Sylvia suffered from an accident with boiling water that became the source of her scarring.
“My mum was boiling water in saucepans for our bath. She would pour the water into bowls and she put the bowls on the bathroom floor. We were just playing around, me and my siblings, and I ran into the bathroom and shut the door. We were told not to go in there. I went in there and my sister pushed the door, and that’s when I fell backwards into the bowl of boiling water, causing very bad burns,” she explains.
Doctors truly believed that Sylvia’s burns would not allow her to survive. “They gathered my family together and told them that I wasn’t going to make it through the night,” she said. “They baptized me and I had my last rites.”
However, Sylvia made it through the night. When she woke up, the pain from her burns was endless. “My first recollection was lying in the hospital bed wrapped in bandages from underneath my arms down to my hips. I remember always being in pain. Whenever I visited the hospital I would have to undress from top to toe and stand on a bed and turn around so that they could inspect my back and the rest of my body, with all the student nurses looking at me. I had nightmares over it,” she recalls.
Growing up, Sylvia’s scars didn’t allow her to believe in her own beauty. “When I was growing up a lot of people used to tell my mum, ‘Oh, she’s beautiful, she’s pretty,’” she said. “But in my head I always thought, “Why are they saying, ‘You’re pretty.’ I’m not. Underneath my clothes I’m burned. I always felt ugly, so it’s affected me mentally as well as physically.”
At school, she felt no better. “Children would call me different names like ‘witch’ and ‘snakeskin,’ and they were really nasty. I was told that I would never have boyfriends, never get married, never have children. Showing my back was always going to be a negative thing,” she remembers.
Constantly feeling stifled by her scars, Sylvia avoided any activities that required the baring of her back, such as swimming, a sport that she truly loves. She felt paranoid that people were taking pictures of her, and avoided social situations in general.
“It was almost like I was encased in a shell and I couldn’t get out, and people never really listened to me,” she said. “In my teenage years there were times when I thought, ‘I’m going to step in front of that bus and just finish my life.’”
Last year while Sylvia was on vacation with her mother, the two women tried to enjoy getting some sun by the pool. A little while later, Sylvia noticed a man filming her. Her mother suggested they go to the beach instead.
Once at the beach, Sylvia realized that her scarring not only hurt herself, it hurt her mother as well. “I saw my mum sitting on the sun lounger and she had her head down, and I remember just seeing her so sad, it was quite upsetting actually. I realized that what I’ve gone through has affected her as well,” she said.
“I had always noticed her looking at my burns. I wanted to say something to her – to say, ‘It’s OK, I’m OK.’ At that moment something just clicked in my brain and I decided that I was going to draw a line and make her happy. I took my dress off and I walked down to the edge. People were looking at me and I looked at my mum and I smiled, and I went, ‘Mum! Look! Look at me!’ And she started to smile. I put my hands on my hips and I started to pose on the water’s edge and she was so happy.”
Sylvia said that she went over to her mother and told her, “from now on I’m going to let people take pictures, and every time they do I’m going to smile and I’m going to pose.”
“I think that moment on the beach was just a turning point where I realized that no counseling, nothing on Google, was going to help me,” Sylvia reflected. “It was time for me to help myself.”
And indeed, Sylvia began. She said she “went out and bought a swimming costume – it had a big hole in the back – and then I set up my swimming classes at my local pool… I invite people with disfigurements to come and swim. When I’m in the water and I’m swimming I just feel at peace, I feel calm, and I can think of lots of wonderful things.”
“I talk to a lot of people that have been burned, too,” Sylvia said. “There are youngsters who want to kill themselves when they’ve just been burned, and I try to tell them, ‘Look, I’ve got all the way through my life and you can do this too.’”
On self-love, Sylvia realizes that it certainly has been a process. “It’s been such a long journey. It’s like taking off a coat and saying, ‘This is me now, and I don’t care what people think.’ I’ve noticed a big change in my life and I’ve been able to accept the way I look. My message to people with disfigurement is to just go for it,” she said. “Do whatever you want to do in life. Don’t let anything stop you or stand in your way.”
For Sylvia, a term is needed that takes the word ‘survivor’ even further. She’s not only a survivor, she is lionhearted – her bravery and strength exemplary.
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