Woman set herself on fire to get over memories of being sexually abused

A woman has told how she was left with 40% burns to her body after setting herself on fire in a bid to get over being sexually abused.

Stefanie Joanna Sowa, 27, from California, was just seven when she underwent hypnotherapy to avoid remembering the times she was sexually abused as a child.

After experiencing bad anxiety as an adult and unable to figure out why, she agreed to do hypnotherapy at the age of 23.

But this uncovered lost memories from her childhood.

And to make it worse, 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 lit herself on fire and watched the flames spread up her arm, across her chest and down her left arm.

She ran outside screaming, with her bra underwire burning through her skin.

After years of doubting herself and discovering new truths, she decided that death felt like the only option for her (Picture: Stefanie Joanna Sowa / MDWfeatures)


Her sister and her sister’s boyfriend looked at her in horror. 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% of her body burned and has since undergone over 50 surgeries.

She said: ‘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. ‘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.

‘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.

She added: ‘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.’

Fortunately, Stefanie survived her attempt at taking her own life and is now on the road to recovery.

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 also been having laser treatments every six weeks. She said: ‘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.’

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 Murphy, 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.

‘I went from wanting to die to fighting to live. I’ve realised that I am enough. ‘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.’


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