An emergency room nurse took the contacts out of my eyes after the explosion, which was a mixed blessing. Some blurred snapshots from my first days at the hospital: my boyfriend Colin standing at the edge of my bed, his face entirely concealed by white gauze aside from his eyes and swollen lips. Colin’s aunt and cousin putting photos on the wall opposite my bed, pictures from another time and altogether different life: Colin and I on a beach in Puerto Rico; doing Crow Pose on a cliff in Montenegro; tanned and smiling side by side at Bird Point, Alaska.
The day before my skin graft surgery, I lay naked and shaking from the pain of my uncovered burns in a room filled with doctors discussing the next day’s proceedings. Bringing my right hand close to my face, I saw only mangled red flesh and thought it impossible I would ever look the same—or be okay—again.
On July 31st, 2016, I was in a propane explosion and 37 percent of my body was burnt. Most of my burns were on my legs, with the worst of them on my hands and my feet. Before the explosion I was in the best shape of my life. It was not uncommon for me, on a typical Fairbanks summer day, to practice yoga in the morning and evening, bike 10 or 20 miles, lift weights and go for a run. Despite all this work, I wasn’t happy with my body. I didn’t have a flat stomach, Beyonce’s thighs or Michelle’s arms—which in my mind were the symbols that you had physically “made it.”
A month before the explosion I enrolled in a meditation course as a birthday gift to myself. As simple as it sounds, the course taught me how to listen to myself. My internal voice made me curious about my overexercising: what was I so unsatisfied with? What did I think overexercising was going to give me? I began to take it easier on myself. I tried to grow curious instead of judgmental when I felt compelled to hop on my bike or attend another yoga class. Simply slowing down and listening to myself steadied my compulsive reactions, laying bare the real feelings and fears beneath them. My body began to soften as my mind sharpened.
The Moment Everything Changed
A single moment can shape the rest of your life. Mine changed in the second someone else hastily turned on a kitchen stove, igniting propane that had been steadily leaking since its faulty installment. It is absolutely because of my strong body that I was able to leave the cabin, but it was my mind that made it possible for me to endure walking barefoot through flames. While we waited for EMTs, I rested on hands and knees on a deck flanking the river and looked down through the boards. I calmed myself by listening to the nearby water and focusing on my breath, which at that moment and for the next month was the only thing I could control.
In the hospital, I became desensitized to my naked body being viewed with medical interest by doctors and nurses whose first names I didn’t know. My life was so surreal that it didn’t feel like they were looking at my body anyway, more of a burnt effigy of what it had been. In the Japanese art form called Kintsugi, a piece of pottery is shattered and then recreated using a precious metal like gold or silver to mend its fissures. There is no effort to hide the breakage, instead the cracks and blemishes are adorned. Once a day in the hospital, nurses with soft voices and gloved hands would unravel the bandages on my burns to debride the top layers of dead skin, searching for skin buds below, the hopeful regeneration that lay beneath my injuries.
During this time, a good friend told me I would have my life back; eventually I would be able to dance, drink too much wine, and laugh so hard it hurt again. The hopelessness I felt upon hearing this shook me to my core. I felt inhuman, incapable of pride or joy. I couldn’t walk without assistance and an incredible amount of pain. I was unrecognizable with my peeling, swollen face, bulging legs, and covered head to toe in mesh and gauze. I was so tired but sleeping was miserable, I would dream of being healthy again only to reawaken with the knowledge I was not. Looking at the photos on my wall, I thought about how unhappy with myself I had been in all of them. Before the explosion I had felt inherently different and unlovable and in that moment, I felt I was being shown what it truly meant to be those things.
The Beauty of Having Been Broken
With Kintsugi-style pottery, cracks are highlighted with the glint of metal, the viewer drawn in by the warmth of gold. The end result is a vase with history, more intentional and beautiful as a result of its destruction. Burn victims whose burns are too deep to heal on their own receive skin graft surgery. A sheet of unburned skin, ideally taken from another plain of the patient’s body, is applied over the burn. I received skin grafts on the tops of both feet in the hope they would be able to heal and I could gain full functionality back.
After being discharged from the hospital I had to remember how to take possession of my body again, viewing this weak, healing one as my own to protect. I lost weight and muscle in the hospital and didn’t appreciate when people complimented me on it, as if it were a positive outcome from my horrible experience.
I used to talk the body positivity talk, saying I felt it had been important for me growing up to have a physical skill: I could split wood in negative temperatures, I could build a fire, I could live without plumbing and haul water. With great confidence I would say that having these life skills gave my body a sense of purpose that was greater than merely being viewed. The explosion tore me apart and made me understand that I am still coping with this. Through my experience of extreme pain and subsequent transformation, I have begun to peel back the edges of the enmeshment between my body image and my self-worth.
In Rahawa Haile’s essay about solo hiking the Appalachian Trail, she writes the experience was the longest conversation she had ever had with her body. It’s interesting how pain is often the invitation for these conversations. I was given the opportunity to hate my body and myself after the explosion, to see my burns as affirmation of my difference and unlovability. Instead, what blossomed was an admiration for my body and a renewed identity.
Now when I practice yoga I look at my hands pressed into my mat and see the burns that top them and spread to outline my fingers. When I found out I would have heavy scarring on my hands, I was devastated to be different and appear damaged, but now I see my hands as my protectors; my burns, my defense wounds. My strong hands support my body’s weight as I jump back to Chaturanga Dandasana. Every time I shift forward to Upward-Facing Dog, the memory flickers of being unable to flatten to the tops of my feet where I’d received skin grafts when I returned to my yoga practice last fall. I roll back to Downward-Facing Dog, where my strong shoulders and legs allow my head to hang heavy, my spine elongating from my sacrum toward the earth. I feel how my strength has allowed me to surrender, how surviving has allowed me to become fully aware of the sweetness in my life and my body’s purpose as my vessel and sole companion in this journey.
About Our Writer
Morganne Armstrong was an intern for YogaJournal.com in the spring of 2016. She is currently a yoga instructor, based in Fairbanks, Alaska.