After over two years of preparation, planning and patience, the new painting for my office has arrived. For me, it captures a large part of who I am and how I work as a psychologist. At a basic level, I’m a car nut and a racing fan. Formula One car racing is playing “chess” at over 200 mph on a track with the best drivers in the world driving cars that are technological marvels. Lots of drama and excitement there. But at a deeper level, the scene in the painting represents my work as a psychologist with my Orange County clients. Let me explain the painting and the story it tells.

When I saw the photograph titled, “Survivor,” it spoke to me so much about therapy and growth that I had it morphed into a painting. The image was of Niki Lauda sitting in his race car with terror visible in his eyes, something unusual for this straight-shooting confident man. It was taken at the Monza Grand Prix of 1976, just six weeks after being given the last rights by a priest and nearly dying in a horrific, fiery crash that left him severely burned and very ill from inhaled toxic smoke. Lauda had crashed hard enough to knock his helmet off and trap him in the car as it ignited into an inferno. After over a minute of being burned alive, another driver dives into the flames and manages to pull him from the wreckage. For days he lay on the edge of death, not so much from his skin burns as from the fire and toxins he inhaled while the car burned around him. Yet only six weeks later, he is back in a racing car putting his life on the line again. The look on his face makes it clear that while he has “survived” his crash, he is clearly not free of the trauma.

In recent interviews, Lauda said, “I came to Monza on Friday and suddenly the whole crash overtook me. I panicked.” He drove around the track in first gear, unable to will himself to go faster. “I was afraid and couldn’t make it,” said Lauda. He recognizes now that it was a mistake to get back in the car that soon after such an experience. He was able to drive again physically, even with the blood soaked head bandages, but not ready mentally. It all finally unravelled for him on the last race of the season, with the championship his for the taking. There was a huge rainstorm that day and Lauda came in after two laps. “Panic-stricken,” he parked the car and gave up the championship. A slippery, wet track and the possibility of crashing again was just too much for Lauda, especially when he was still internally reeling from the crash that almost cost him his life.

But Lauda did recover. He went on to win the next year’s championship and another one after that. So let’s look at what three-time world champion Niki Lauda can teach us about the road to recovery, and about moving beyond survival to get our lives back into top gear again.

Acknowledging the Wounds

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After crash in a coma

Lauda never lost consciousness after his crash, until slipping into a coma in the ambulance. There is video of him walking and moving around, talking to others and even feeling the burns on his head. I’d imagine he would even have said to others in that moment that he was okay. Clearly he wasn’t, but the full impact had yet to be felt even though he appears to be mostly fine in the minutes afterward.

Lauda reminds me of many clients who come for therapy. They’re blocked in their life or relationships and confused about why they just can’t seem to do any better. Then I hear the history that they have “survived” and it all makes sense: loss, loneliness, neglect, abuse, divorce, job loss, health crisis. They have survived their “crash,” but the pain, sadness and fear from those events has yet to be processed and worked through. When I suggest that it looks like they’re still “stuck in first gear” and that it doesn’t look like the past is done for them yet, I hear things like this: “I’ve forgiven and forgotten;” “I can’t change the past, so why dwell on it;” “I’ve moved on;” “I don’t think it was that bad;” or “Other people had it a lot worse than me.” In reality, the good and bad from a person’s life experience come forward with them, and the bad parts often need help from others to finally be done. So to begin the process of healing, you first have to acknowledge there are wounds.

Time Does Not Heal Wounds

Whoever came up with the saying “time heals all wounds,” probably never had a serious wound. I know what would have happened to a gash on my leg a few years ago (a rather nasty sledge hammer accident) without proper treatment: it would have become infected and I would likely be dead. Wounds need proper care and attention to heal, and the emotional and mental hurts of life also need care if they’re ever going to heal. Someone reflected to Lauda that he always seemed cool, collected and pragmatic. He replied, “I am emotional, but I don’t show it. I protect myself. I’m always being watched, so I cover myself. I cry easily when I see a stupid movie. I don’t know why, but I cry.”

I really enjoy Lauda. He’s a character and always good for an interview or quote. I just hope that he had a psychologist or someone close to him where he could let down his guard and feel his feelings. A relationship where he could feel the emotional impact of his near death experience and receive the comfort and processing that it needed, so he could move beyond survival. It would be tragic if he were still carrying around the trauma of his crash by intellectually dismissing or rationalizing the fear, keeping it buried and allowing it to slow him down from all that he was meant to be.

Beyond the Obvious Wounds

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Soon after returning racing

The severe burns on Lauda’s face that you can see in the painting are the obvious part of his injury, but not the worst part of the damage. Being the pragmatist that he is, Lauda never had any other surgery to repair the burns on his skin, other than grafting in new eyelids since his were burned off. But it was the burned and toxin-filled lungs that almost killed him, and have continued to cause ongoing pain and problems. His lung capacity has never been the same, and he has had two kidney transplants after his own were damaged by the toxins circulating in his blood from the crash. In the same way, it’s easier to focus on the most obvious symptoms or signs of injury and miss the deeper harm.

A client came to me for therapy some years ago, wanting help with obsessive compulsive behaviors that were interfering with their ability to drive and be in public. It would be easy to place the focus on the obvious anxiety and miss the much deeper problem. When we dug down, there was actually a tremendous amount of bottled-up anger and sadness over a childhood filled with emotional and relational abuse. All that emotion had been held in because of the toxic belief coming out of the abuse: that he was bad and deserved it. Spending the time healing this deeper, less-obvious wound allowed for true healing to begin and the anxious behavioral problems stopped.

Adversity Into Advertising

It’s rare to see Niki Lauda without a sponsored, bright red baseball cap. Whether he’s at a racetrack or a black-tie dinner, the baseball cap is always present. It’s actually become somewhat of a trademark for him. He makes millions a year wearing sponsored hats, and no one questions whether it is proper or not because of the burns they cover. Here is a man who has turned a trauma into a money-making endeavor. No doubt he would prefer not to have been burned, but he has used an unchangeable reality to his advantage in ways that others never could. The crash and the racing season for 1976 was such a story that it was recently turned into the movie, Rush. Lauda has turned his trauma into a triumph, and so can you. Heal the wounds in a healthy way and you move beyond surviving.

A Necessary Crisis

The terrible crash for Niki was a moment that transformed him instantly in so many ways.  Obvious was the burned skin, but this horrible crisis had also changed him as a human being.  A reporter recounted how before the crash Niki “…was very shy, he was talking only about the cars and not giving any concession to the human side. After the incident, I found a completely different man. He became a real man, very deep, very human.  It was good, because the second person was better than the first.  The first was only a wonderful driver, the second person was still a wondeful driver and a wonderful man.”

No one in their right mind chooses a crisis or invites it into their life.  I’ve personally never said how wonderful the pain, the fear, the struggle is when facing those myself.  Yet, it’s these crisis situations that are often required to break through areas within ourself that are in desperate need of change if a better version of ourselves is ever to be seen.  You may not want the crisis, but it may be the only thing that can actually save you from yourself.

Healing Takes Time

Ever get impatient? Me too! Living in the fast lane of Orange County, the expectation is that things will happen quickly. But you can’t will yourself to heal faster. In reality, the length of time it takes to heal and move beyond surviving in therapy is often significantly shorter than how long people have been dragging around their emotional baggage. Sadly, part of the reality for Niki Lauda returning to racing so quickly, was the fact that he was in the process of being replaced on the team because no one knew when he would return. Unfortunately, it’s a cut-throat business and no one’s position is ever completely secure. Sometimes in life it can be the same, where the sense of discomfort and helplessness others may feel watching a person struggle can lead to distancing and detaching in the relationship.

If you didn’t have to worry about what other people thought of you and the process of healing, would you be in such a hurry? Part of what helped Niki Lauda begin his process of recovery was his self-care frame of reference. After having a panic attack when first getting back into the car, Lauda said, “I went back to the hotel, thought about what happened and then said to myself: ‘Come back on Saturday, take the pressure off, drive for yourself and don’t look at timing sheets and the other people.’ That is what I did.” He recognized his own ability and limitations and worked at his own pace in his journey back. Stopping on the last race and giving away the championship was the ultimate statement of respecting himself and his limitations. No potential glory of a championship was worth the risk of driving terrified and potentially hurting himself again. Go at your own pace in healing, and do what you need to do to move beyond surviving; you’re worth whatever it takes!

Growing Into the Scars

Over time, the scars on Lauda’s face have softened and started to blend in with the wrinkles of age. No longer does he wear the scars of his crash as evidence of his trauma. The scars have become part of his character and identity, and are now more of a recognition of his resilience and courage in his storied life journey. The same is true for the emotional injuries that heal and then soften over time. At some point they fade into your story instead of defining your existence.

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Lauda recently in his 1976 race car

8/25/19  update

Niki Lauda died recently.  The injuries from his crash had left him suseptible to medical complications he fought until he could no longer.  Never have I seen such an outpouring of affection and respect from his peers, current racing drivers and anyone associated with the sport.  The man was legendary to all.  What was truly touching were not the tributes to the race car driver, though he was mighty in that respect, but rather the tributes to him as a mentor, advisor and friend.  He had come to life through a near death experience and touched the lives of so many in ways he never could before facing his crisis and transforming beyond surviving. He will be greatly missed.

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