By Liana Jacob
THIS MAKEUP ARTIST spiralled into a deep depression after therapy uncovered lost memories of childhood sexual abuse so disturbing that she lit herself on fire and burnt forty-percent of her body but has now gained confidence after taking part in a topless photoshoot.
Hairstylist and makeup artist, Stefanie Joanna Sowa (27), from California, USA, was just seven-years-old when she underwent hypnotherapy to avoid remembering the times she was sexually abused as a child.
Having increasingly bad anxiety as an adult and unable to figure out why, she agreed to do hypnotherapy with her therapist at the age of 23. She then uncovered lost memories from her childhood.
Shortly after this, Stefanie’s grandfather, who was her biggest male influencer, passed away, sending her into a spiral of deep depression.
Stefanie later discovered that she was lied to by her parents and doctors about the medication she was taking and that she had been taking mood stabilisers since she was just 13-years-old. After years of doubting herself and discovering new truths, she decided that death felt like the only option for her.
In April 2016, Stefanie grabbed a bottle of lighter fluid and poured the contents all over her body, picked up a lighter and lit it, watching the blue flame spread up her arm, across her chest and down her left arm.
She ran outside screaming, with her bra underwire burning through her skin. Her sister and her sister’s boyfriend looked at her in horror. Still screaming, Stefanie’s vision went black and she could hear her mother’s voice trying to soothe her after smothering the fire on her body with a towel.
She woke up in the intensive care unit (ICU) a month later with 40 percent of her body burned and has since had undergone over 50 surgeries.
“Hypnotherapy caused me to struggle with reality. I was hypnotised as a child at the age of seven to not remember violent acts of sexual abuse,” Stefanie said.
“At the age of twenty-three, I was seeing a therapist to deal with some anxiety. We decided to do hypnotherapy and ended up recovering a lot of lost memories from my childhood.
“Stunned by all of this, I stopped going into work and lost my job. Shortly after this, my grandfather died sending me into a very deep depression. He was my biggest male influence growing up.
“I became miserable and unable to concentrate in school because of the massive dose of mood stabilizers I thought I had to take. My grades dropped, I fell behind in school, gained weight, and would sleep seventeen-hours-a-day given the chance.
“Everything became a struggle after I started taking this mood stabiliser medication. So, accepting that nearly everyone in my life whom I’d trusted had lied to me for years was difficult to say to least.
“No-one in my family would admit to what happened. The only confirmation I had was through my memories.
“After constantly seeking validation for my new-found truths from friends, family, and doctors, I kept coming up short. No one would validate my truth. So, I started to doubt it myself.
“After two years of running around like a chicken with its head cut off, death sounded like the only peace of mind I was going to get.
“So, one day while I was at home, I grabbed a bottle of lighter fluid off my shelf and squeezed its contents on myself in a circular motion until it was empty, tossed it on the floor and picked up a lighter.
“I even stopped for a moment and thought: ‘I don’t have to do this. I could go shower and wash all of this off right now. Or I could light this lighter, see what is real, and ashes to ashes, it will all be over.’
“Then I lit the lighter, it didn’t light the first time, so I lit it again. There was a moment before it grabbed a hold of me that I thought ‘Maybe this lighter fluid isn’t even real.’
“It caught my right arm and I watched as the blue flame spread up my arm, across my chest, and down my left arm; now encasing my entire upper body with flames.
“I thought my body would go into shock right away, but it didn’t. I ran outside screaming, trying desperately to get my bra off as the underwire burned more than the rest.
“I looked at the waterfall that my parents haven’t filled for years due to maintenance. I saw the hose tucked back beside the fence.
“Knowing full well there was nothing I could do at this point, I turned and saw my sister, her boyfriend, the horror on their faces standing next door. Still screaming, my vision went black.
“I could hear my mother’s voice trying to soothe me, repeating: ‘shhh shhhhh, it will be okay’. I could feel her holding me from behind rocking me gently until I blacked out.
“I woke up in the ICU a month later with forty-percent of my body burned; my mum smothered the fire with a towel.
“I finally got the support I needed when I woke up in the hospital. My faith in humanity has been slowly restored by countless acts of kindness.
“It’s been a struggle with the physical pain, but my friends, family, and doctors stepped in and made the emotional part nearly painless.”
Stefanie has had multiple skin grafts, skin expanders, Z-plasty, a plastic surgery technique that is used to improve the appearance of scars, reconstructive and release surgeries to loosen scar bands. She has been having laser treatments every six weeks.
She credits her doctors, Dr Matthew James Reiss, who was her trauma care plastic surgeon, who performed most of her reconstructive surgery and Dr Vimal K Murthy, who saved her life after the incident.
“My recovery process has been a rollercoaster of pain. As soon as one thing heals, usually before it was entirely healed, we would move onto the next,” she said.
“I’ve gone back to work multiple times before this year when I decided to just focus on healing. Giving myself time to heal was the best thing I could’ve done for myself.
“I felt very lonely in the beginning. There wasn’t much I could do except lay in bed and sleep, shower, eat, and back to bed. Cleaning my place was a task all in its own.
“Time passed a lot quicker once I started getting out of the house. Tom Sky, a very talented photographer and friend of mine suggested we do a photoshoot.
“He was the only one willing to lay out at the beach with me topless. That was how I started gaining my confidence back.
“Before the burns, I lost hope in humanity. When I was in the ICU for three months I received countless cards and letters from people I’ve never met, churches in Tennessee specifically.
“My kindergarten teacher Donna Ruggles had her children make a poster for my hospital room. People who I haven’t talked to in years went out of their way to send me kind words.
“I went from wanting to die to fighting to live. I’ve realised that I am enough. Regardless of where I am in life and where I want to be, I’m still worthy of happiness, love, respect, and living. I can legally be topless now too.
“It gets better. If the burns are the worst thing about you, you’re doing pretty well. People care less about your looks than you probably realise.
“Confidence is the sexiest thing you can wear. Don’t let anyone tell you to cover up your scars. For every person who gets uncomfortable with you being comfortable, there are ten more who applaud you for being the change this world needs to see.
“Your body is just a vessel to carry your awesome personality. You’re just as valuable as you were before your burns, but now you’ve gained an entire community of new friends and supporters.”