At this time of year, I start to become a little more aware of my burn. It’s visible in a low-ish cut top or even a sleeveless vest. My scars cover most of my right breast and a grabby off-sewn clutch of skin under my right arm.
I’ve always considered myself incredibly lucky as far as my burn is concerned. It was a terrible injury, but it wasn’t my face. I was able to breastfeed both my daughters despite it. It also meant some growing up and turning of corners for me.
I was 23, turning 24 in the Summer of 1997. And (as it should be), I was wild and living a somewhat risky and exciting life. I rented a room in a big shared house and I partied. Hard.
Before moving to Brighton I had a series of epileptic fits and was on medication for a period. My seizures were always great big ones. Grande Mal. The scary looking ones. Scarier to see than to be. I had them in hot places, out of the blue. Sometimes when I was hung over. Often 18 months apart.
During a fit, I go rigid at first. Then convulse. Really convulse. I grunt and groan and my face is a pained mask. I was always ashamed of my epilepsy and embarrassed and scared by the loss of memory that followed. It was sometimes hours before I knew my name.
One of the worst things was how scared and horrified witnesses would be. If you’ve never seen a fit, I can tell you it’s absolutely terrifying. Violent. Monstrous.
I don’t remember when I stopped taking medication or even why. I’m not sure whether I was on medication for my last seizure or not. To be honest, I don’t remember an awful lot from that period in my life. I only know the year, as it happened the same weekend that Princess Diana died.
I know I woke up and got dressed and ready for work. I put an egg on to boil and some toast under the grill.
My next memory, recovered later, is waking up feeling terrible on the floor. Feeling the cool, hard, gritty, lino against my cheekbone. Knowing I had work, I threw on my denim jacket and left. An elderly man stopped me in the park on my way and told me I wasn’t okay. I don’t remember what exactly he said, but I knew I had to go home.
By now, my wrist and trunk were stinging and burning.
My flatmate Simon answered the door to me. Irritated and swearing. Why did I leave toast to burn? Why didn’t I have my key?
I lifted my tee-shirt, to show Simon my side which was getting very sore. He put me in a cab and took me to casualty. It was my first fit in Brighton. And my last ever.
My wounds were dressed and I was sent home by a very tired, very young doctor. I stopped in at work on my way home and resigned. (I had successfully scored a job elsewhere the previous week, and I was on a temporary, zero hours contract, pleased not to be going back and planning to start my new job in a week or so).
Then I went home to lick my wounds. A week later a friend came down from Suffolk, took one look at me and took me straight to the GP. She wept as I locked eyes with her and the doctor stuck a long needle in my breast to see if the tissue was alive. Not a wince.
I had full thickness burns to 15% of my body. The bits that hurt on my wrist and lower chest were only 1st degree, where the nerve endings could still feel.
I was refered to the specialist Burns and Plastics unit at the Queen Victoria hospital in East Grinsted. And I was to stay for weeks. I had skin grafted from my right thigh, (where I have another big scar) and a partial mastectomy.
I saw people there who amazed me. Terrible burns. Incredible treatments. Desperate but inspiring stories.
I met a girl in her early 20s who had pulled a slow cooker over onto herself at two and burned right through her chest. Her breasts had never formed and she had a terrible rigid, prosthetic front. She was having bladders inserted into her sides which would be inflated slowly, stretching her skin so that the burn could be cut out and the stretched skin wrapped back around her and breast implants built.
I met an elderly woman with bedsores so bad, she was there in the burns and plastics unit with us for their treatment. She was in agony. Screaming and crying when as her wound was dressed.
A man having his forearm broken and rebroken so the regrown bone in his arm could be used to rebuild his jaw that he had lost to cancer.
I had laid down on a halogen hob and I was here to tell the story. My boob was wrecked and my nipple (apparently) lost, but recognising how lucky I had been, I just wanted to get on with it, and on with my life.
I don’t know how long I was in. Certainly weeks. Maybe a month. I had a lot of morphine. They wanted to redo some of my graft which had failed, but they lost the extra skin harvested in my first operation. My thigh skin was stapled with great long pins onto my breast. I had a huge, plastic blister dressing on my leg, covering the skinless wound. Difficult to walk around with. It stank. It was disgusting and I begged them to take it off.
I had to sleep sitting up. My arm was bandaged to my breast for a while. Movement might overstretch the scar and tear the delicate new skin. Then later, keloid scarring on my underarm started to contract and restrict movement. I was made to drop my arm, to lay right back. I couldn’t wash my own hair.
I couldn’t smoke and lost a couple of stone. I got a lot of cards. I thought hard about my lifestyle. I rang my new job and told them everything. They waited for me. Just.
I never had another fit. I still partied pretty hard, but with less rigour. Apparently a number of people in my family have had a series of seizures in their teens and twenties, so it might not have had anything to do with late nights and over-indulgence. Who knows.
It was a terrible and horrible time.
But, I am fine. It taught me a few things about the value of beauty and about friends. And about self-care. In some very odd way it was good for me.