In March 2012, Olivia Pennelle woke up shaking on her bathroom floor. She had somehow injured herself; her feet were bloody. She couldn’t say exactly how long she’d been lying there. Her apartment was in complete chaos, littered with empty bottles and cigarette butts. “An absolute disaster,” Pennelle says. That’s what her life looked like after she downed 14 bottles of wine—about 84 standard drinks—and a packet of codeine pills in as little as two days.
The 2012 version of Pennelle, now a health coach and writer based in Portland, Oregon, is long gone. “I do believe that I’m a strong woman,” she says. “I also believe that if I take a drink, I lose all of that strength.”
She’s strong in more ways than one: Pennelle stopped drinking cold turkey after experiencing what she suspected was acute alcohol poisoning on her bathroom floor, but she also overcame several addictions to get sober. Today, she lives a healthy life in recovery and helps others do the same through her writing and health coaching at Liv’s Recovery Kitchen.
For Pennelle, addiction started when she was young. Around age seven, she discovered that eating helped to numb her feelings when she would stay home from school. “I think I was actually depressed," she says, "but I feigned a stomach ache. I suffered from a kind of disconnect from the world. I never felt like I fit in, never connected with people. I didn’t see my place in the world.”
Finding comfort in food went against a belief ingrained in her as a child: the importance of being thin. Those conflicting ideologies no doubt played a role in her history with eating disorders, which she describes as “a mixture of both anorexia and bulimia.” Into her 30s, she bounced between starvation diets—mixed with amphetamines—and binging and purging.
By the time she was 11, Pennelle had already started smoking cigarettes. A year or two later, she started drinking with other kids in the local graveyard. Weed and speed made their way into the mix by her mid-teens.
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As a young adult, Pennelle went through all the motions of growing up—she graduated from college and got a job—but because she used alcohol and drugs as numbing agents every day, she never learned how to actually cope with life. “My life was consumed with trying to obliterate my existence,” she says. Friends nicknamed her Liv the Liability because they’d often find her passed out in the bathroom or arguing with people outside.
“I was putting myself in more precarious positions, so I thought the safest thing for me to do was to withdraw and drink at home on my own,” she says. “That was the beginning of the demise, really.”
Pennelle drank about four bottles of wine a day and regularly took co-codamol, a mixture of codeine and paracetamol. She gained 150 pounds. She spent her life drinking, then feeling hungover, then calculating how much wine she could afford to buy on her way home from work. “No matter what everybody did or how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop,” Pennelle says. “I would have the best intentions to stop drinking and then find myself drunk within a few hours.”
When she woke up on the bathroom floor in 2012, she spent another day or two lying there, sick. Then she got up and went to her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. “The first step was getting sober and learning to build my life properly,” she says. “Learning how to cope with life, getting a self-care routine, finding out who I was. I had no identity at that point. I was just a chameleon.”
She had stopped drinking, but was still smoking about 30 cigarettes a day and misusing codeine. Once she cut those out a few months later, she found that she’d simply replaced alcohol with another substance she knew all too well. “I would go to meetings and I would be consumed with what I could buy on the way home to eat,” she recalls. “It was such a similar pattern of behavior that it frightened me.”
Over the next year, she worked with a health coach who not only helped her take control of her eating, but also helped her see that she needed more fun in her life. At that point, she went from work to AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and that was it. “I thought to myself, I didn’t get sober for this,” she says. In search of a fresh start, she moved from Manchester, England, to the US in December 2016. After staying with her brother in California for a few weeks, she moved to Portland in January 2017.
Since moving there, she has worked on figuring out who she is. “I’m alive in every sense of the word. I have an identity,” she says. Her writing focuses on healthy living in recovery. “I’m not afraid to stand as that woman and to realize that she’s empowered and that she’s strong. I love who I’ve become.”
In order to develop that sense of self, however, she also stopped going to meetings. “I had a thirst for identifying with people who were not their story, who had developed a new story for themselves instead of sitting in this little box that they’d made for themselves because of this label they attached to themselves,” she says. “I didn’t identify that way anymore.”
Pennelle used to avoid life’s ups and downs by drinking, eating, and using. Now she faces those ups and downs rather than hiding from them. She’s lost 60 pounds, but instead of focusing on being thin, she’s trying to be healthy. (She can deadlift an impressive 255 pounds.) She channels her energy into writing about wellness in recovery, cooking nourishing food, meditating, exercising, and going to therapy.
While she’s grateful for the 12-step fellowship for giving her the tools to help her get sober, she gives herself credit for her recovery and no longer labels herself an addict. “I feel it’s derogatory and it’s a label that doesn’t fit me anymore. Yes, I had substance use disorders and I can no longer drink again. I fully accept that,” she says. “But I am not Liv, the addict. I am Liv.“
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