ve ever learned that’s worth knowing I learned from my own pain or someone else’s. It’s a tough reality of life and I don’t go around looking for pain. You don’t have to. Life presents challenges for all of us every day. I realized at some point that if I didn’t learn how to meet these challenges I would be stuck in an endless downward spiral of being a perpetual victim. These challenges are uniquely tailored for each of us. That same friend of mine also says, “The victory is in the struggle because that is where we learn how to surrender.” Surrender is not something I do naturally. It’s actually counter intuitive. But surrender is what saved my life when I began to allow other people to help me while asking for help when I needed it. And believe me I still need a lot of help from other people.

I’ve done a lot of “work” in these past 15 years, most of it having to do with getting current with my self and my feelings. I continue to find out who I am and what I want from life and am not insulted by life’s challenges. Instead, I’ve learned how to see them as potential for growth and as a possibility to learn more about me and what makes me who I am. There is great joy, happiness and fulfillment in life, not just pain and struggles. But it’s the pain and struggles that make that joy and happiness all the more fulfilling. The grief, sadness, loss and pain that I’ve gone through have become a touchstone for future growth. It becomes the opening that allows me to enter the darkness and come out into the light with new information, unafraid to face life and all of its daily challenges with gratitude.

In learning to be spontaneous and trying new things, one of the most important factors is risk. Love takes risk, creativity takes risk, being who you really are takes risk. I can’t tell anyone else the way. I can just tell them that there is a way to achieve our full potential as wholly integrated men and women. It’s scary as hell because it means letting go of everything that makes you feel safe. It means experimenting with new ideas and trying on new things. It might even mean leaving people behind and pissing others off. It means leaving the safety of what we know to explore the most feared of all things; the unknown. There was a saying that a friend of mine from Maine sent me in an email about 10 years ago. I held onto it for a long time and I read it often. It went like this, “The will of God will never take you to where the grace of God will not protect you. In order to have what is truly worth having in life it may be necessary to let go of everything else.” You can’t surrender with one hand. You have to throw both hands up and open them up. The good news is you don’t have to do it all at once. You get to do it in pieces….for the rest of your life.


A Lifelong Journey

On this, the 32nd anniversary of the explosion in which I was critically burned I wanted to write about my expierence at the World Burn Congress (WBC) which took place in Cincinnati last week. Once again I was on the panel for the Addiction/Substance Abuse and Trauma workshop. I felt it appropriate to write my blog on this theme, and to take it a step further to include grief/grieving.

I’ve spent time around hundreds of burn survivors over the last 32 years, and it is amazing to me that I’m always affected in some way by just being in their presence. I’ve written before about how I don’t see myself most of the time. And even when I do see myself, perhaps in a mirror or my reflection in a window, I’m not thinking about my appearance. But when I’m around other burn survivors I am transported through time back to that place where I was just learning to cope with being burned and disfigured.

I was only a kid at the time, and like most people my age, had lots of hopes and dreams. I planned to enjoy being single, hanging out with the guys, traveling and riding motorcycles from place to place (and bar to bar). Then someday I’d get married, have kids, settle down and be a family man (more by default, I suppose, than choice at that time). But all those hopes and dreams went up in smoke, quite literally, 32 years ago. The John that I knew back then–the one that I had been for 20 years–was gone.

Suddenly I was a very different version of me. To say that I was devastated would be an understatement. My body, mind and spirit were crushed in the explosion and the aftermath. The pain was excruciating in every way and every day for months on end. Then the years of physical therapy and reconstructive surgery so that I could move about freely. I lost count…I think its 72 surgeries now. I had to learn how to walk again and talk again and use my hands. I had to get used to eating with a mouth that had no lips and breathe through a nose that was almost gone. I had no feeling in my skin grafts for years. I could feel pressure when someone touched me only because of the nerve endings under the grafts. It felt like there was a piece of thick leather between me and whatever or whoever was touching me, and it was almost intolerable at times. But the hardest thing to get used to was the way others saw me.

I’m not just talking about strangers on the street or friends. My family members were deeply disturbed by my appearance. They loved me very much, and because of that it made them hurt, and I hurt for them. It’s my nature to not cause others pain or make them uncomfortable, so I took it on as my own pain. I was already carrying a trainload, so what’s one more boxcar full of baggage? I remember one young niece who was so frightened she would cry whenever she saw me. It was awkward for everyone at family gatherings and especially for me, because I didn’t want to upset anyone, especially my little niece.

At that point I was heavily dependent on narcotics to help me cope with my daily life. Even though I had seemingly made the transition from physical isolation to being in society, I was still very much isolated emotionally. The trauma I experienced as a result of the explosion was further complicated by my addiction to narcotics. The ongoing surgeries served to retraumatize and further institutionalize me. I was not only dependent on narcotics, I was also dependent on the institutions and the people who cared for me.

First I needed to address my addiction to narcotics. After many tries from 1983 to 1996, I finally succeeded. I was able get the help I needed and begin healing inside. I knew much about physical pain and suffering, but I understood very little about emotional pain and suffering and especially the grieving process. I realized I needed to have a network of people in recovery in my life, and some professionals to support me on my journey. I’ve found it necessary to create a safe space and have safe people around (could be a support network, significant other, friends, pastor, priest, rabbi) who won’t judge or invalidate your feelings.

Having someone who will just listen to you is one of the most precious things I’ve found. I’ve shared my story with anyone who will listen (and probably some who did not). I’ve shared in groups the details of some of the procedures I endured and watched people cringe. And I learned that some people just don’t want to know and some details are too much; not everyone is safe to share everything with.

I’ve logged countless hours with many therapists (some good, some ok). I’ve gone through training to help and support other burn survivors and I attend conferences and advocate for the burn community. I’ve written more than I can remember about this; I still write and I’m still uncovering and unfolding me. I wrote poems, read Voltaire (don’t ask me why) and read everything I could get on spirituality. I painted and did woodworking and built a motorcycle. I did yoga (still do) and Tai Chi, took up golf and am now doing woodworking again. I’ve taken long trips by myself to Europe and the west coast, and gone on retreats. I’ve also danced around the pain and avoided it for many years with many other distractions.

During the WBC, we saw a private screening of the very poignant and compelling documentary, Trial By Fire; Lives Reforged. As I watched myself on that screen I was catapulted back to the grief and sadness I still carry. It was a surreal moment to see all these images of myself strung together with my voice. I was watching me tell my story, and it hit home. This is a good thing. Feelings are meant to be felt, not avoided, suppressed, ignored, drowned in alcohol or numbed with narcotics. They are meant to come up and out, not go down and in.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is credited with identifying the five stages of grief (based on her experience with the terminally ill). Although this model is widely accepted as the catch-all for grief, it is not a template that everyone’s grief process will follow. Trauma and addiction have many manifestations and are complex in many ways. They are both difficult to diagnose and treat. Grief can be complex and overwhelming. It is not a neat tidy little package and it doesn’t come with instructions. It comes with denial, as do addiction and trauma. There are many good books written on the grieving process. There are counselors who specialize in grief and groups to help support those who need help.

I can’t tell anyone how to grieve or how long it will take or when it will be over–if it ever is. I can tell you that it’s messy some days, and that’s ok. I now enjoy life more than I ever have. I can tell you that the grief process has gotten better for me and that I have gotten better with it too. A process is a series of prescribed steps taken to achieve a desired result—in this case, healing. You have to take action in order to get results. It may take a lifetime.

In my experience, service seems to be the one thing that promotes healing more than anything else. Giving back to others who have also suffered helps me deal with my pain and it helps them deal with theirs. For me, the healing continues and I have yet to fully recover. Maybe that’s not possible. Maybe the infinite intelligence that created us has given us a lifelong assignment. That’s a good thing too. My first journey began 32 years ago on October 5, 1979. My second journey began on October 1, 1996. Here we are in October , 2011; 15 years later and I’m still on the journey.

Books on : Grief/Grieving

On Grief and Grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss
by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross ,David Kessler

Grief Recovery Handbook- The action program for moving beyond death,divorce,and other losses
by John W. James, Russell Friedman

Good Grief: A constructive approach to the problem of loss
by Granger E. Westberg

by Haddon W. Robinson

Beyond Recognition

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


October 2011

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 20 other subscribers

%d bloggers like this: