Calley Steel, MA LPC
Desert Star Addiction Recovery Center
I recently sat with a new client. She, like so many of my clients had experienced multiple childhood traumas in the form of neglect, abuse, and chaotic family dynamics. She’d struggled with an eating disorder in the past and cycled through several addictions before finding her way to my office. As we explored goals and what she hoped therapy would help her with, she identified that ultimately she cannot find peace with her body. She’d been able to stop her disordered eating behaviors and find long term sobriety, but she’s struggled with body image her entire life and it seemed to be the most impossible part of her mental health to change/heal. We explored the factors that led to her body image struggles and we talked about metaphors that fit for her. This was the one that made the most sense to her: Your body is like a car. It’s the vessel that gets you from place to place. Cars come in different sizes, shapes, colors. Sometimes they get dented or scratched from the bumps of life. Some of those things are easy to cover, some not so much. Cars need fuel, they need maintenance (oil changes, new tires, repairs after so many miles of driving, new wiper blades, etc.), and as the driver of that car, we need to take care of our vehicle so that it will continue to take us places in the most efficient way possible. If we don’t put gas in it, it’s not going take us far…etc.
Now, imagine what happens when you’re in a car accident. A trauma. The car gets pretty damaged. But the car survives the accident- it’s repaired at the body shop. You go to pick it up and it looks fine from the outside, or at least it’s drivable… but suddenly, you see the car and you remember the accident. The fear, the powerlessness, the guilt (“did I check my phone at that moment? Was I at fault?”), the self-doubt (“Can I still get in this car and keep myself safe? What if it happens again?”), the terror (“I don’t want to drive again”), and the pain. You don’t want to get back in the car again. It feels too scary, too uncertain, too dangerous. You freeze. You can’t get back in… yet. Now… rationally you know you need to drive to live your life. It’s not convenient or reasonable to rely on others for rides all the time. It makes no financial sense to take an uber everywhere when you have a perfectly drivable car in the garage. You just don’t know how to get back in.
Then well intentioned therapists, friends, and self-help books all say- “the trick is you just have to start loving the car again. Just put a sticky note on your wheel that says “I love you car- You’re beautiful.”’ You look around at all the other people driving to work like it’s no big deal and you start feeling ashamed that you can’t just be “normal” like everyone else. You blame the car. You blame the accident. You blame yourself. But you’re stuck- because the advice to just “love the car more…” feels confusing at best. I like this metaphor because it’s obvious the answer here isn’t affirmations (at least not yet), but it does help us better understand the problem. Cars don’t need affirmations to run; they need fuel, oil changes, maintenance, a good wash now and then. They need care, and so do we. After a trauma (or a lifetime of living in a body war zone), it’s not enough to simply change the words we use when we think about our bodies; it’s about learning to respect that thing that is always with you, never leaves, and carries you through this life. And in order to do this, it requires time, attention, respect, intentional action, and care (hence self-care). In the same way we need to care for our cars in order to keep them running efficiently, we need to care for our bodies and work to rebuild that incredible relationship.
So let me ask you- how do you want to start caring for your vessel?