Episode 102: What to Expect from the Healing Process with Alyssa Scolari, LPC
Episode 102: What to Expect from the Healing Process with Alyssa Scolari, LPC
Everyone’s journey to heal looks a little bit different, but it is important to have a general knowledge of what to expect as well as the beauty that comes from putting in the hard work. Alyssa pulls from both her experience as a trauma therapist and her personal experience with recovering from an eating disorder and complex PTSD to discuss patterns she has noticed as we move along in our healing journeys.
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Alyssa Scolari [00:23]:
Hey friends. What’s up? Welcome back to another episode of the Light After Trauma podcast. I am your host, Alyssa Scolari, and we are going to get right into it today. So, this episode topic was actually Dave’s idea. So if you don’t like it, blame Dave. No, I’m kidding. But seriously, it was his idea, and it’s something that I have been wanting to do for a while. And it’s like, I guess I struggled with it because I feel like everybody’s healing journey is different.
Alyssa Scolari [01:04]:
With that being said, I think through my experience as a therapist and through my own healing journeys and through having friends, and other colleagues in the field who have gone through their own healing journeys, I notice very similar patterns throughout the journey, and I wanted to talk about those today. Right? Because I think that a lot of people assume when they sign up for … not when they sign up, but if you decide that you want to start healing, whether it’s from your eating disorder or trauma or addiction, right, I think that people have this idea that when they start therapy, and this is me assuming that this is like you going to a standard once a week therapist. Right? I think people assume that when you start therapy, it only can get better from the moment you start.
Alyssa Scolari [02:05]:
Like once you make that decision to begin your healing process, a lot of people have this idea that it’s like, “Well, things are only going to get better.” And unfortunately not to burst anybody’s bubble, I don’t see that it works like that. It certainly didn’t work like that for me. And for a lot of folks that I know, and that I have worked with who have complex trauma, that definitely has not been the case. Now, if somebody is coming in with standard PTSD, right, there’s been a singular incident in which they are struggling. Yes, that certainly can be the case once you start therapy, things can get better. But what I’m talking about here is healing from complex trauma. And that process does not look like, “Oh, I started therapy and now I feel so much better.” It is much, much different. Right?
Alyssa Scolari [03:07]:
And because a lot of people will ask us, “Well, you’ve been in therapy for three months, don’t you feel better?” And I think those of us that perhaps live with people who don’t understand complex trauma or who don’t get how therapy works, we have people say things to us like, I know my mom used to say this to me, not all the time, but every once in a while, she’d be like, “Do you feel like your therapist is helping at all?” And it’s just like, “I don’t know how to answer that because it’s not that my therapist wasn’t helping, it’s just that there’s so much that it’s hard to know, three months into therapy, if anything is helping.” And that’s just not what people expect. People look at it very similar to maybe going to a doctor. Right? “Well, you’ve been seeing this doctor for three weeks, so why hasn’t your arthritis flare gone down or whatever the heck it may be?”
Alyssa Scolari [04:08]:
So I’m here to get pretty real and raw with you about what the healing journey actually looks like. And also just what it has looked like for me and where I’m at right now. I believe that healing is lifelong. And with that said, though, I don’t believe that your suffering is lifelong. I think there is certainly happiness to be found, even if you aren’t a 100% healed, because honestly, can any of us be a 100% healed? I mean, just look at what’s going on in the world.
Alyssa Scolari [04:43]:
I think all of us have experienced collective trauma from the mass shootings, our children being gunned down, rights being taken away. Like how can we live through all this stuff? Right? A global pandemic and then say, “Oh, I’m completely healed.” That’s the thing about trauma, is that it doesn’t go away. It’s not like once we’ve been traumatized once, well, that’s it, and we never ever experience any trauma. We will experience it down the road. And that will probably further our healing in some way.
Alyssa Scolari [05:23]:
Now, again, please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that you have to continue to be traumatized in order to heal. But what I’m saying is life is fucking hard. And so, you can’t get to a place where you’re 40 and you’re like, “Oh, I’ve completely healed.” And expect that nothing traumatizing or triggering is going to affect you for the rest of your life. I just don’t think that’s realistic. So, many people when they come to me and this is myself included, they don’t usually walk in the office. Again, this was the case for me. I didn’t walk into my therapist’s office saying I have complex trauma and I need help with this. Hey, some people do do that, and that’s amazing.
Alyssa Scolari [06:16]:
But typically, we don’t even realize we have complex trauma. And instead what we think we want help with is whatever vice we have turned to to be able to cope with what we’re not dealing with, with what we’re not feeling, our eating disorder serves as a numbing tool. Your addiction serves as a numbing tool, whatever it may be, even I believe this, right, anxiety disorders, like OCD serves as a numbing tool. Many therapists agree with me, a lot of people, I think treat OCD as just this singular disorder that’s like, you have to combat the obsessions. Right? You have to just not give in. And once you do that, then your OCD will go away.
Alyssa Scolari [07:13]:
I don’t necessarily believe that to be true. I actually just took a training, where this woman said that, she works with OCD and she basically was like, “The only treatment for this is having people not give in to their obsessions.” And yes, that is super important, but I think a lot of OCD specialists are going to say that, that need for control with OCD is almost always rooted in some kind of trauma. So, I actually don’t know what the research is on that, and I will look into it, but in all of the work that I’ve done and just talking to other OCD specialists, that’s what people would agree on.
Alyssa Scolari [07:59]:
So even so many disorders can be a reaction, not just eating disorders and addiction, but OCD, or perhaps social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, all of these things can likely, not always, be linked to some type of trauma. So most people, when they go into therapy, they are looking to treat the symptom of their trauma, and that symptom is another disorder. For me, it was an eating disorder. I struggled with an eating disorder, I mean, my whole life. I started counting points probably as early as eight years old, and I just struggled my entire life with …
Alyssa Scolari [08:50]:
I was overweight and everybody in my family was on Weight Watchers, and everybody used to tell me that our family had a weight problem and that we needed to be dieters our whole lives. So I just thought from very early on that I needed to restrict my food intake. And then as I was older, that led to binge eating. So I would sneak food. I have this one distinct memory. I don’t think I’ve talked about this on this podcast. I’ve talked about it when I was a guest on Guy Macpherson’s The Trauma Therapist, but this specific memory I was really young. I can’t remember how old, but I remember I took a stick of butter from the fridge and I went and hid in the garage, and I was just eating a stick of butter.
Alyssa Scolari [09:43]:
So, that’s where all of my restriction led me as just a little kid. And so, basically I spent 20 years up a hundred pounds down, a hundred pounds every new diet. And when I would gain weight, people really ignored me. I felt super ignored and unseen, but as soon as I lost weight, everybody praised me. I was well known in my town for being this huge success story. People wanted to know how I did it, where I got the willpower from. I was fucking dying, and I wish I could go back to all those people now and tell them I was fucking dying.
Alyssa Scolari [10:30]:
Of course, I can’t do that, but when I went into therapy, that is what I wanted help with. I wanted help on how to let go of my eating disorder. Because at that point I was binging almost daily, and I just couldn’t stop myself. I felt like I had no control, and I would just pray day after day. Like, “Please let me get rid of this eating disorder.” So that’s how I started out. I want to get rid of this eating disorder. And over time my eating disorder started to go away. I remember sitting in my therapist’s office and I would say to her like, “Why can’t this eating disorder just be gone?” And she would be like, “Because it’s not about the food.”
Alyssa Scolari [11:21]:
And I would get so mad at her because I would be like, “Are you fucking dumb? Yes, it is about the food, stop fucking telling me it’s not about the food.” And as much as I hate to admit this, she was absolutely right. It was not about the food for me. It was about trying to numb out what I was feeling. And how I came to learn this is because I started to look at what was happening during those moments I was binge eating, and a lot of times it would be after something upsetting happened. Maybe I got yelled at by my boss, or I had a fight with my mom or things were really bad at home. And I would be sitting at the drive through, in some kind of fast food restaurant eating until I could not breathe.
Alyssa Scolari [12:16]:
That is how I started to learn, “Oh, okay. I don’t think the problem is that I don’t have willpower, I think the problem is I’m really trying to numb out.” For me it was anger. I am a chronic people pleaser. Well, I’m a recovered people pleaser, but I was a people pleaser back then. And so when I had bad feelings, it was never safe for me to show them. So I stuffed my feelings down with food. At the same time, I had internalized so much fat phobia and diet culture that I hated eating. So, I would do my best then to restrict and starve, but then when I starved, it worked out for me because all of my hunger cues shut off and I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t feel anything in my body.
Alyssa Scolari [13:16]:
So I definitely couldn’t feel anger or rage or depression or sadness. So I started to learn in that process that my eating disorder was deeply tied to my emotions. And that is the case for so many people, they come in with whatever disorder it is they might be struggling with. And then they start to unpack it and they start to realize the emotional ties between their disorder, their vice and their emotions. They realize that connection. Now I wish I could say that it got better from here, because it sounds great. You’re like, “Oh, wonderful. I realized I made this connection. Well, now I can just heal.” But it actually doesn’t work like that in my experience, this is where things get really hard.
Alyssa Scolari [14:10]:
In terms of a timeline, it’s really hard to give a timeline, because everybody is so different. For me, it happened probably a year into therapy. For the people that I work with, it usually takes a couple of months. So it’s really different for everybody, and I can’t give a timeline, unfortunately, but it does start getting harder because then what happens is, people start to let go of their defenses or their vices.
Alyssa Scolari [14:48]:
And I started to let go of my eating disorder. I started to become more in tune for the first time in probably 20 years, I started to become more in tune with my emotions. And now this is also what happens with so many of the people that I work with. They start to become more in tune with their feelings, and it feels like the pits of hell. And I don’t even think that is an exaggeration. If you have been through it, you understand, because you’re letting go of your coping mechanism.
Alyssa Scolari [15:24]:
And so now all that’s there are the feelings that you have been running from for however long. And so it doesn’t feel like, “Oh, yay. I’m in touch with my feelings again.” It feels like, “Oh my God, these emotions are going to kill me.” And I think that that’s actually understandable because your brain is just trying to keep you alive. Your brain is a beautiful, wonderful thing. Kiss your brain, that is what my husband’s old boss always used to say, “Kiss your brain, kiss your brain.” And my husband now says it to me all the time. If I’m having a really bad day and I’m like, “Ah, I wish I didn’t have a traumatized brain.” He’ll be like, “You kiss your brain.”
Alyssa Scolari [16:02]:
Because my brain has worked so hard to keep me alive, and so has yours. It is a beautiful thing that your brain does where it blocks out feelings because those feelings are so intense that we feel like they’re going to kill us. Now, they’re not going to, especially if you are in a place where you are surrounded with support and safety. Right? If you have a therapist who is well versed in trauma, then you are okay, as long as you have a good connection with this therapist.
Alyssa Scolari [16:32]:
I had a therapist who was well versed in trauma, and it was a fucking nightmare. That was before, I now have two therapists, as many of you know, because I’m doing EMDR right now. And both of my therapists are the bomb. So anyway, this is when things get really difficult. You might find yourself really depressed, you might find yourself crying all the time, you might find yourself fully in touch with a rage that feels so intense. It feels like you might lose your mind. This is where coping skills are so effective.
Alyssa Scolari [17:12]:
I hate when therapists just talk about coping skills being the be all end all therapy, learn some coping skills. Because if you are not allowing yourself to feel your feelings and truly feel them, then you are honestly not going to really need those coping skills, because you’re never going to let go of your eating disorder or your addiction. Right? Coping skills when it comes to complex trauma recovery are crucial when you let go of your other disorders or your other vices and become fully in touch with your emotions. Because at this point, what you’re doing is you’ve shifted from eating disorder recovery or addiction and you have now shifted into trauma work. You are now taking a look at all of the people in your life and the patterns and the behaviors that have led up to this point. And it can feel so overwhelming.
Alyssa Scolari [18:22]:
I know we’ve talked about this before. Some people don’t even remember until they start doing the trauma work. And then they have all of these new memories that come to the surface and they learn things that they weren’t even sure really happened, maybe they might have thought happened, but they always told themselves, “No, there’s no way that happened.” It’s learning about your past and seeing it in a much different light. And it is absolutely terrifying and heartbreaking and infuriating, and sometimes it feels like there’s nothing you can do, but sit back and watch the last, I don’t know, let’s say 30 years of your life unfolds in a way you’ve never seen it unfold before.
Alyssa Scolari [19:13]:
And I say this not because I want to deter you from making the decision to heal, it is the best decision ever. I say this because I want there to be realistic expectations about what it is like. In fact, when people start to get fully in touch with their trauma and the feelings behind it, oftentimes those defenses or those vices or those other disorders will come back tenfold, because your brain is just doing what it knows how to do best, which is protect you. So my brain, right, let’s say like my eating disorder and my OCD, because those are two of my vices, that is what always comes back to the surface. Through EMDR right now, I am processing memories.
Alyssa Scolari [20:05]:
I’ve talked about EMDR in previous episodes, it’s been awesome so far. I’m still very new at it. So, I will talk more about it. But when I am getting in touch with a lot of these little childhood memories, I will notice that my OCD will spike through the roof. Like last night I was having a literal knock on wood. If you’ve seen the movie, Encanto, and you’ve seen Bruno is his name, and you’ve seen like he will knock on wood at different parts of the movie. That can be a part of OCD, and that certainly is for me, I have to knock on wood when I have a thought. And like last night I was knocking on wood because I kept having all of these thoughts. And I was like, “Man, this is getting bad.”
Alyssa Scolari [20:59]:
My OCD popped back up because I was processing a really painful childhood memory, and my brain was like, “What are you doing? We don’t think of this stuff. We don’t feel these feelings. I’m going to need you to stop, and I’m going to distract you from these feelings with this OCD.” And for people with eating disorders, it’s the same thing. Once people start to get fully in touch with their trauma and the pain that comes with that, I often see them they’ll come into my office and they’ll be like, “I’ve been thinking about stepping on the scale again, or I’ve been thinking about starting a new diet, or I need to get myself to the gym more often.” And it’s all distraction. It’s all distraction to help you really manage or avoid the pain that you’re feeling about the other stuff that is going on.
Alyssa Scolari [21:58]:
So, it gets worse before it gets better, because this is the point in your healing journey, where you no longer can avoid knowing about your past and maybe some family stuff, but you also are just afraid to move forward. And it can be a really sticky time for folks. It was a really sticky time for me. And unfortunately, when I was at this place, I didn’t have a therapist who was safe, and this therapist was pushing me in ways that I should have never been pushed. And I almost lost my life in the process quite literally.
Alyssa Scolari [22:38]:
So, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of being with somebody that you truly feel safe with and somebody who isn’t going to push you, is going to meet you exactly where you’re at. Unless of course, you’re engaging in behaviors that could end your life, then yeah, your therapist is going to need to push you. But when I say push, I mean, your therapist should not be pushing you to talk about memories or family stuff. If you ever have a therapist that says, “You got to talk about this stuff in order to feel better.” No, you do not. If your therapist says that, get up and walk right the fuck out. Because that is what was told to me and forcing myself to speak about things prematurely, literally almost took my life away.
Alyssa Scolari [23:25]:
So, just a little caveat there, but yeah, this is when it gets difficult. This is when it gets really, really hard, but you can get through it because this is when you learn, A, coping skills, but B, how to be your own best friend advocate and parent. A lot of us with complex trauma, we look back on our childhoods and we are devastated because we see that there was nobody there for us. But what we do through this next part of the healing process is we learn how to be there for ourselves. We learn how to be the hero we always needed. So this part, isn’t all doom and gloom, yet it’s really hard, but we learn how to save ourselves. And that is the most empowering thing in the whole world.
Alyssa Scolari [24:30]:
Over time, your grief shifts, it transforms. At first this grief feels all consuming and it feels like it’s going to suck you up into a black hole of despair. I can promise you, it does not stay that way. As long as you don’t fight it, you will move through it. I made the mistake of fighting it time and time and time again, for years, I have fought my grief. I’ve run from my grief and from the feelings of abandonment. And the more I ran, the more my body acted out. Right? If it wasn’t my eating disorder, it was my endometriosis. It was an autoimmune disease. I was just holding all of this stuff in my body, because I was too afraid to feel it.
Alyssa Scolari [25:23]:
And then I made the decision that enough is enough, and that I have to move forward and I have taken my pain and I have shifted it from this big black hole of despair to something that I can actually do something with, in the form of being able to help other people, in the form of being a voice for the voiceless, being an advocate, being an ally, I have taken my pain and I have used it to help others, but I have also taken my pain and I have used it to make my own family. And what I mean by that is like, I have taken what I have been through and I have become better because of it. I have decided that I am going to give myself the life now that I always deserved.
Alyssa Scolari [26:23]:
I am only going to have people in my life who I can communicate appropriate with. I will not engage with people who abuse me. I will create safety. I will have a family of my own, and I will raise my child so that she or he, or they feels so safe and never once questions if I love them, if I believe in them. And I’m not saying you have to go on and have children in order to heal, because my healing has come and I don’t have children, it’s come because I have cultivated a space of safety. I wake up every day and I look at my life and I think, “God damn Alyssa, look at how far you’ve come.”
Alyssa Scolari [27:09]:
From feeling like the pain was so bad that I didn’t want to live anymore, from six years ago when my husband and I met, I had an eating disorder. I was so sick with anorexia that when he would cook for me, I would sob because I didn’t know how much salt he put in the food. I would induce, vomiting all the time. I was an over exerciser, and I look at my life today and I think, “Damn, I don’t worry about that anymore.” I wake up, I enjoy breakfast. I have coffee. When he cooks for me, it’s a great day. I go out to eat and I don’t panic. I know that he is safe. I know that I am in a safe home. I have surrounded myself with everything that I love that makes me happy. I have learned how to be my own best friend and my own parent. And I have a picture of little me in the mirror, in my bedroom, and I check in with her every so often.
Alyssa Scolari [28:15]:
“Hey, how you Dylan, are you doing okay?” And if we’re not doing okay, what can I do for her? What can I do with eight year old me? That is where you get to, when you get through the darkest of the healing process. It absolutely gets worse before it gets better, but I promise you when it gets better, it gets so good. I am able to do things that I never thought I would live long enough to do. And yes, there are times when I struggle. Right now, EMDR not going to lie. I’m struggling. And I’ll say just a word about that. You do not have to do EMDR in order to heal and get better. Right? I have worked with loads of people, I am not an EMDR specialist, I have worked with loads of people who have achieved healing while not doing EMDR.
Alyssa Scolari [29:11]:
And the reason I’m doing it is because I notice that my nervous system, despite all of my healing, is completely out of whack. And what I mean by that is this, I have come a long way in the fact that I know that I’m safe, and if something happens, I know I’m okay. I used to get really, really scared if my husband would get angry and he’s not at all a rager, but he’s entitled to get pissed off every once in a while. Like we all do. But because I’m so afraid of angry people, or I was so afraid of angry people, I would get really, really triggered. And my nervous system would just go through the roof. Like my heart would start racing. I would start sweating. I wouldn’t be able to breathe. I would want to cry.
Alyssa Scolari [30:04]:
And in my brain consciously, I knew everything was fine. I would be so frustrated with myself because I would be like, “It’s literally not a big deal that he’s getting mad.” But my body didn’t understand that, my body was off to the races, I was in fight or flight mode and I could not calm down. And I know it’s not good for my body, right, to constantly have my nervous system on edge, to constantly have my cortisol levels spiking. I knew it was really bad for my body. So, I wanted to do something about that, and EMDR is a really great way to just rewire the brain a little bit and get the right brain talking to the left side of the brain and make it so that I am not so hypervigilant and so reactive.
Alyssa Scolari [30:53]:
So that is why I have decided to further my healing journey with EMDR. Not everybody has to do that, not everybody needs it. I think it is amazing. But it’s really a personal decision. So, along the way, right, there’s going to be so many little caveats, and nobody’s healing journey is the same, but this is a pattern that I often see with myself and with people I work with, where you come in to treat a more surface level disorder. And then as you treat that, you start to get more in touch with the trauma that’s behind the disorder. And then we start the grieving process, and really start learning how to best take care of yourself. Especially given the fact that you weren’t cared for, right, when you were younger, if you have complex trauma.
Alyssa Scolari [31:53]:
And once you’re able to do that, you are frigging unstoppable because you know that at the end of the day, the safest place is you. And for so many trauma survivors, when we start therapy, we don’t feel safe at all. We spend our whole lives trying to escape our bodies. But at the other end is this beautiful, beautiful concept that you are so at home in your body and you are so safe, and paradise and peace is you.
Alyssa Scolari [32:33]:
So, I hope that this has been helpful to at least give you a brief outline. I mean, not brief. Right? This is like 40 minutes. But to talk a little bit about the process, like what can you expect out of healing? It hurts like hell. But I mean, I can’t help, but sit here and smile as I say this, because I just think of my own journey, and I think like, “Damn, I saved my own life.” And as a result, I get to help so many other people, and I also get to enjoy spending time with myself.
Alyssa Scolari [33:09]:
I get to enjoy nurturing younger me. I get to spend the rest of my life taking care of the child in me. And I want to, because I love her, and you can do the same. So if you are in the pits of it right now, I need you to hang on, I need you to tie it, not in your rope and I need you to hang on, because if there was anything that I wish I could go back and tell myself even six years ago, it is that, it doesn’t stay like this forever. And the other side is, it’s almost the equivalent to seeing the world in colors that I just couldn’t see before.
Alyssa Scolari [33:56]:
I appreciate everything so much more now, and you can too, and I want nothing but the best for all of you. Hang in, hold on, love yourself through this. You’re going to make it. I know it. I love you, I am holding you in the light, and I will see you next week.
Alyssa Scolari [34:20]:
Thanks for listening everyone. For more information, please head over to lightaftertrauma.com or you can also follow us on social media. On Instagram, we are @lightaftertrauma and on Twitter, it is @lightafterpod. Lastly, please head over to patreon.com/lightaftertrauma to support our show. We are asking for $5 a month, which is the equivalent to a cup of coffee at Starbucks. So please head on over again, that’s patreon.com/lightaftertrauma. Thank you, and we appreciate your support.