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The Different Facets of Addiction

by Olivia Pennelle ❘  

Starting Addiction Young

I suffer with an innate and incessant desire to escape myself, my reality, and interaction with the world. No matter what the catalyst, drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or codependency, their misuse just serves as an outward facet of addiction. It’s taken five years to come to that realization—and a whole heap of painful unpicking, re-wiring, and re-learning.

I now understand that there is no destination with addiction recovery; we just have a better relationship with our demons. To find true freedom, we must look at them as a whole and get to the core issues.

I recall my first desire to escape. Around six years old, suffering with depression, and totally lost, I discovered that overeating made me feel better. For just a brief moment, I’d be transported to some kind of escapism, a sense of freedom from life. I have spent the rest of my 32 years chasing that feeling.

Six years old! As a woman who has developed the ability to parent herself and treats that little girl with compassion and love, it still breaks my heart. How was she so lost, so desperate, so depressed, so sad, that she didn’t want to be here? At six years old, she shouldn’t have a care in the world; she should be out playing with friends and be totally present in that experience. Not this little girl. It wasn’t that people in her life didn’t love her. She just wasn’t able to connect; she didn’t know how.

I lived that paradox for decades: disconnected but seeking connection in all the wrong places.

While food was always the first source of that escapism, at around 12 years old I discovered drugs and alcohol. It was like discovering food, in substance form, for the first time. Perhaps the best description I’ve heard of that pivotal moment is like living in a dark room and suddenly the light comes on. Instantaneously, the existential pain dissipated; I felt alive and connected. I found my new form of escape. I lived for using from that moment on.


For the next twenty years, those substances become interchangeable, and my reliance upon them formed an addiction. I was on a merry-go-round of using food in a disordered way (binging and purging or starvation) and abusing drugs and alcohol to the point of blackout on a regular basis. It only ever got worse, and the desire to escape permeated my everyday life. I could not stop no matter what I tried.

Age 32, my life was a wreck: 150 overweight, I’d let go of friendships, relationships, and jobs that got in the way of using. I was so physically and mentally unwell that I wanted to die. Everyone was concerned for me. My family tried interventions, but they didn’t work.

It was only after one monumental binge, when almost everything had been stripped from my life, that I reached my rock bottom. Lying on the floor of my blood-stained rug, covered in cuts and bruises, and surrounded the remnants of my binge—vomit, smashed wine bottles, empty pill bottles, pizza boxes—that I finally got to the place where I couldn’t go on. I’d had enough to the very core of my being.

Faced with that choice of death or getting help, I chose help. I don’t know what changed in that moment (I call it grace, even though I don’t believe in god) to take me to a place where I could find recovery, but I did. And I am over five and a half years sober today.

That wasn’t the end of my issues, though. In some ways, it was just the beginning. I was so far removed from reality that I only thought I had an issue with alcohol. It has taken those five plus years to realize that the substances were never the issue, the desire to escape myself and the world was.

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In order for me to recover, I needed to get to the underbelly of what caused addiction.

Through my recovery work—step work, therapy, reading, investigating, talking to experts, and writing—I now understand. I had limited coping strategies for life, had a genetic predisposition to addiction, lived in stressful environments, and suffered trauma. The chances of me not developing a substance misuse problem were slim; it was the perfect storm to develop a brain ripe for addiction. Those circumstances also explain my issues with co-dependency: my need to seek constant validation and approval, my lack of identity, my issues with attachment, fear of abandonment, changing myself to fit in with others, and my desire to assume responsibility for others problems and fixing them.

Those were the core issues which led to addiction.

You could say that I have a history of eating disorders, substance misuse disorder, alcoholism, co-dependency, and sex addiction, but I believe that they are all facets of the same underlying problems I’ve mentioned.

When I began working on those core issues, I found true freedom in my recovery. It was in recognizing the desire to escape and working backwards. I learned how to parent and befriend myself. With self-care and compassion, I was able to investigate what thought was linked to the desire. Was I feeling social anxiety? Was I frightened? Was my body telling me I am tired? Was I truly hungry or craving nourishment in other ways? Did I need to connect with another human? What did that connection look like? What did I want to say, and how could I find different ways to express myself? Starting there was when I truly evolved and grew into the woman I am.

With that level of mindfulness and compassion, I am now able to find a place in this world, to have meaningful connection with others, to express myself, and to feel some sense of peace—the peace and freedom I sought in all the wrong places for so many years.

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