Introducing the second team member of the new Humans Of Edmonton Experience…yours truly!

Introducing next on the team… Joy

My name is Joy Zylstra. I was born and raised in Camrose, AB by two loving parents. I am the middle child, of seven kids. Five sisters and one lucky brother. My childhood was not a normal one, to say the very least.
When I was nine years old my family and I were visiting with my aunt and uncle at their cabin in Boston Bar, B.C. Two of my older sisters and I were staying in the guest cabin while everyone else slept in the main cabin.

On Sunday July 25, 1993 everyone was sitting outside the main cabin, chatting and relaxing. But I was bored. I went to the guest cabin where all my stuff was to play with my Barbie’s. To this day, I remember having this weird feeling in my stomach as I walked to the cabin. We had just had lunch, so I knew I wasn’t hungry. So, I ignored it. Now, looking back, I firmly believe that it was God telling me to turn around; to not go into that cabin.

I walked into the cabin anyway and I smelled something strange. I looked around and saw that the propane stove was on, but nothing was cooking. Thinking nothing of it, I turned the burner off. The cabin didn’t have any electricity, so the only source of light was a candle. I grabbed the lighter to light the candle so I could find my toys. The next thing I remember was opening my eyes and seeing millions of sparks all over the floor. I screamed.

Mess inside after explosion
The cabin after the explosion

My family had all heard the explosion. But at first, they didn’t know what it was. They thought a semi truck had fallen off the mountain. But then they heard my screams coming from the guest cabin. My uncle and dad came running to me.
Long story short, the cabin was filled with propane. Just the spark from the lighter caused it to explode. The logs lifted and came back down, trapping my sister’s sleeping bag in-between; the roof lifted and came back down sideways; shelves fell; and I was burned. Badly.

Sleeping bag through wall
My sister’s sleeping bag was blown in between the separated logs and trapped when the logs came back down.

After the doctors realized I was going to survive, they told my parents that I suffered from 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 45% of my body. This meant I would have skin grafting which would result in scars, to almost half my body – for the rest of the life. I was in a lot of pain while in the hospital. But nothing could prepare me for the pain I would have being forced to live life looking like a “freak” and “monster”.
I was only 9 years old. In the hospital, I was determined to remain positive, happy – I would tell jokes often. But I had no idea what was coming. When I returned to school just 5 weeks after the explosion, all my old friends (except one) wouldn’t come near me. I don’t blame them – we were just kids. And I looked awful. Bloody, purple skin; garments on my torso, hands and legs; a mask on my face and a bald head.
Teenage years were the hardest. While all my friends were starting to get boyfriends, I realized quickly that no guy wanted to date me. I was ugly. One guy even told me that he didn’t want to be my boyfriend because of my scars. I was severely depressed. Depression would follow me for the rest of my life. At 16 I attempted suicide three times. I would cry myself to sleep every night praying to God to take my scars away. I just wanted to be normal. Pretty.

Smiling...before face graft
Me just before getting my face grafted

As a teenager and young adult, I thought the only way to numb the pain was with drugs, alcohol and sex. I thought if I slept with a guy then he could eventually learn to love me, scars and all. Drugs and alcohol didn’t numb the pain, it made it worse. I was so lost. So scared. So sad.
Then, I became a mom at the age of 20. I’ll never forget looking into my daughter’s eyes and refusing to let her feel about herself the way I felt about myself. The birth of my daughter was the start of my healing process.
I left her father as it was not a healthy relationship and embarked on the single mom life. I moved us to Edmonton where I put myself through college, got a good career with a big company and bought my daughter and I our first home. And while doing this, I would look in the mirror and tell myself that I was beautiful – scars and all. Eventually, it worked. But I was still depressed.

It was just my daughter and I for the first seven years of her life. I was so lonely, but now I had self worth. I knew I deserved a good man – but where was he? Most men still looked at my scars and wouldn’t even think about a relationship. I was about to give up on finding my soul mate, thought maybe the single mom life was for me. But then I met him. My husband. He tells me that the first thing he noticed about me when we first met was my smile. Not my scars. We married 5 years ago. He adopted my daughter and we now have three beautiful children together. But I was still depressed, I just didn’t know it (or maybe want to admit it).
For years I knew my accident happened for a reason, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I started going to schools and giving burn awareness presentations to help avoid any one else going through what I went through. I volunteer at the same burn unit I was treated in almost 25 years ago to help those burn survivors know that they’re not alone – and that it can and will be ok eventually. The depression though, never left. I just buried it. It eventually creeped back up earlier this year, and this time I didn’t ignore it. I sought help with it and have accepted that it could be there for life, as long as I take care of it though, it won’t take over my life.

A year ago I started my own page, Scarred, Not Broken to showcase hope. I started interviewing other survivors of tragic and life challenging events. I want people who are going through a hard time to know that they’re not alone. Because that was the hardest part for me – although I was never physically alone, I felt so alone. Like no one knew what I was going through. I’m determined to help others, not just burn survivors – survivors of anything, know that they’re not alone. I dream of one day having my own talk show. One that has guests who share their story of survival and hope. Their stories deserve to be heard – and need to be heard by others who are going through something similar.

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Which brings me to why I am so excited, proud and humbled to have been asked to join Humans of Edmonton Experience. The four of us have such diverse backgrounds, which makes us the perfect team. I look forward to the lives we’re going to help, to the changes we’re going to make in the world, to the love and acceptance we’re going to help spread. Being part of this team is the beginning of my dream coming true.

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#Scarrednotbroken #IHeartEdmonton #HumansofEdmontonExperience
#bekindtooneanother

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Scarred, Not Broken Has Teamed Up

Just over a year ago, I started my Facebook page, Scarred, Not Broken. It grew into Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and this blog site. The reason I felt that I needed to start Scarred, Not Broken is because I once was a very broken soul. I felt so alone, scared, hurt. The worst of these was the feeling of being alone.

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For most of my life, I felt like no one understood what it was like to be a burn survivor…except other burn survivors. Scarred, Not Broken was intended to bring love, understanding and acceptance to any one who is or has struggled with a traumatic or life altering event.

I became so passionate about helping others. It’s all I can think about most days – how can I help more people?

When my friend Jerry, who created Humans of Edmonton Experience, reached out to me and asked if I’d be willing to join a team of once lost and broken souls, to do exactly what I was trying to do on my own – I jumped at the opportunity. One person can help a lot of people if they really try – but just imagine how many people a team can help. This team is probably the best team there could ever be. We come from diverse backgrounds and struggles, but the one thing we have in common is we’ve all been judged and felt lonely in our darkest hour. Because of this, we’re the last ones to lay judgement – we know how it feels.

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“Each of the four of us has our own story and struggle. We are survivors of homelessness, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, discrimination, bullying, and poverty. We have been brought together to help bring awareness, acceptance and to give a voice to those that need to be heard.

Our mission is to feature real people with real stories that are raw, honest and inspiring by photographing, interviewing and sharing their personal experiences with care, compassion and acceptance.” – Humans of Edmonton Experience

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Being part of this team means so much to me – I’m  not alone in my mission to help those who struggle with acceptance and love. We’re in this together, and together we will change the world.

For those who do not follow on Facebook, the next four blog posts will be introducing the members of this team. I hope you’ll support and follow our journey in helping others. This is going to be life changing for so many people – and it’s going to be huge. You’ll want to be part of it, trust me.

You can follow Humans of Edmonton Experience on Facebook by clicking here.

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Why I cry at concerts…yeah, I’m THAT person

Music saved my life. On more than one occasion. I know how ridiculous that may sound to some people, but it’s true. I’ll be dedicating a different blog post to how one band/musician especially saved my life. This blog is about concerts and why I have cried at some, and once, almost peed my pants a little. (TMI?? Sorry)

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I don’t like music or musicians because they’re on the top 20 list and everyone else likes them. In fact, most (not all) of the musicians I love are bands that haven’t been heard of by the local radio stations (and most of my friends), some are bands that scare my mom (sorry mom) and some are bands that are no longer together but their music lives on. So what makes me a fan of these bands?

bif naked
Bif Naked Photo: Joy Zylstra

It’s because of who they are. What they’ve been through. What their songs mean to them, and how I interpret them. How their songs make me feel. I don’t listen to music just for the beat or because it’s a good song. I listen to music because of what it brings up inside me. Sometimes, these songs bring back memories and feelings (both sad and happy) from my past.

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The musicians that I love the most, are people who have suffered. Survived. Been hurt. They sing about this pain that they felt or still feel, and I relate instantly. My childhood was stolen from me when I lit the lighter that caused the explosion when I was nine years old. I have little to no memory of my life before my accident. After my accident, my life was far from normal and even further from easy or happy. I was a very angry teenager. I felt judged, like a freak, a loner, and so alone.

Music was my escape. Escape from life. Escape from pain. Escape from feeling alone. What I found in music, I was unable to find anywhere else. The lyrics spoke to me. The agony in the musicians voice as he/she sang their songs touched my heart and soul. I felt like these musicians understood me. Knew what I was feeling. Understood the feeling of being alone, scared and hurting. They understood the feeling of being judged and an outcast. They understood me, when I felt like no one else did.

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These musicians become more than a part of my CD collection (yes, I still buy CD’s and I always will). They become part of my heart. They give me the escape I need in life, still today. They get me, even though we’ve never met. I feel like I owe these musicians so much – I have so much gratitude in my heart for these musicians who have written songs that have saved my life. Because of the songs they write, because of the experiences they have gone through, or simply because they understand what life is like as an outcast – I no longer feel like I can’t get through life. There was a time when I was a teenager that I felt life was too hard. I tried to end my life three times. But then, I turned to my music. My bands.  They got me. They understood me. They saved me. I haven’t thought about suicide or anything even close to that in over 15 years. Thanks to music.

music saved my life

Because of how much music affects me so deeply in my life, getting the opportunity to see these bands live in concert is a feeling that I don’t know how to fully describe. I’m not obsessed with these bands. I don’t have their posters all over my room (although I did when I was teen). I don’t stalk them (although I’m certain I was a groupie in a past life). But I am a fan through and through. I just feel like I owe them so much. As mentioned, I am forever grateful for them giving me an escape and saving me. So when I see these musicians in person, my emotions, all my emotions, come rushing forward in the form of tears. The pain I’ve felt, the feeling of not being alone anymore, the understanding I feel from their music, the love I feel for these musicians and from these musicians. It all comes rushing up and I can’t help it. I cry. Tears of gratitude and happiness. Concerts are my happy place – and when I can see one of my favorite bands in concert, I am on cloud nine. I can’t control my emotions. It’s also not just the band that gives me such a high and wonderful feeling at concerts. It’s the other fans. Being in a room full of people who love the same band as I do, possibly for different reasons as well as the same reasons, is such a beautiful and incredible experience. We look out for each other, we share emotions with each other; for those couple hours we become family. We carry each other. Literally and figuratively.

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Photo: Joy Zylstra

 

Now, I’ve been to a ton of concerts (I’ve lost count) and I haven’t cried at all of them. There’s just a handful of bands that have brought that emotion to me in the moment. There was one concert where I was so grateful towards the band that when they came out on stage, I not only cried in excitement and gratitude, but I also almost peed my pants – I know. TMI. Sorry. But it’s true. I was so excited to see them. I’m sure you’ve been so excited and happy about something that you’ve had to cross your legs too to avoid an embarrassing situation (come on – admit it…don’t leave me hanging alone here). This band reciprocated the appreciation – during the two hour concert, they thanked their fans and showed so much love towards us, more than a dozen times. It was very clear that we, the fans, mean as much to them as they mean to us. The band? Five Finger Death Punch.

5FDP sign
I’ve never made a sign for a concert. Until I was seeing Five Finger Death Punch for the second time. Their music has impacted me so much, I needed them to know. The lead singer, Ivan Moody, signed the sign for me to show his appreciation.
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Five Finger Death Punch Photo: Joy Zylstra

When a band has earned me as a fan, I’m a fan for life. Their music will always mean more to me than they can ever possibly know.

I’ve included links to two songs from two of my favorite bands that mean so much to me, so maybe you’ll be able to understand a bit more of why I cry at concerts. They get me. It almost feels like these songs were written specifically for me, even though I know that’s not true. But it brings so many feelings inside my heart that these bands have earned my love and respect. Always. Because I owe them my life.

Five Finger Death Punch – Lift Me Up

In This Moment – The Fighter

Do you have a band or musician that makes you cry? What is your escape from the hard things life throws at you?

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My very personal review of the book, “Wonder” by RJ. Palacio

Freak. Monster. Alien. Ugly. Dirty. – My Review of the Book, “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio

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I stole the book “Wonder” from my daughter, because it was just collecting dust on her book shelf and I’d been told by numerous people that I need to read it (she’s not much of a reader, but I am trying to convert her). I saw the preview for the movie “Wonder”, and I couldn’t get through the preview without bawling my eyes out. Not only is it emotional to watch a child struggle through life, but it hit me hard because…I was that child.

I don’t want to give away too much of the book – if you haven’t read it yet, you should. But I was able to relate so much to the main character that I found it hard to put down, and not cry the entire time.

I wasn’t born disfigured. I was burned in a propane explosion when I was nine years old. The explosion left me with scars to 45% of my body – which included my face. In the book the main character, Auggie, was born with numerous birth defects. Some of which made his face look like he’d been burned. In fact, that’s what I thought had happened to him when I’d only seen the preview for the movie and hadn’t read the book yet. Some other characters in the book also assume he’s been burned when they first see him. This is probably part of the reason I bawled the entire time. He was a little burned kid entering school – that’s what it looked like anyway.

Even though he wasn’t burned, I found I was able to relate to Auggie in many ways. Besides the obvious – living life looking so much different than the rest of the world; Auggie also struggled with learning the answer to “why”. Why was he born like this? Why was I burned? It was a question that I struggled with for too many years. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I learned the answer and embraced it. The book ends before Auggie becomes an adult – in fact it’s only a year in his life, but I like to think that he too grows to find the answer as to why.

Auggie

Auggie had a hard time making friends. He held his head down a lot. He covered his face with a helmet or a hood or even with his hair. Here, I was unable to relate to him, but I was able to sympathize. Kids are mean. Adults are too. He was called numerous names. I was called names such as alien, monster, dirty, and the one that hurt the most was freak. Always by strangers. Kids or adults that I didn’t know. Who didn’t know me. The same was true of Auggie. Although most of the name calling and bullying occurred for Auggie directly in his school. I didn’t have to endure that, thankfully. I was surrounded by kids who knew what I had gone through, and even though I lost some friends and didn’t make others, the friends I did have had my back – no matter what. In Wonder, Auggie struggles making friends at first, but then when he finds himself in a bad situation with kids not from his school, he finds that kids who he didn’t realize were his friends, or even cared for him – also had his back. And the friendships started. And Auggie bloomed.

I loved that he would make jokes about his situation. Joke about how he looked. I did and still do, the same thing. I would make jokes with the nurses in the hospital. I joke about “blowing shit up”. You’ll hear me joke about my accident and scars before you’ll see me cry about them. Laughter is the best medicine. And if you can’t laugh at yourself, then how in the world will you handle when people laugh at you? Turn it around, and they’ll learn to laugh with you. And love you too.

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The end of the book did make me choke up. I won’t give away the ending (like I said, if you haven’t read it, you need to). The principal of Auggie’s school is giving a speech. And he quotes J.M. Barrie, “Shall we make a new rule of life…always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?” The principal goes on to say, “What a marvelous line, isn’t it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed…”

It is simply beautiful. And simple. And needed. The principal continues to explain what it being kind means and how do you know you’ve been kind. He quotes Christopher Nolan, “It was at moments such as these that Joseph recognized the face of God in human form. It glimmered in their kindness to him, it glowed in their keenness, it hinted in their caring, indeed it caressed in their gaze.” He goes on to say (and this part really hit me), “Such a simple thing, kindness. Such a simple thing. A nice word of encouragement given when needed. An act of friendship. A passing smile.”

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So will I be going to see the movie? No. I will not be going to a theatre to see it. Why after such a raving review of the book would I say no to the movie? Well, I’m not saying I won’t watch it. I’m saying I won’t go to a theatre to watch it. I look forward to watching it in the comfort of my own home, with my kids surrounding me watching with me, and a box of Kleenex beside me waiting for the inevitable tears.

I do have one complaint about this book. It is written from the point of view of Auggie, his sister, and friends. I wish there was a couple chapters from the point of view of his parents. What kind of emotions and struggles did the parents experience? Hearing my dad tell the story about my accident is pretty incredible, he tells it with such pride. Pride that his daughter survived something so insane. Hearing what my mom experienced brings me to tears every time. Mostly as a mom myself but who really likes hearing that their mom is hurting or scared? I think having the parents point of view in Auggie’s story would have been very powerful. But maybe that’s just me. Sometimes, I like crying.

I highly recommend reading this book, and encouraging your kids to read it as well. And your adult friends. I’d like to wish adult Auggie all the best. Maybe there’ll be a sequel to this book of adult Auggie conquering the world and moving mountains. Because I know he will. He has the same stubborn attitude I have. And I’ve only begun moving mountains.

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