You don’t know me (yet), but I was one of the thousands of people in the room laughing with you, crying because it’s you, and cheering at almost everything you said when you were in Calgary, AB this past weekend. I know you likely won’t actually see this, but I feel putting it out there into the universe can’t hurt.
Being able to see you and go to your show was a dream of mine. A couple of weeks prior to the show, my entire family (there’s a lot of us. Like, almost-need-to-rent-a-hall-for-family-get-together’s, a lot) , my husband and members of his family, surprised me with a beautiful hand-made card and two tickets for your Calgary show. I was shocked. Excited. And so incredibly happy.
July 25, 2018 will mark 25 years since the day my life changed forever. I was only nine years old and in a propane explosion on July 25, 1993. With 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 45% of my body, I was forced to live the rest of my life with scars. To celebrate my 25 year anniversary this year, I had decided to go to LA at some point this year and try my luck with getting tickets to your show. Although I still plan to do that, those who gave me the tickets to your Calgary appearance knew that would be just as amazing. They all made that dream come true for me. I will be forever grateful to each and every single one of them.
So you’d think with so many amazing people in my life I’d have a tough time choosing who to bring with me to the show. As much as I wanted to take each and every one of them, plus some others, it was a no brainer for me who I was going take. 25 years ago this summer my mom’s worst nightmare came true when the cabin I was in exploded. From the day she first became a mom (eventually there would be 7 of us kids in total), my mom’s first fear came to her – she never wanted any of her kids to get burned. She witnessed the horrible physical and emotional pain a burn survivor can go through when she was just a kid. Kids she grew up with next door were burned when someone threw a fire cracker into their tent. It scarred her in a different way, for life. I’m a mom now to three amazing kids, and I ache when they stub their toe. Despite her heart breaking, she stayed with me in the hospital. Her and my dad were by my side for every tear, every painful procedure, every laugh. Not once did I see my mom cry or show any signs of weakness. Years later when I became a mom and felt what unconditional love truly was, I asked her how she stayed so strong while I was healing. She looked at me and said, “Joy, you didn’t see me in my room before I went to bed”. That broke my heart. Of course, the explosion was 100% an accident. But that didn’t stop me from hurting for what my mom went through. And not just my mom – my entire family. Their lives changed forever on July 25, 1993 as well. But that’s for a whole other blog – coming July 2018. I knew that my mom was the one who needed to be by my side when my dream of seeing you live came true.
So finally the day came. I dropped my kids off at my sisters, picked my mom up and we were off to Calgary. Part of me was still thinking that maybe this was all still a dream. I couldn’t actually be going to see Ellen DeGeneres, was I??
Now, anyone who knows me, knows I’m a crier. So it’s no surprise to them that I cried a few times that night. I wish I could say that the first tear I shed that evening was when you came out on stage. But that wouldn’t be true. Although you brought on the tears a few times with certain things you said, the first set of tears came during the last song that the Tenors sang just before you came out. I can’t remember what the song was called, but it was all about dreams. Believing in your dreams. It was beautiful – because I’m a HUGE believer in my dreams and working to making them come true.
So to the point of this blog/letter to you – I wanted to thank you. First, for coming to Canada and so close to my hometown. Considering it was your only Canadian show, I feel so incredibly lucky that I was able to go. Second, thank you for being you. From the second you walked out on stage with a hockey stick in hand in tribute to the Humboldt Broncos and kissed it before you put it down, it was obvious to everyone in that stadium that you really do care about everyone, even those you’ve never met.
There wasn’t a second of the show I didn’t enjoy. It was easily one of the best nights of my life, and I was so happy to have shared it with my mom. My only regret – not bringing a pen and paper. With almost everything you said that night, I was inspired even more to just keep chasing my dream (aka just keep swimming). You are my inspiration.
So Ellen, I will see you later this year at some point. I’m going to let myself be greedy and see you twice in one year; I will still be planning a trip to LA to come see your talk show. It’s my gift to myself for surviving 25 years ago and living positively every day since that explosion, despite all the challenges I’ve faced having to live a “scarred” but beautiful life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“I’m not giving you any money. You’re just going to spend it on drugs or alcohol you dumb drunk.”
“Don’t look at me, don’t talk to me. You’re just a lazy beggar.”
“Get off our streets. You’re a waste of skin you dumb welfare junkie.”
Imagine not having eaten in days. Imagine having slept on a cold concrete sidewalk with nothing but a pile of leaves for a pillow, bugs crawling all over you and rain or snow pouring on you. Imagine going weeks without a positive human contact experience. Without a smile from a stranger. Without a hug. Without any sense of compassion. Imagine being literally spit on when you ask a stranger for some change so you can buy a hot meal. Imagine strangers looking at you like you’re no better than the dirt on the bottom of their shoes. Imagine not owning a pair of shoes. Can’t imagine it? It’s hard, I know. It’s hard if you’ve never been there, walked a mile in those shoes. How about we go for a walk, right now, a virtual one. One where you’ll be wearing the shoes of a homeless person, in many cases, you’re lucky if you have a pair of socks to walk in, let alone shoes. If you are one of the people who has said the things (or something similar) above, to a homeless person or about a homeless person, then my hope is that by the end of this blog, those words will be turned into care and compassion. And understanding.
This morning you probably woke up when your alarm went off and even though you didn’t want to leave the warmth and comfort of your bed you crawled out anyway because life calls. You grudgingly walked to your kitchen to put on the coffee and then went to the bathroom to begin your morning ritual. You hopped in your nice hot shower, same as you do every morning, and you washed your hair and did everything else you normally take care of in the shower. After your shower you looked through your closet and tried to decide what to wear. But first you checked the weather app on your phone to see what will be appropriate to stay warm/cool throughout the day. After you dressed you went to make a cup of coffee; the smell of it wafting through the house is so delicious you couldn’t wait another second to get your hands around a mug. You sat down for a few minutes enjoying your coffee and the few minutes of silence in your house before everyone else woke up. You woke your kids up, told them what the weather is going to be like, so they knew how to dress, then they came to the kitchen and you fed them a full, hearty breakfast. While they ate their breakfast, you made their lunches for school. You opened your fridge and gave the kids options of what kind of fruit and vegetable they want. There were so many options.
After breakfast, the kids took a few minutes trying to decide what jacket and shoes would match their outfit of the day. You all walked out of your house, you set your alarm and got to your vehicle, which has been running to warm up so you and the kids could have a comfortable ride. With the kids safely at school, you headed off to work.
Does that sound like your morning? Give or take a couple kids or a couple steps? Here’s where this walk we’re on may go off from your usual daily path…
You get to work and your boss calls you into their office. When you get there, a representative from the Human Resources department is there as well. This can’t be good. They explain to you that they just don’t have a position for you anymore. They have no choice but to let you go. All of a sudden, without any warning, you don’t have a job.
It doesn’t immediately hit you how big of a deal this is. You go through many emotions. Anger, sadness, confusion. You were a hard worker, you hardly ever called in sick, you didn’t take extra long lunch breaks. You worked hard. Why you? Why did this happen to you?
Soon, reality hits. You no longer have an income. Your partner doesn’t make enough money to sustain the house on their own. Worse, your partner’s hours got cut back, or they also lost their job. Or were you the sole income earner of your house? A single parent, or single person taking care of yourself. How are you going to do that now? The economy isn’t good. No one seems to be hiring.
Months pass. Unemployment Insurance gets cut back even more than the little you’re already getting. It’s not enough. Not enough to pay the rent/mortgage, bills, food. Before you know it, you’re hitting up the food bank to help put food on your table. But the bills keep piling up. You have to move. But where? You can’t afford the rent anywhere with no job and a bank won’t even look at you for a mortgage with no job. Soon, you find yourself knocking on the door of one of the shelters in the city. Your kids are put in foster care until you get back on your feet. But what if everything that just happened to you is too much to deal with. You have a mental breakdown. You turn to alcohol or drugs to mend the pain that keeps growing. Soon you find yourself somewhere you never imagined you’d ever be – tonight you had to sleep on the cold concrete sidewalk with nothing but a pile of leaves for a pillow, bugs crawling all over you and rain or snow pouring on you.
You still don’t think this could happen to you, right? What if I told you that this is exactly how a good number of Edmonton’s homeless population became homeless? Remember the Fort McMurray fire a couple years ago? So many people’s homes burned to the ground. Most had insurance that would eventually pay for them to have a new house built, and in the meantime they stayed with friends or family. Would you believe me if I told you that there were some people whose house burned down and they didn’t have insurance, or family to turn to so they are now spending another winter on the streets.
I’ve heard so many people, too many, ask of a homeless person “why don’t they just go get a job?”. Think about that for a second. Some of our homeless are wearing the same set of clothes for weeks or even years on end. Never washed. Some of our homeless don’t even remember the last time they had the luxury of even a cold shower, let alone a hot one. Their hair could be crawling with lice. Some, yes, some, are struggling with addiction. But not all. Some are just struggling to survive. Some don’t have bank accounts to receive pay from a job. And all of them, don’t have an address to list on the job application. So for those of you who wonder why the homeless don’t just “go and get a job”, answer me this: would you hire someone who hasn’t showered, is wearing dirty clothes, probably stinks due to no access to a shower, and who has no bank account or stable address? If you answer yes, please contact me ASAP – I have a lot of people who I’d like you to offer a job to. If you answer no, please show some compassion and understanding the next time you see a homeless person. You don’t have to give them money if you don’t want to. You could buy them a coffee or hot chocolate. Give them the apple left over from your lunch. But at the very least, the one thing you could give them that would mean the world to them and doesn’t cost you a thing is – a smile. Respect. Compassion.
A lot of people think that most people who live on the streets are aboriginals, drunks and/or drug addicts. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If you took the time to talk to some of our homeless people, which I have done, you’d learn that a lot of the homeless aboriginals are still struggling from what happened to them at the Residential Schools (look it up if you haven’t heard about those). They weren’t offered any help to learn to heal from the abuse they endured. They don’t know how to deal with it.
Some of our homeless population are kids who fled from abusive parents. Yup, you read that right. Kids. Living on the streets. Kids who were being abused or rejected by their own family. Kids who didn’t have anywhere else to turn.
Others are people who got into an accident and didn’t have insurance or coverage to help take care of their bills while they healed. Bills piled up. Collectors started calling. Eventually the bank took their home back. Notice how banks and bill collectors don’t really care what’s going on in your life? They have a business to run too – they just want their money. A lot of people who live on the streets are people who couldn’t stop falling behind while healing from an injury that prevented them from working.
There’s one homeless man who I met a couple years ago. He’s around the same age as me. He’s from the east. He had a wife and two kids. Losing his job hit him hard. He was the bread winner. It was his job to take care of his family. He fell into a depression. He ended up using some drugs to ease the pain. It worked, temporarily. Soon, he was addicted. And still depressed. His wife left him and took the kids. He ended up living on the streets. When I met him, his fingers were black. Frost bite from sleeping on the streets in our bitter cold winters. He’s still addicted to drugs. Still homeless. Still depressed. He misses his wife. He’s aching to see his kids. But he feels stuck. He’s afraid he’ll die on the streets. The sad reality is, he probably will.
I’ve met many homeless people over the years. I have yet to meet one who has chosen to be homeless. Many choose to stay living on the streets because they’ve been there so long that it’s their comfort zone. They don’t want the responsibility of paying bills. They’re content. But they didn’t initially choose to be there. And most of our homeless population would give anything to be in your shoes right now. I hope this walk in someone else’s shoes has helped to open your eyes if they were closed to this epidemic. I hope that you’ll find a way to help those less fortunate than you. Even if it is just a smile. A smile will last a lifetime. At the very least, we need to change the way the general population looks at and treats our homeless population. They’re people too. They deserve respect. They deserve love. They deserve to be treated like a human.
My daughter’s school is in the inner city. Where many homeless people live. Every day for a couple weeks we would drive by this homeless camp. She felt the urge to befriend the homeless man who was living inside. His name was Bruce. She would bring him some food every morning. Until one day we drove by, and his camp was gone. It happens all the time. Homeless camps are forced to be taken down about a week or so after they’ve set up their new “home”. Just as they start to get comfortable in their home. Their HOME. A tarp and cardboard box. A shopping cart with all their belongings. This is what people don’t see happening. Yeah sure there’s shelters – but they can only house so many people. Not near all our homeless population. And many homeless people do want a sense of home when they lay their heads down to sleep. But they’re denied that every time they’re forced to destroy their home and set up elsewhere.
So I hope I’ve dragged up lots of emotions within your heart by now. I’ve been experiencing so many while writing this. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever written because my heart just aches for those less fortunate. Those lost souls who just want to feel loved. I hope you’ll show them some love. How? There’s so many ways.
As mentioned earlier, a simple smile when walking past goes a long way. Spare change if you have – it doesn’t always go to drugs and alcohol. Sometimes, often, it goes to a meal or coffee. Food is also always welcome. But mostly love. Give love.
My daughter and I are arranging our 3rd annual Christmas Warmth on the Streets. We will be putting together care packages and handing them out to many of our homeless on December 22. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to give one to every homeless person, but we’d like to help as many as possible. You can help with that too if you’d like. The link to donate to the GoFundMe campaign is below but you can also contact me directly if you’d rather donate items. I will be sharing a list of items needed for the care packages on Scarred, Not Broken’s Facebook page.