Alexa Mazzarello

Conversations on Trauma and Awakening: Alexa Mazzarello

Interviewed by Hailey V. Martens
I have realized that no matter how “strong” you are, there is no such thing as immunity to trauma, especially for women. We are taught to take care of others before ourselves. It took me a while to realize that what was happening to me was not my fault. It was, however, my job to get myself feeling safe and present again. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Alexa Mazzarello is a Canadian photographer and artist specializing in portrait and fashion photography. She also works on editorial and commercial shoots. With a background in gender equality and health, her work is primarily concerned with the liberation of women. In the last year she has launched “Fine Art Portrait Sessions” for self-identifying women, which is designed to create a space to uncover truth and transform it into art. Having recently moved cities from Vancouver, she is now based in Ottawa and is preparing to have a baby with her partner.

Click here to see her website and portfolio

Note - The experiences and wisdom shared here represent one person’s truth.

Describe yourself in 3 words.

Creative, jovial and stubborn.

How would those who love and respect you describe you?

Stubborn, analytical and passionate I imagine. I actually asked my partner Justin and he said contentious, outgoing and resourceful.

What helps you feel safe and grounded?

Organization and cleanliness, especially in relation to spaces. I don’t like being too busy, so space in my schedule too. Also, time to myself and connection - to my partner, my family and myself.

Does your environment play a role in how you feel?

Yes, a thousand percent. I think this piece also ties to how different my life is now than it used to be. I carry a history of trauma from a past relationship. Safety in my environment was never something I realized I needed until I didn't have it.  Looking back, I can see very clearly that the lack of stability/calm I have experienced in both the context of space and relationship led to things feeling unpredictable and me feeling ungrounded. I also see that, in part, the need for organization and cleanliness is tied to a need for control, so there is balance and discernment needed in how we look at and understand the connections between environment and emotions.

How would you define trauma?

I see trauma as past experiences that stick with us, or that continue to impact us negatively or hold us back from living a full life. I don’t necessarily think all trauma is bad. Not all trauma is equal, and it’s all relative to how we experience it. You can put five people in the same situation and three of them are going to say, “That was traumatic,” while two of them might say, “That was nothing; my childhood was way worse.” So it’s subjective, which is why it’s very hard to treat.

I have challenges with the word because of my own healing and therapy. I had one specific therapist that I felt wouldn’t acknowledge that the situation I was describing was traumatic for me. She talked a lot about my own responsibility in it; at least that is how I perceived it. In so many ways she was wonderful, but I often felt like I was hitting a wall with her in relation to this word specifically. What happened was traumatic to me and it felt like there was a lack of acknowledgement, which stopped me from being able to move forward. I needed to be able to say, “This happened to me and it was traumatic.”

How has trauma contributed to your suffering?

I am thankfully through that previous experience that was very traumatic. I don’t live that right now, but it sticks with me in ways, specifically in my dreams and whenever I encounter related triggers. I have come very far in my healing, which is mirrored in how my life looks now. I have a new partner I am very happy with and we're expecting a baby so, in my mind, things are very stable and healthy. Not perfect, not easy, but healthy.

In my past, when I was living through the trauma, I suffered every day. It affected every aspect of my life. I was incredibly anxious. I was not able to have regular or normal relationships with friends. I became distant from my family because I was trying to hide what was going on in order to protect the person I was in a relationship with. He was also someone I loved and cared about, and I wanted him to get better, so I was taking on a lot of stuff that was not my own. This added to further suffering. My own mental health, my physical health and my work were all impacted. There wasn’t an area of my life that it didn't touch in some way.

I think my stubbornness – going back to that character trait – allowed me to show up at work and run my own business despite the suffering, but it felt a little bit like a lie. I am such an advocate for women, yet I was living in a reality that I was not actually okay with (at all). I felt incredibly belittled and trapped. I was stuck. I think that's the worst part of suffering – the stuck-ness, and feeling like you don’t know how to move forward. I have realized that no matter how “strong” you are, there is no such thing as immunity to trauma, especially for women. We are taught to take care of others before ourselves. It took me a while to realize that what was  happening to me was not my fault. It was, however, my job to get myself feeling safe and present again. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  

You said there wasn’t an area of life that this trauma didn't affect. What was that like for you?

It was all-encompassing. So much so that when I finally left the relationship, even the way I had to leave was extremely traumatic. The person I was in the relationship with didn't want me to leave, but I knew I had to and I finally came to a point where I was able to exit. There was, sadly, no closure between him and I, and no semblance of a regular conversation you’d have when you're splitting up with someone you’ve known for so long or shared a life with. There was a complete lack of acknowledgment. I think his own suffering, which was valid and deep, was blocking him from being able to see how things were impacting me. So when I left, the suffering continued in the form of deep pain and guilt within me. There was so much guilt and pain for not being able to help him more. The pain was very centred around wanting to continue to care for him, but I knew I couldn’t be in that situation anymore and I had to cut off all contact. It was very painful. It still is.

Shortly after all of this, I met somebody else and found myself falling in love, which triggered me because I started to feel a sense of security, which was the missing piece in that past relationship. I all of a sudden had deep experiences of being seen and loved, and that excitement of a new relationship, and it also brought up very deep grief about what I had been through for so many years. The suffering didn’t stop - it’s just dulled over time and it is now thankfully manageable and doesn’t dominate my life. Suffering is a part of being alive, but you cope and it does get easier.

How has trauma contributed to your awakening?

I think in many ways trauma is the reason why we do awaken. Trauma, whether it’s having a shitty experience at a job or having abuse in your past, can be like the spark that instigates awakening...it is often a choice AND luck/privilege. By lucky I mean privileged enough to leave the situation and lucky to have the community support to help you move past the trauma. Privileged enough to have the financial means to leave the relationship or change your job. So many factors go into the ability to awaken. I want to acknowledge that my ability to leave that relationship was directly tied to the fact that my parents helped pay my rent for a full year so I could get my own apartment. I wouldn’t have been able to move out on my own without that support, or I would have had to go deep into debt. After moving, I sought out a therapist who specialized in trauma and was able to negotiate a lower fee that I could afford. I saw her bi-weekly for over a year. I also talked to my family doctor about my anxiety and was able to start on low dose anti-anxiety med which helped A TON. It helped me integrate all the other healing I was doing without the added stress of physical anxiety symptoms. All of these things taken together helped me heal.

I think awakening is a privilege. It should be possible for everybody, but how easy it is to access support is not the same for everyone.

Having been through what I’ve been through – and I’d like to name what it was for whoever reads this as it may be really important for them to have something to relate to – it wasn’t physical abuse. What I went through was emotional and psychological abuse. A lot of yelling. A lot of name calling. A ton of gaslighting. I lost my sense of reality and started to believe I wasn’t a good person. It was so painful. It took someone else hearing something that had been said to me during a heated argument to say, ‘That is really not OK’ for me to realize that I was RIGHT in my gut to know something was off.

When I met my current partner we talked about everything that mattered to each of us and the vision we were each moving toward. We’ve been together since our first time meeting. It felt easy – the opposite of what things felt like previously.

I think suffering can contribute to awakening in the sense that it helps us get clear. It calls us to action and allows us to take the steps needed to move forward and thrive in life and relationships. Though I feel free of my past suffering, it is still with me. It will never not be a part of my history, but there’s something very freeing about being able to move past traumatic experiences and be happy. I feel extra grateful that I have what I have now. I am with someone who is healthy and happy. There is safety in this relationship. We’re committed to one another and working on things together. In my previous relationship if something would go wrong, or if I did something he didn't like, he would say, “I just can’t be with you” and wouldn’t talk to me for three days. I would get the silent treatment, and then there would be this whole winning back process: “You’re my whole life. I love you.” It was incredibly confusing. My head was always spinning, never knowing what was going on in the relationship - cause it’s not like he ever really left. It was psychological torture.

That sounds like something that could warp your sense of reality.

I was living in a situation where I had no real grasp on reality or what was normal in a relationship. It was so warped. The boundary of what I put up with was constantly being pushed further and further. Eventually I decided I was going to go stay with my family for two months - to get stable again, to get some space from the situation and see if that could change anything.

How has the clarity that you gained by living through this incredibly traumatic experience allowed you to meet your goals and informed how you live your life today?

I think the evidence is in the reality of my current life. I am having a baby now with somebody that I love. My partner and I live close to my family and we’re very close with them. I am still practicing photography and running my business. I also got a part-time job in a related field. I’ve had the ability to rediscover communities and friendships I had lost. My relationships with my siblings are a lot better, too. When you’re not hiding from something, it brings greater freedom and connection.

Another thing I’ve been able to do is make strides in self-development. In my past relationship I was so criticized that I became very sensitive to criticism, but criticism isn’t always bad. We all need people who care about us to tell us when something needs to be worked on. I’m still not great at this, but I can accept feedback now more than I ever was able to previously, and that’s a win in my books.

There's also something incredibly freeing that comes with being with somebody who understands that they are responsible for themselves and that I am responsible for myself. My current partner and I came to our relationship as whole, knowing clearly what we each wanted, which makes the choice to be together very pure. We were independently happy before we met.

How has trauma contributed to allowing you to align with your highest creative self?

I think again back to that idea of feeling free to be myself. Being in a partnership with somebody who was struggling, I would experience shame if I had success. I felt guilty about doing well, because I knew he was struggling. I don’t have to feel that way anymore, which opens up a whole world of possibilities. I have been able to land jobs that I don’t think I would have been able to before. It was hard for me to feel the joy of my successes previously. In terms of freedom and creativity, there's a whole world that has opened up to me as I’ve become unstuck.

What words of wisdom would you offer to those who are stuck in suffering that is similar to what you have been through in the past?

I think that the longer I stayed, the worse things got. As women we have to LEARN HOW to trust ourselves. If you feel like something is off maybe there is something there to explore? Process your questions with and through others. Talking to people was the thing that saved me.

In my final moments of desperation in my past relationship, I ended up reaching out to a family member of my ex’s as I could no longer hold onto the things I knew were going on. I was trying to do things all on my own and it became impossible and really scary for me. When I reached out to this family member I knew it was a point of no return. I knew it would be the end of our relationship, but I had to tell somebody the truth. I also needed support. In the therapy I did after I left, my therapist talked to me about the triangle relationship. My calling this family member to help alleviate the weight on me gave me more capacity to navigate MY OWN next steps. So my words of wisdom would be to talk to someone; don’t hide anymore. Choose someone who you think will help you navigate the situation appropriately. Having someone else acknowledge what I was experiencing, and validating that it was not normal and not okay was very powerful and helped me ultimately get through it.

My partner at the time didn’t know what was going on, so it may have felt like I was betraying him. Was it right? I don’t know. I did what I did and it was right for me at the time. In order for me to get healthy, I had to leave. I live with the fact I moved my stuff out when he was away. I made a lot of these choices that I live with and I don’t know if they were ‘right,’ but at the time I felt I truly had no other choice. Had he been there, I wouldn’t have been able to leave. Because of where I am now, I am so happy I did this.

"The greatest gift saddnesss gave me, was the motivation to transform"
- Yung Pueblo
Self-portrait, 36 weeks pregnant. May 2, 2021