Kristen Laird: Converting fear into fuel after trauma

A Microsoft intern shares how taking care of herself and staring down fear gave her the courage to move past trauma

Editor’s note: We got the chance to ask intern Kristen Laird about her struggle with PTSD and all she’s worked to overcome. She tells our writer her story in her own words.

In high school, I had a terrible accident that left me with severe burns.

There were only a few days left of my junior year, and I stayed after school to get help with a flame test for AP Chemistry. My professor put copper on a plate, poured methanol on it, and lit it; a green flame appeared as expected. He did three successful tests, but then there was an explosion.

No one knows exactly what happened, but the theory is that because of where I was in the room—right by the AC unit—vapors had collected around me. When my professor lit the next sample, the vapors ignited. Then, the flammable liquids on the table exploded, splashed on my skin, and started burning.

It was surreal. I remember looking down at my left arm and seeing green flames. I can still feel the heat wave.

Once the fire was out, I was rushed to the hospital. I had first- and second-degree burns on my face and arms, second-degree burns on my back, and third-degree burns on my right arm, which would need skin graft surgery later.

It took all summer to get better physically, but I was getting worse emotionally. I found myself looking up pictures of burn victims and fixating on memories of the accident. I fell behind in school, and the more stressed I became, the more trouble I had sleeping. Even though I was a perfectionist, totally driven by grades and achievements, I couldn’t bring myself to stay focused.

The thoughts became more intrusive, and the flashbacks became more frequent—that’s when my parents helped me find a therapist.

Learning to risk

I struggled for years, but with the support of many people to whom I am grateful I improved. Eventually I was no longer plagued by nightmares. However, I still couldn’t feel the heat of a bonfire or watch the flame of a candle without cringing.

I decided I was tired of being scared of fire. Just like the time I decided to join the debate team to overcome my fear of public speaking, I decided to become an EMT (emergency medical technician) and volunteer at the fire department. I wanted to be the kind of person who could walk into chaos and know what to do.

It took a couple of years, but I remember the moment that I felt free of the fear. I was at a house fire, busy helping, and suddenly I stopped, looked at the flames, and realized I wasn’t scared anymore.

As an EMT, I was fully present in the moment, actively making a difference in a role I could never have envisioned myself in years before. At the same time, I was becoming increasingly disenchanted with college. My crushing perfectionism had sucked the joy from learning. I was stuck firmly on a conveyor belt of expected achievement, and I didn’t know who I wanted to be outside of others’ expectations.

That’s when I saw a theme starting to emerge. To use my favorite quote from Seth Godin, “If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try.” The risky things that I try end up being the most important experiences in my life, and none of them ever lined up with any 5- or 10-year plan. Being a risk-taker is a learned skill.

Kristen Laird
Kristen Laird quotes Seth Godin, “ ‘If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try.’ The risky things I try end up being the most important experiences in my life, and none of them ever lined up with any 5- or 10-year plan. Being a risk-taker is a learned skill.”

Leaving college was terrifying, but I needed to grow as a person to discover who I wanted to be. Over the next few years, I traveled to Germany, spent a lot of time learning about mindfulness and self-care, held several wonderful jobs that ranged from designing emergency response trainings to running a college health center, and had a whole host of other adventures.

Eventually, I got interested in how technology can help medicine, so I decided to go back to college and study computer science. I applied for an internship at The Microsoft Garage, the place for Microsoft employees and interns that encourages experimentation. The Garage in Boston wanted to attract students from underrepresented groups and backgrounds to give them opportunities to unleash their ideas, follow their instincts, take risks, and exercise their creative muscles.

I felt like my theme paralleled theirs—to experiment and try something new, to not default to doing things the way they have always been done. And this summer, I will head to Redmond to do another internship at Microsoft. I would absolutely love to work on educational tools, like Microsoft MakeCode (a fantastic block coding interface that my team and I used extensively when we ran coding workshops for kids). For now, though, I’m excited to be joining a team working on something very different from my experience so that I can try something new and hopefully make a useful contribution while learning.

In high school, I was terrified of failure. So much of my journey has been learning how to let go of that. Now, I actively seek out opportunities to throw myself out of my comfort zone, and I’m excited about the collaborative brain power at Microsoft that can help me accomplish that.