When I came out of my last alcoholic binge — having guzzled 14 bottles of wine in four days and spent two days shaking and vomiting on the bathroom floor — I knew that this time I had to get help. The only pathway I was aware of back then was Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Six and a half years later, recovery looks very different today. I outgrew AA, and when I moved to the US my eyes opened to the possibility of a more fluid, self-directed recovery. My sobriety has moved from a rigid program and church basements, to a vibrant, fulfilling, and fluid recovery.
In the early days though, AA was the only option — especially in the north west of England. 12-step recovery dominates much of recovery pathways in the UK. Even if you go through formal treatment programs, they direct you to 12-step recovery as part of your treatment. There is no avoiding it. I was guided to AA by a close family member who sung the virtues of the program, as they progressed to long-term recovery. They kindly handed me a list of meetings within close proximity to my apartment, together with some words of encouragement.
Back then, I was desperate to do anything not to drink again. In AA, that meant a rigid program, a controlling sponsor, doing what I was told, and meetings day-in-day-out. For a while, that gave me the accountability and the structure to stay sober. While that doesn’t work for me today, I see its value in the early days because I didn’t know what to do with myself — I needed guidance. AA also provided an immediate community of people experiencing the same challenges as me, while trying to navigate a sober life.
After a couple of years though, I was fed up. I’d worked through the steps, maintained a period of sobriety, and returned to work. I didn’t see the need to attend meetings every day. At that point, all my life consisted of was work and meetings. There was little fun or fulfillment. I found myself escaping through food and chasing relationships.
Keen not to continue looking for excitement in the wrong places, I decided to begin looking after my physical well-being — something grossly lacking in the 12-step program. For me, stopping drinking wasn’t enough to return to health, especially when we’re surrounded by people drinking endless cups of strong coffee and smoking their way through sobriety. I found myself tipping the 300 pounds mark on the scale through bingeing on high-calorie foods and not moving my body. This was another turning point for me, even though I was depressed I knew I had to act.
I began exploring a holistic recovery, integrating my mind, body, and spirit. I started walking, running, and cycling. I stopped smoking. I ditched the unhealthy food in favor of eating for energy and well-being. I lost 60 pounds and felt like a different woman.
Feeling empowered by the changes I had made, I started writing about my journey on my website, Liv’s Recovery Kitchen. I got curious about how others recovered and how they integrated well-being into their recovery. Through my interviews, I realized there were a range of pathways of recovery that existed. Finding out that some recovered just through exercise, or with therapy, blew my mind. I’d been told that AA was the only way to recover.
With this newfound knowledge, I started to explore the possibility of changing things up in my life. The more I wrote, the more opportunities opened up for me; I collaborated with other writers and I began writing for recovery-based publications. I started to entertain the idea of moving to America to pursue a writing career.
In early 2016, I decided to make that idea into a reality and move to the US. By December, I arrived in America, a little shell-shocked at my bold move. Getting over my initial shock, I landed to Portland in January 2017 and began pursuing a career as a full-time freelance writer. Around the same time, I realized that I no longer felt right attending 12-step fellowships. In the absence of my friends and after-meeting meals, there was nothing keeping me going. I had outgrown talking about my past and referring to myself in a demeaning way. My life was so much more than the Liv who used to drink four bottles of wine a day.
I explored Refuge Recovery, The Alano Club — a local recovery center that offers holistic recovery tools — and began attending Portland Insight Meditation Community. I also joined a gym whose goal is to make women feel strong.
Leaving 12-step fellowships wasn’t easy, especially as we’re told that leaving will lead to returning to use, but it’s the best thing I ever did. I realized that I had the power and the freedom to self-direct a recovery in a way that is right for me, not what someone else thinks I should do. My life is so much bigger than using drugs today — I’ve no desire to go back to that.
At over six and a half years sober and having written about addiction recovery professionally for several years, I know that there are multiple pathways of recovery. The key to a fulfilling recovery is to pick an individualized pathway that works for you and know that may change. Recovery is fluid; it ebbs and flows as we grow and our needs change. Don’t be afraid to mix it up.
Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, STAT News, Recovery.org, Workit Health, and Ravishly. Liv was recently featured in VICE.