Just over five years ago, I was popping pills like they were candy, and drowning my misery in four bottles of wine a day. I was rapidly descending into an early grave. I wanted to die. Today is so far removed from that life that people are always shocked when I tell them that I used to be an addict.

Addiction has been rife in my family before I was even conceived. It is killing my father and has killed my uncle and grandfather—that is just on my father’s side! Due to the turbulent environment alcoholism creates, my life in the US was untenable and I landed in the UK aged 3.

To say I had a troubled childhood is an understatement. While my physical needs were taken care of, and despite my mother’s best intentions, I felt a lack of nourishment. I always felt unable to connect and have meaningful interaction. I lacked a father figure during my formative years. I felt like a lost, empty, miserable child. I lacked emotional coping skills and never fully dealt with the trauma left in America, despite it following me to the UK. What I did learn was the ability to escape myself—with food first, then drugs and alcohol, men, co-dependency and eating disorders. I searched for connection and love in all of these places.

I was doomed to fail.

I wasn’t only a lost child looking for connection and love, I was suffering with depression and anxiety—together with crippling low self-esteem. Around 12 years old, I discovered drugs and alcohol. It was like the lights suddenly shone in a darkened room. I felt alive. My anxiety and depression dissipated. It provided a social lubricant and I felt confident.

I chased that artificial high for the next 20 years. The desire to escape myself and self-medicate became the most prominent motivators in my life.

From an outsider’s perspective, I appeared to be functioning: I had a job, a home, and relationships. But, I continued to suffer with debilitating depression and anxiety. I couldn’t fill that aching for love and connection no matter how much I consumed.

My life consisted of keeping up appearances and ensuring I meticulously planned my next fix. I might have initially appeared to be the social butterfly, but as the years progressed, I quickly attained the nickname Liv the Liability. I would go to bars, clubs, and host civilized dinner parties—but they quickly descended into chaos because of my state of intoxication. I blacked out every time I drank.

What saddens me about this level of self-harm is the morning practice I had: checking who was in bed with me, inspecting myself for injuries, unpicking the trail of destruction in my apartment and trying to piece together evidence of the night before. I’d cringe at my behavior and declare never again.

Until the next time.

Nothing in my life came in between me and drugs. I compromised my values and began to do the things I said I’d never do. I ended relationships and friendships that challenged my drinking. No one knew about the pills, or cocaine, or so I thought. Fueled by increased feelings of shame, guilt and remorse, I medicated with even more wine and drugs.

No matter how much I self-medicated, my mental state only worsened. I became so disconnected from myself that I didn’t recognize who I was.

Despite gaining an increasing awareness of my problem, I couldn’t understand why I was unable to have one drink. But, I continued to try, over-and-over again. I tried dieting, drinking only on weekends, not drinking at home, cutting out cocaine and opting for wine instead, excessively exercising—but then rewarding myself with a nice bottle of wine. And then another, and another—until I’d washed away the day.

Then one weekend everything changed. I ended up in my apartment, destroyed, after a monumental binge. Over the course of a few days, I’d left my job, drank 14 bottles of wine and taken a packet of codeine. I was covered in blood, and my apartment was in chaos. I had no recollection of what had happened, but I reached a point of surrender. I had enough—to the very core of my being. Something inside of me had shifted and I was left with a choice: I either choose to die, or get help.

While I made it through several nights on my bathroom floor, suffering the acute effects of alcohol poisoning, I was a shell of a person. Mentally, I had zero comprehension of who I was, or how I had ended up there. My soul was crushed. Physically, I had gained 150 pounds through my addictive drinking, codeine usage, and binge-eating.

In spite of feeling like the weakest and most broken version of myself, I was compelled to walk the path of recovery. I was fortunate to have a family member in AA, who kindly gave me a meetings list and their heartfelt words of encouragement. I summoned enough courage and might to walk into my first meeting. I collapsed into a chair, feeling utterly defeated.

That meeting spoke to me so profoundly. I heard a message of hope that I need never drink again, no matter what the circumstances. There was something there that I can’t tangibly describe, perhaps it was grace? There was a lightness with which people spoke; there was sincerity in their voices, and a genuine conviction to never drink again. The compulsion to drink—despite years of failed attempts—had been completely removed. Those words spoke to me so deeply that I think they resonated with my soul. I finally heard that I wasn’t alone—I have felt alone my entire life.

It was so difficult to stay put—I was frightened, stunned, post-traumatic, and wanted to run. But I felt compelled to stay, with morbid fascination. It was like facing myself in each and every one of them. The honesty with which they spoke was piercing.

The first few weeks were hard. Incredibly hard. The best description I have heard was like someone turned the volume right up and put the lights on full blast. I felt like I was on stage, completely exposed, without anesthesia.

I did what was suggested and for the first few years of recovery my life consisted of meetings, fellowship coffee, step work, talking, and writing. I learned how to re-integrate into normal living. I will be forever grateful to AA. What I was taught, and what I did, saved my life.

With that program and the support network I built, I was able to move on to deal with my physical recovery. I tackled my disordered relationship with food, and built a holistic approach to recovery—because my recovery (like active addiction) has to look at every aspect of my being.

That journey is life-long and I have made great progress: I have lost nearly 60 pounds, am more physically active than I have ever been, and I have taken care of my mental health. Exercise and eating well are just as much an integral part of my recovery as a support group and regular contact with other people in recovery.

Over the course of the last year, my recovery has taken a different turn, and I have begun to explore other avenues of recovery, such as Refuge Recovery. Mindfulness and meditation allows me to connect with myself—that was the connection I was seeking all along.

I am conscious that not everyone finds their recovery in a 12-step fellowship. There are many ways to get addiction help, you must find what works for you, in your life, under your circumstances. For me, my recovery has to be fluid and holistic, which meets my ever changing needs as I grow, change, and develop into a better version of myself.

My life today is wonderful. Recovery has been the best gift I’ve ever been given. It has given me the courage to fulfill my desires, shown me how to creatively express myself, and given me the confidence to pursue my passions. It isn’t easy, but it sure as heck is worth the effort.

a woman in a blue shirt standing in front of trees.
By – Olivia Pennelle
Writer and wellness advocate, Olivia Pennelle (Liv), is in long-term recovery. She passionately believes in a fluid and holistic approach to recovery. Read more
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