After a life-changing accident in their youth, Iesha Palmer had severe scarring from burns – but it was the mental impact of this incident that left an even greater mark. Years later, Iesha has found an empowering message in these scars, and it’s a sentiment you need to hear
Life isn’t a linear trajectory – life-changing moments, can happen at any time. In 2006, when I was around 12 years old, I sustained third-degree burns on my left arm while trying to shield my niece. This resulted in the need for skin graft surgery, where they removed skin from my left thigh to cover my arm.
Through a lot of pain and tears, I slowly but surely regained mobility; the love and care from doctors and my mother was my saving grace. My time in the hospital was difficult, but the real challenge began when I returned home. A child who was once brave and full of life became extremely self-conscious and shy. My scars became one of the sources of my insecurities, and it would be that way for more than 10 years. It wasn’t until I started to see my scars as stories, that I was able to accept and appreciate them.
I can remember the moments leading up to the accident in summer 2006. I was sitting in the living room with my brother watching TV when I felt an impulse to go to the kitchen. Following it, I walked in on my niece, who was very young at the time, reaching up, about to pull a pot of hot oil off the stove and all over herself. I must have blacked out, because the next thing I remember is shrieking screams coming from myself, followed by the cries of my brother.
No words can describe the excruciating pain I was in – my arm looked unrecognisable. As my brother later explained, I had instinctively shielded my niece and the oil ended up falling on me. My mother, who was on her way to work, rushed back. We went to a nearby pediatric hospital where my arm was wrapped up for the night.
The following day I was rushed to a major hospital in Miami, Florida, where I was admitted to the burn centre. During my initial examination, the doctor told my mother that I needed surgery, to which she responded with tears.
She cried a lot, whereas I didn’t cry once when I was in the hospital – I think the whole ordeal was too surreal for me to process. When the doctor heard the story, he expressed that with my niece being so small, her body would have been engulfed by the oil and her burns would have been severe, if not life-threatening. But to me, I was just doing what any family member would do.
A lot of my time in the hospital was spent in silence; my mother had a full-time job and couldn’t afford to take much time off. She was there when I came out of surgery, and I remember coming to and seeing her face – she looked as if she had seen a ghost.
It didn’t take long for me to understand why her face was in such horror. I glanced down and saw my thigh. “That’s not mine, it can’t be,” I thought, and it was then that I started to realise my body would never be the same again. In the coming month, I needed extensive physical therapy to regain movement in my arm and leg. It was hard, but with the help of the nurses I made it through, and thankfully the skin graft took beautifully.
The healing of my physical wounds wasn’t reflective of my emotional and mental state, though. It was when I left the hospital things got really hard. I don’t think I realised the effect it would have on my personality, how it would change the way I saw myself. I cried every day for weeks, struggling deeply with self-esteem and self-acceptance. Suddenly I was terrified of seeing my body, let alone allowing anyone else to.
As months went by, I started to overcompensate for my insecurities by making my personality bigger and brighter, so the people around me would be too busy being entertained to notice I was always wearing full-length sleeves. My school years were spent in Florida and the Caribbean, but the blistering heat made no difference. I endured the suffocation of jackets and trousers, because that was preferable to being seen.
This is how I was for so many years, and it was only in 2017 that things slowly started to change. I wanted more from life, I was tired of living in fear of my own body.
"I stopped seeing my scars as scars, but rather, stories of strength"
At the beginning of 2018, I was hit with an epiphany. I started to reflect within, and see how I had allowed that moment to grip and limit my life. I had to start believing that I was deserving of self-love, that it was even possible for me to love what I see. It was around the same time I started to accept my queerness – life was happening again, but this time it wasn’t happening to me. This time I was in control.
I stopped seeing my scars as scars, but rather, stories of strength.
And now, this is one of my favourite stories. I’ve realised that there’s power in baring your insecurities, in relinquishing control and letting go – something that the past Iesha would never allow themselves to do.
My hope is that this will resonate with someone reading, and convince them that they can do the same – we can take ownership of our scars, instead of letting them own us. Our scars are just stories on display, and them being seen is a sign that we are alive, and still fighting. Wear your story with pride, no matter what it is.
Hero image photography | @sophiemayanne
To connect with a counsellor to discuss improving your own self-esteem, visit counselling-directory.org.uk