“I kept running away and chasing rainbows that were not there.”
Lily Chatterjee loves life and it shows. She’s a stand out in a crowd and not just because she is a
self-described “fashionista,” but because she has always seems to be having fun and is very present. But Lily has had a long, hard struggle to gain such inner peace and joy. She survived a harrowing accident only to face major life challenges: an expensive legal odyssey, lack of health insurance and PTSD, as well as coping with major alterations to her face and body. To understand Lily, you need to go back 25 years…
TBF: What happened?
LC: It was a sunny and crisp California winter day, Friday, December 10, 1987 in Pacific Grove, California. I had just moved there from the Midwest to get away from a reckless life and perhaps find some meaning in the concept of “California Dreaming.” I remember this day clearly. I can describe it in detail up to the time of the accident.
I was driving 1967 blue VW Beetle (with “C’Ya” painted on it) up Holman’s Highway in Pebble Beach. I was with a work colleague, B.J. and she and I were heading home to Pacific Grove. I remember a flash of light, a scream, a loud sound, and Bang! My recollection is that we hit a tree. What I was told later on after I regained consciousness days later was that I had hit a Cadillac head on. The driver was coming down a very dark and curvy road while I was driving up. I remember that I thought the car was in our lane, so I swerved and crashed. The driver of the Cadillac sustained a minor cut on his forehead. He had been fixing the car for a mechanic’s class in high school and was not checked or searched for consumption of alcohol or illegal drugs.
The next thing I remember was waking up and feeling excruciating pain in every part of my body. An inner voice from deep within my gut let me know that I had been through something horrific. I knew I would get through it but that it would take time and not be easy. I remember opening my eyes and just seeing bright lights and whiteness everywhere. Slowly, things and people started coming into focus. I had no idea where I was or what was real or a dream state.
TBF: Was anyone there with you?
LC: Kevin, my boyfriend at the time, was by my bedside. I believe my mom had arrived by this time. She flew in from Michigan. The doctor came to my left side, he had a soothing voice and spoke softly and gently. He laid his hand on my bandaged hand to explain what had happened. “You were in a terrible car accident,” he said, “you have serious life threatening injuries. You’ve been unconscious for several days.” I looked down at my body - or what I could see of it - and saw that I was wrapped in bandages from head to toe, just like a mummy.
TBF: That must have been both a very surreal and very disturbing experience. Clearly you were badly injured.
LC: I had multiple fractures, second and third degree burns on my hands and face. Multiple fractures consisted of a compound fracture of the left femur, a shattered right pelvic/hip socket, multiple broken ribs, fracture of the left tibia, left wrist, etc. and abrasions of on different parts of my body. The fractures were explained to me in graphic detail - very graphic.
TBF: And you were burned as well?
LC: Yes. But they felt the fractures were more of concern then the burns. Concerns of “will I be able to walk again?” As for the burns, maybe 30 percent or less. Let me explain how I got burned. I was driving a 1967 Volkswagen bug. The fuel tank was in the front of the driver’s wheel. After impact, the fuel tank ignited and my head went through the windshield. I had put my hands over my face to protect myself from the flames. I was wearing a suede jacket at the time that ended up being my life jacket, if you will because it protected me and prevented my chest and rest of my body from being burned.
As the doctor continued to tell me all this, I heard someone screaming in the room next to me. I had thought it was BJ who was the passenger in my car. I wanted to know how she was doing. The doctor replied, “they’re taking care of her.”
TBF: What happened next?
LC: A California Highway Patrol officer approached my gurney abruptly. He asked me if I remembered what happened before and during the accident. I answered with what I recalled, but I was also hesitant because I didn’t understand why he was there asking me these questions. I remember glancing towards Kevin and my mom for reassurance and guidance. But my father had always taught me to respect someone in uniform, so I did. I answered his questions. Then he concluded with what he felt had happened and began to read my rights and those words I will never ever forget, “You are under arrest, you have the right to remain silent, you have the right to an attorney.” I kept looking at my mom and Kevin. What is going on? The doctor came in, I believe he was the one who asked the CHP-rookie to leave.
TBF: I cannot even begin to imagine how you felt after that. You must have been so confused and disoriented.
LC: That is when the doctor told me what actually happened. BJ did not make it. She was not in the room next to me. Those were not her screams I heard. She had died on impact. The doctor continued to tell me with great solace that she had she lived, she would have been a quadriplegic. It didn’t matter what the chance would have been. She was dead. She died and I was being held accountable for her death.
TBF: Describe your feelings at that time.
LC: Sadness, disbelief, and horrified of what was to come next. The living nightmare was getting worse.
TBF: What happened? Were you charged?
LC: Yes. Initially I faced first degree murder charges which carried up to 15 years in prison. I also faced a series of other charges ranging from driving under the influence to reckless driving. The first degree murder charges were lowered to vehicular manslaughter which carried a 3 to 5 year term in a women’s correction facility.
I remember standing out side of court with my cane in one hand and leaning on the balcony looking out to the Cyprus trees. I was still wearing my U-vex mask (clear plastic mask to pressurize the scar tissue on my face) and was in a pensive state of mind, thinking how my life had changed so dramatically in mere seconds and how it was about to change again when the judge announced his decision.
My father walked out to the balcony where I was standing with my head bowed. He put his hand on my hand and I looked up at him with tears welling in my eyes and said, “I am not a murderer.” Then I bowed my head down and tears rolled down my face. My father felt so much of my pain and more so. He took out a second mortgage on the house to pay for the attorney fees.
It was extremely uncertain and frightening that I would be held accountable for the death of BJ. When my sentencing came to a final decision. I was given probation, fines and forever the weight on my heart of BJ not alive.
TBF: Did you ever speak to BJ’s family?
LC: BJ’s family did not press any charges against me and no, I never met them. I find this is one of the closures I have not come to as of yet. The amends that I have longed for but perhaps hidden from as well. I don’t know.
TBF: It’s now 25 years later – what kind of an impact did the accident have on your life?
LC: My life continued to have its ups and downs. Many conflicts occurred with my scars. I thought I was not wanted or desired because of my scars. But when I saw others with prominent scarring who were in relationships I thought there was something was wrong with me. I realize now that it was not my scars; it was my lack of self-love. I was clueless. I had no idea - absolutely no idea - how to love myself. I sought love in dark and dangerous places. Where love was unavailable but lust was not.
I should also mention that I was uninsured. I became a ward of the state of California. It was a long haul. In order to work to gain insurance to have reconstructive surgeries - it was grueling and awful. I wore the Jobst garments and masks and had to wear tubes in my nose to keep the nostril airways open. I was a guinea pig for one surgeon who performed micro vascular surgeries, flaps and so on, much of which was unnecessary;
God wanted me to recognize in myself the love that was always there but I had to search long and hard for it. I cannot blame anyone for the naïve and poor choices I made. I kept running away and chasing rainbows that were not there.
TBF: Can you describe some of those poor choices – but only if you feel comfortable in doing so. I only ask in the hopes of helping others who might be struggling.
LC: My father had his own demons with alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs. It just got worse and worse. I could not be around the alcohol so I kept running. My battle with alcohol grew and grew. I masked behind it, the more I grew older and more it became my best friend after my father died on July 13, 2006.
I would go to the World Burn Congress and just mask away my feelings. I would party hard and have fun. But I was always aware of how much I missed. I was extremely hurt and confused.
It took a few more trials and tribulations for me to realize that I had reason to pay it forward.
TBF: How have you coped with this emotional and psychological burden?
LC: During the first three years after my accident starting in 1989. I had gone through trauma psychological therapy with Dr. Clinton E. Tempereau at was then known as the Sherman Oaks Burn Center now known as the Grossman Burn Center. He had helped me tremendously and stuck it out with me through some major challenges. Coping is something that is now an everyday practice for me. I have my life tool belt that is quite heavy with all the wonderful tools it has to carry me through adversities, emotional challenges and life’s circle.
Twenty-five years later, I am learning, growing and maturing in full spirit. After an accident, you just don’t recover and move on. Uh yes, that is it. Many of us do but do not have our Life’s tool belt with us. I am acknowledging how I have closed doors, masked away my emotions. All the shame, guilt and sorrow that balled into anger erupted frequently. Volcanic eruptions. Why? Because I did not have the coping tools. I did not learn how to deal with Post Trauma Stress Disorder.
We just had a conversation about that at WBC 2012 in Milwaukee. I totally get it now. I get what it is about. And it needs to be addressed so much more than we give time for it. PTSD is not an excuse it is a condition after a traumatic experience. That is a whole another chapter.
TBF: You’ve talked about hidden shame – can you tell me more about that?
LC: I have lived with hidden shame and remorse for nearly 25 years. This part of the story has kept deep inside of me. Over the last ten years, I have shared this in public talks once or twice. BJ died. Had she lived, she would have been sixty-one years old today. Did I know BJ well? I had just met her at work. We were co-workers. I will continue to carry that cross through the rest of my life.
I have never really shared about me, about my burns, my accident. This year at World Burn during an Open Mic session, I shared just enough, the very private part that I keep to myself. I shared that a person/ the passenger had died and that she had a name. I said her name. It took me a few long minutes to release this sacred part but I did. I ended with my gratitude towards certain individuals, not all names were mentioned but they knew who they were. I thanked them and the Phoenix-Society for the support they have given me throughout since 1997. They have witnessed me at my lowest and now at my humblest. One of mentors, said to me, “Well done kiddo, well done.”
After attending a break out session “Recovery and Addictions”, the topic was about shame. It was a break through for me. I believe I have kept it private not to hide so much, but because this part is so sacred to me. As well as the hidden shame. Very much the hidden shame.
TBF: Tell me about the rest of your journey.
LC: Ten years of reconstructive surgeries on my face. I juggled college and surgeries simultaneously. I received my bachelor’s in Journalism with an emphasis in Photojournalism in 1996 from Michigan State University. I had a sense of direction for a while. I wanted to pursue my Master’s at the New School For Social Research in New York City, but for whatever reason that did not happen. I sunk into a deep loss of what to do. I ended up back in California - this time San Francisco Bay area. Started from scratch of finding a place to live and a job. I had support from dear friends. But knew in my heart I did not want to be there. Eight years later I was able to leave and no, “I did not leave my heart in San Francisco.”
TBF: What happened next?
LC: My father was ill, he was on his last days little to our surprise. I ended up back home to be with him in my home that I grew up. There was a lot of forgiveness, healing and love during his last week with us. It has been six years now that he has died. I know he is at eternal peace and I would like to believe that BJ is also.
I did not come full circle to who I am and comfortable in my own skin until recently. There were so many unresolved issues that I was not able to come to terms with and surrender to. The key word is “surrender”. What a freedom to have.
TBF: What is your personal philosophy?
LC: To be grateful for you own well-being and pay it forward to help others for the sake of their well being.
TBF: Who do you most admire and why?
LC: People with adversities who do not make them look like as adversities.
TBF: Tell me something most people don't know about you.
LC: Due to my injuries, I do not have the mobility to physically run. I love the water. Love it but I have a fear of the unknown beneath the waters. I would like to overcome that by learning to scuba dive. This in itself is a fear.
TBF: What's the best piece of advice you would give to a new burn survivor?
LC: You are not alone.
TBF: What is the best piece you would give to people who meet a burn survivor for the first time?
LC: Be mindful, respectful, caring and not afraid. Don’t try so hard.
TBF: In what way has your experience transformed your life?
LC: Acceptance. Who I am from within is what truly resonates through my heart for others to see.
TBF: Is there anything you feel strongly about that you would like to share?
LC: Faith. The spirituality that can evolve from within keeps your faith alive and strong. Masking you pain will not help your heal. It will only get worse. It took me a very long 25 years to figure that out.
TBF: Where are you in your life now?
LC: I am home in East Lansing, Michigan. I live in the home I grew up in with my mother. I never thought that would happen. Positive energy is what we share for the most part.
I am ready to meet “someone” but my threshold is set high. I have learned that I have every right to set it high. But have also accepted that this may be my life living single. I will be 25 x 2 on November 14th, 2012 and 25 years rebirth on Dec 10th, 2012. My life is now an adventure of serenity. Happiness is a daily practice. To recognize my weaknesses, my strengths and to know that the best I can be is to listen, observe and be mindful towards other people.