In this episode, we are left nearly speechless by the story Carmen Tarleton so gracefully shares with us.
She was asleep in her own home when she was violently awakened by her ex-husband. She was beaten and assaulted in front of her two daughters before her assailant took it to unimaginable levels by dousing her with industrial strength lye.
Carmen clung to life for months in a medically induced coma while her doctors and her body valiantly fought for her survival.
When she awoke, it was to a new and shocking reality.
Carmen was severely disfigured from third-degree burns over 80% of her body. She was blind and had lost an ear, as well as a substantial portion of her face, to the burns.
The challenges Carmen Tarleton has faced in the years since are nothing short of immense and the will with which she commits to overcoming each one is positively inspirational.
Most women hope for something sweet on Valentine’s Day; candy, flowers, or a diamond ring from the man they love. But Carmen Blandin Tarleton got a different kind of gift on Valentine’s Day 2013. She got the eyelids she had wanted for so long, and she got a reprieve from the pain she’d endured for years.
Ever since the night of June 10, 2007, Carmen has been engaged in a live-or-die battle against physical and emotional pain. In an act of unimaginable violence, her ex-husband broke into her home, physically assaulted her, and threw chemical lye on her. The assault occurred in front of her two young daughters, who rushed to her rescue.
Since that night, Carmen Tarleton has been locked in battle with lethal adversaries. First it was the extensive burns over 80% of her body, and the infections those burns brought with them, that almost killed her.
Placed in a medically induced coma for three months, Carmen underwent the first series of dozens of surgeries she would receive over the years. Bit by bit she had skin grafts help restore her burnt skin, and several other procedures to slowly repair the damage, culminating in a full facial transplant.
The memories of the attack careened back to Carmen after she awoke. She was shocked and saddened and scared all over again. Still not fully aware of the extent of damage done, Carmen was strengthened by a vivid dream she experienced during her coma. It was a dream, she recalls, making it clear she should choose to live. That is the mindset she awoke with, and that is the mindset that equips her to make that choice every day, no matter what she is challenged with. Without this mindset, the next adversary she faced may have defeated her.
Emotional pain is easy to dismiss in the mind of anyone who has not experienced it. It can be a silent adversary, attacking its prey from within, or it can be loud and prominent, inflicted at will by others. Carmen has experienced both.
Warning, these images are graphic and may be disturbing to some viewers. Viewer discretion is advised. We’ve all seen and heard this warning before, right before we watch gratuitous or educational images of horrific proportions; images of concentration camps, rescued prisoners, slaughterhouses, murder victims, etc.
We know to steel ourselves for what is to come. We have the opportunity to shield our children’s eyes or usher them from the room lest they be emotionally harmed by looking upon such a sight. Yet when Carmen listened to a news story containing footage of her appearance at a court proceeding against her ex-husband, she realized that warning was about her.
“What did this mean? What did I look like?” Carmen wondered. She had been blind for two years, since the chemical lye burned her corneas. She could feel her face but she could not see it, and her family could not find the words to describe what she looked like to her.
She shares this experience in her book, “Overcome, Burned, Blinded, and Blessed.” Below is an excerpt from that book:
Oh, my God! They’re talking about me! They’re talking about me?……I touched my face. My skin felt bumpy, and my fingers traced scars and broken areas, but I had two eyes. A nose. A bottom lip. I was missing an ear, but it wasn’t as if half my face was gone. I couldn’t conjure a mental image of myself or envision how I could look bad enough to warrant a warning.
Carmen’s shock turned to frustration as she was struck with irritation at a society that felt the need to warn others about viewing a fellow human being. Who cared if she didn’t look like everyone else – if she wasn’t pretty?
“I’m still a regular normal person and I try to relay that,” Carmen says. “I’m not much different than anyone else.”
She knew then that she would ultimately have to confront her disfigurement. The one blessing of her blindness had been that she had been able to avoid focusing on her appearance and focus instead on survival, recovery, and family. Now she knew that she faced another adversary; Societal norms and knee-jerk reactions had entered the arena.
Immediately following that news story, Carmen accepted the challenge of this new foe. She called it her “Disfigurement Challenge.”
It was a learning process, with good intentions that initially backfired. Whereas she was now newly aware of what she must look like and conscious of how others saw her, she inadvertently focused on the negative aspects. This meant that in addition to her physical appearance, she projected a negative, uncomfortable energy that served as a one-two punch to the public.
During a bus ride to the doctor’s one day, this negative awareness was further reinforced by the terrified cries of a little girl whose father quickly fled with his child to the back of the bus. Carmen felt another burn from that incident. Would it never end?
At first it was her children that drove her to fight for her life. Now, she also lives for herself. But this shift did not come easily. Carmen had to first recognize what was preventing her from finding happiness she knew was still possible, and then she had to attack it.
[clickToTweet tweet=”I wanted to put more positive energy into the world than that negative 15 minutes that changed my life” quote=”I wanted to put more positive energy into the world than that negative 15 minutes that changed my life – Carmen Tarleton ” theme=”style5″]
She learned to manage her physical pain with mental fortitude more than narcotics. She learned to let go of what she’d planned on her life being, and focus on what it is. She learned to forgive her ex-husband for what he’d done, in spite of his remorseless attitude. And she incorporated those lessons she’s learned along the way into the ultimate trauma survival plan she uses to define her own path.
“Sometimes it’s really hard because people don’t see you as a regular person anymore. And that’s part of our culture and our society,” Carmen notes. So now she travels to schools and speaks to students, who she understands are the future of our society, and nips negativity in the bud.
“I was very disfigured. It was difficult for people to look at me. So I had to shine my inner light so bright that people could look beyond my scarred face.” Part of her approach to helping people look beyond her face is to first invite them in to her life by telling her story, acknowledging the obvious effect her appearance has on people, and then moving past it.
She is not a sugar-coater. When Carmen speaks to an audience, be it ten people or ten thousand people, she uses her story in vivid detail to capture people’s attention. Then she delivers her message of strength, compassion, and resilience.
She shares with her audience the pain of the attack, the fear and horror involved. She speaks of the anger and self-pity that held her hostage and her personal path to overcoming those captors. “We can be angry for years and that’s only stopping our own growth,” she says. “I want to live. I want to move forward. I’ve got things I want to do. I can’t be weighed down being angry at him (her ex-husband).”
She speaks unflinchingly of the path she found to forgiveness. She is open about what it’s like to have somebody else’s face, and she speaks with gratefulness and warmth about the bond she’s developed with her donor’s daughter.
Carmen Tarleton understands the power of her own commitment and perseverance, but she knows she also has another blessing to be grateful for.
“There is divine intervention. There is something way beyond what we can see. And I know that and when you know that – Boy, there’s power in that.”
It is this power Carmen has harnessed to overcome the challenges that continue to face her today. While she has regained some vision and enjoyed some years with minimal physical discomfort, she is now struggling with another disheartening setback; Her body is rejecting the facial transplant.
As a result of the numerous donor procedures, from blood donations to bone and skin donations from different donors, she is not a perfect match to her new face.
True to her style, Carmen is meeting this new and unwelcome development with a positive mindset and deep commitment to overcome it. “I don’t like it…but I made a choice to pursue this treatment so I can save my face. Right now it’s worth it to me and I have to keep reminding myself of that to move forward,” she says.
Make no mistake – it is not always easy for Carmen to keep this mindset. “I get to the point where I sometimes blame people but I know it’s crap. I take self-responsibility for my choices,” she explains. And she admits to moments where she allows herself to give in to the struggle – briefly. “I still cry, I’ve just learned not to do it in public.”
This self-awareness is also something she’s learned since the attack. She fought especially hard for it both in her effort to forgive her ex-husband and adjust to her disfigurement. Now she relies on all she has learned about herself to mitigate her weaknesses and maximize her strengths.
Carmen Blandin Tarleton’s story could be all about pain and suffering, but she has not allowed that to happen. Listen in to the American Snippets podcast where we interview Carmen and she shares more of her story with us.
The challenges came in waves over the years. One surgery restored some sight – and hope – only for her to lose it again. Triumphs followed by upsets. Pain followed with more pain. Her will to overcome is constantly challenged by financial, physical, and emotional adversaries. Yet time and again Carmen meets those challenges with the mindset she found in that dream.