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Finding Happiness and Self-Love After Escaping Death From Burning 90% Of My Body

“It was like starting life over again, except you know how to do things you physically can’t do, which emotionally drains you. There was definitely a sense of resentment and feeling sorry for myself, I think that is natural. You wonder what you did to deserve that, you wonder if things are ever going to get better, you wonder how people will treat you. When you are confined to a bed for weeks on end, really all you can do is wonder.”

Hello! Who are you?

My name is Connor McKemey, I am a professional speaker and a 2x best-selling author with the book Life Ignited: A Hopeful Journey, Sparked by Fire.

As a 90% burn survivor at 13 years old, I had to grow up fast and face an entirely new reality. With the help of an incredible support system, medical care, and teenage determination, I was able to overcome grim odds and regain my life. I went on to play and coach D1 lacrosse before starting my company MAC Mentality a few years ago, which is the brand behind the message. I am a big believer in the power of the mind and how all we need sometimes to turn things around, is a spark!

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What is your struggle and when did it start?

My accident took place in December of 2008. I was a typical middle school kid, I played football, basketball, and lacrosse, had a good group of friends and really not much to complain about.

The hardest thing in my life at that time was probably the fact that my dad was overseas serving our country in another tour. But it also made me closer with my brothers and I think during this time I spent so much time at practices and games it never really hit me.

I was also starting to get into the dating scene, as one would, and this particular night took place because I wanted to have a romantic first date with this girl I liked. We have an outdoor fireplace and so for me I thought it would be the perfect place to cook some S’mores, listen to music, and hang out while sitting under the stars. It was about as romantic as I thought you could be at the time, so after coming back from the gym and getting ready, all I had to do was get the fire started before she showed up.  

This was something we had done dozens of times before, but for whatever reason I couldn’t get the fire to stay lit. It kept going out and I was getting really frustrated, I was trying to get it going before she got here and I just kept flipping logs over and doing anything I could to make it work.

In my haste, I ended up knocking over a gas canister into the fire and there was a loud bang. I was now completely covered in flames and before I knew it I was knocked to the ground, patted out, and wrapped in towels. When I opened my eyes, my shirt was all but gone, my skin black and charcoaled, and from the looks of everyone around, things didn’t look good.

I got put on a stretcher, wheeled to the back of the ambulance, and that’s where it all cuts to black. I was burned 90%, 75% being 3rd degree, and was given a 1% chance of survival. The initial goal was to keep me alive long enough so my dad could get home and see me one last time. I was put in a medically induced coma for almost 3 months and when I woke up for the first time in mid-february, I was covered head to toe in bandages, missing a few fingers, and about 30 to 40 pounds.

How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?

Initially, it was devastating. I was in a completely new body, with new hands, feet, scars, and pains. I had lost the ability to even do the simplest of tasks and early on I would say my outlook on life was pretty grim.

It was like starting life over again, except you know how to do things you physically can’t do, which emotionally drains you. There was definitely a sense of resentment and feeling sorry for myself, I think that is natural. You wonder what you did to deserve that, you wonder if things are ever going to get better, you wonder how people will treat you. When you are confined to a bed for weeks on end, really all you can do is wonder.  

But this is where I think I benefited from being young and passionate and a little stubborn. I wondered why I couldn’t get back to playing sports again or living a normal life. I questioned the reality that was told to me and wanted to find ways to change the narrative.

Was it going to be difficult and painful? Without a doubt, probably the hardest thing I will ever have to go through, but I knew sitting around and wondering about all the negative things was never going to change the outcome. The best thing I could do was try and find out for myself what I can and can not handle and see just how far I can push my limits and see if I can start getting my life back.

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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?

For me things started to turn around when I made that first initial mindshift adjustment. Feeling sorry for myself and thinking negatively all the time was never going to make things better and it was never going to change my circumstances.

I am incredibly fortunate to be here and that is a start, let’s hold on to that and use that as the first bit of motivation I need to get the ball rolling. From there it was just trying to focus on getting better each and every day.  

When I finally was able to stand and take a step for the first time it was a monumental achievement. It didn’t seem like much and it was a long, long way from where I wanted to be, but it was a starting point. I just tried each day to take one more step than I did the day before and became addicted to that progress.

I knew if I just kept going further and further, eventually I would reach my goals, and within a few months I went from taking just a step, to walking around the whole facility. It all started from a change in my perspective and understanding that I have to focus on the things I can control, not the things I lost or can’t control.

What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?

I have always said that without the incredible amount of support and love I felt throughout my entire journey, my story could’ve looked a lot different. When I was down and feeling sorry for myself, they helped lift my spirits and kept me fighting in my darkest of days.

When I started to turn things around, it was seeing the smiles on their faces and the joy it brought them, that made the pain hurt a little less and the discomfort more with it. The first step was having that support system, it was crucial, because I never had to feel like I was going through this alone.

Then came the change in perspective, if you want to change your circumstances it starts with changing your mindset. Feeling sorry for myself was never going to change what happened to me, the sooner I can accept this new reality and start being active in my recovery, the sooner things will start to turn around. 

Those would be the first two things I would recommend to anyone in my shoes; lean on those around you for support and strength, and to focus on what you can control.

In my talks I use the phrase “controlling the controllables.” It is about focusing on what you can do now, not wondering what the future may bring or getting caught up in the past, which has come and gone. What I could do to get a little better both physically and mentally to keep the ball of momentum rolling in the right direction. Don’t give up on your dreams or your goals just because adversity strikes, those same dreams and goals were what I used as something to keep fighting towards.

Even if it seemed impossible, it was having that hope and belief that one day I could get there that allowed me to deal with the discomfort, the pain, and the anxiety.

Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?

What has helped me the most in life is having conversations with loved ones; some serious, some funny, but mostly about just having that connection with one another.

I think my situation would’ve felt more traumatic than it was if I didn’t have that safety and security with the people in my life. They didn’t treat me as anyone other than the same Connor they had always known and that allowed me to find love in my new body and new self. When I had my doubts or worries in life it was leaning on them to help weather the storm.  

I think I have always been a positive person or someone who tries to find the silver-lining. A lot of that is how I was raised and the people I gravitate towards, but I do know that some days are harder than others. We will go through periods in life of uncertainty and adversity, but when we rely on the strengths of others to help us it will always lessen the burden we bear.

If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?

Give yourself time to heal, physically but more importantly, mentally.

We are programmed to want that instant gratification or satisfaction, but with something this traumatic you have to give yourself time. Find peace in the progress and stay focused on your goals but just trying to get a little better each day.

By not trying to add pressure with time constraints, it allows you to maintain your momentum and not get caught up in what you are lacking or your distance from where you want to be. Be patient and allow yourself to heal inside to out.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?

I am someone who has always felt the best resource for me has been music.

I think we are able to express feelings and moments better through song, and for me a lot of my time sitting around in a bed was made better with just having tunes on in the background. I use music to help change my mood when I need to pick things up or keep me motivated, I have used lyrics to express feelings and make connections with audiences in my speeches, and for me there isn’t an emotion out there that can’t be relayed through music.

I listen to a wide range of genres, but anything that promotes a positive vibe or feeling definitely gets played. Rebelution, Bob Marley, Quinn XCii, and Matisyahu are just a few to name. 

Other than that, I would say the show Ted Lasso has been incredibly influential with my work and some of the messages I share are directly aligned with some of the themes and values in that show. Especially the power of belief and community which are at the center of the show’s success.

Is there anything else you think we should have asked you?

I always end interviews, sign books, and sign off with the same message, Stay Lit! A little reminder to all of us, myself included, to keep that flame inside of us burning.

Whether it is a raging fire or a little candle, as long as that flame is lit we have the ability to keep going and keep burning for a brighter tomorrow. Thank you for the opportunity to share my message with you all and never forget to Stay Lit!

Where can we go to learn more about you?

I travel the globe speaking to schools, businesses, non-profits, and entities; promoting a positive and productive message that engages audiences of all ages and backgrounds. I also do some one-on-one personal development and life coaching, with young professionals, athletes, and executives.

I share stories about the human experience for a living and take a lot of pride in seeing others reach their full potential. My unique perspective on life allows me to break down some of the traditional barriers we all hold on to and unlock the fire inside of us to start igniting our lives.  

To follow more about what we do with MAC Mentality check out our website or follow on Instagram or Facebook.

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

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Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.

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