Part I: Courage to Change
by Olivia Pennelle
Editor's Note: This entry is part of a three-part retrospective series on one of the greatest leaps of faith I've seen in my adult life: a move from the UK to the United States without having first firmly established housing, a job, or even knowing what to expect. Liv has accomplished something many dream about, but never have the courage to undertake.
In late summer 2016, I told my friends and family that I was relocating from the UK to the US.
After they got over the initial shock, they asked me if I was crazy, especially given the precarious political climate. Yet I knew had a calling—a gut instinct—that it was to be now or never. I wanted to transform my life and America is known as the land of opportunity—what could go wrong?!
After all, transformation and tough life changes aren’t new to me; I’ve been in long-term recovery for nearly five years. I made a series of further tough decisions, and mustered up all the resolve I had and made the move in December 2016. It has been my greatest challenge since getting sober. I have struggled in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
As part of this trilogy, I share why I had to move, how I made it a possibility and how I have grown exponentially. My life has indeed transformed. My greatest discovery has been the uncovering of an untapped well of faith that has carried me through these dark and challenging times.
A Dream, Postponed
Moving wasn’t a decision that I made lightly. It wasn’t like I was relocating from one city to the next; I was moving a whole continent away! I originally hailed from New York, but my family relocated to the UK when I was just 3 years old. The greatest thing that came out of that situation was that I was given a gift, the best of both worlds—I became a dual citizen.
As an American citizen growing up and living in the UK, there was this whole new dimension that I hadn’t fully explored back in the States. I’d visited family in the US during summer vacations and that created a lasting allure, a dream of something more—I knew one day I must go back. But this didn’t become a possibility for many years.
Life had a different plan for me.
I suffered with a long-standing addiction to alcohol and drugs, and an underlying eating disorder that debilitated my teenage and adult life. Slowly but surely, addiction ravaged my life, my relationships, and my body. I barely existed. Consumed entirely with an obsession and compulsion to use, despite the consequences. I coasted along at rock bottom for a couple of years, when at 32, with no job and few relationships left, everyone I cared about was either sick of me or worried sick.
Then something shifted. I reached a crossroads: kill myself and end my pain and misery, or get help and have a meaningful life.
There was this ever-so-small glimmer of hope that I could have a fulfilling life with meaning and connection. That place is where my dreams lay dormant and suppressed by the lashings of drugs and alcohol I exposed myself to. I never felt so lost in my entire life. Empty. I am not entirely sure what happened. I call it grace. I stumbled into recovery.
Recovery is the hardest process I have ever committed to in my life. Not for the faint of heart, the odds are stacked against you. I’m now convinced it's totally worth it. Recovery is commonly referred to as a journey of uncovering, discarding and letting go. I discarded addictive behaviors and substances that no longer served me. I let go of the past, and I uncovered the "real" Liv.
What I discovered surprised me. My eyes—the window to my soul—began to sparkle. In the process of recovery, I removed the blocks that stood in the way of my expression. I tapped into a reserve of creativity and passion that I was unaware of. My creative expression connects me to the world today in the most fulfilling and rewarding way. I feel a sense of purpose which propels me to continue my journey. And it happened in an unexpected way with my secondary illness.
In the process of recovery, I uncovered a long-standing eating disorder. As I began the healing process, I shared my journey with the world, founding the website Liv’s Recovery Kitchen. Before I knew it, I became an outspoken voice on the journey toward health and wellness in recovery. Opportunities from the US arose. Rehabs asked me to write for them. I then started writing for well-known addiction recovery publications and fellow recovery websites. I became firmly connected with the online recovery community and am ranked amongst the top addiction recovery bloggers.
The new opportunities provided glimpses into a realm I didn’t think possible. They tapped into that extra dimension—my dreams, lying dormant in my soul, were now ready to burst out in action and provide a message of hope to help others in their own struggles. I began to hope that there was a life beyond my life in England in a dead-end office job. I began to wonder again whether I could I make the move to America. I started to seriously consider it.
Finding My Big Magic
I was unable to make that dream a reality for some time—my addiction had landed me in over $30,000 of debt that I had spent the last four years repaying. I knew that I had to play the long game. But it was one long, hard slog.
I worked in jobs that were not suited to my skills, but were compatible with recovery. I dreaded going to work. I suffered with anxiety and depression and I constantly felt like I was trudging through thick tar. The jobs were repetitive, unfulfilling and draining. I was like I was a tiny cog in a working machine, carrying out my allotted tasks, day-after-day. I asked myself, Is this what recovery should look like? I thought there had to be more to life.
The only thing that kept me going was daring to dream big and continuing to write. I read Big Magic, a book by Elizabeth Gilbert, and it lit a fire under my ass. I finally decided on daring to dream big. The universe responded to my continued efforts by giving me enough work to pay my debts early, and my hard work was finally rewarded. I became debt free in summer 2016.
I arrived at another crossroads: I was 37, single, with no dependents—it was now or never. I decided to bite the bullet and go for it. I began hatching a plan in earnest.
A Plan to Move
My plan started with the practical aspects of relocation: research—including speaking to those who have already moved—devising a budget, saving, selling everything, severing leases, contracts and employment.
By focusing on the practical aspects of a huge project like this, I engaged the rational part of brain—which assisted in distracting me from the emotions and feelings of leaving friends and family behind. I spoke with my twin brother, who had made the move to the States 8 years earlier. I researched the steps that I would need to take without the benefit of a company relocation. I set up a basic plan in a spreadsheet. (I know. I am an organizational badass!) I knew I needed to lay out the steps I would need to take to make my dream a reality. I plotted the course of action I would follow for 6 months. I wanted to be able to see the big picture and see the key milestones in my plan.
My next step was deciding on a location.
I fell in love with San Francisco and the Bay Area when I visited my brother and his wife at their home there in October 2015. But I knew without a job in tech, that wasn’t going to be a financial reality. I had no desire to work in tech and wanted to move away from the corporate machine. My brother suggested Portland or Seattle.
Portland had an unexplained resonance with me, something I struggle to articulate fully. It just felt right. Everyone I spoke to about Portland described it as some kind of magical place. The locale drew me with a supernatural allure. I had to go. Some people called me crazy, saying, “You’re moving to a place that you have never been to before?!”
Undeterred, I continued with my research. I could see that Portland had an affordable cost of living, similar to Manchester, so I knew that I could make it work. I prepared a cash flow forecast and calculated the average living costs of rent, utilities, transport, and relocation costs. My efforts paid off—they helped me to see the bigger picture over a year. I could see what I would need to earn to make ends meet and what I needed to take with me.
I saved every penny I could and took on any writing opportunity I could find.
The Leap of Faith
Then I took the first, big leap: I told my friends and family. People still thought I was nuts: You’re moving somewhere without a job?
My mother, who made this same decision when she was 21 in the 1970s, bought the airfare as her gift to me. While she was devastated that I wouldn’t be a simple 30-minute drive away any longer, she understood. I then made it happen: I sold all my belongings and gave notice on my house and job in the UK. I only allowed myself two suitcases for my favorite books, clothes, shoes and accessories. Actually, it was quite liberating getting rid my possessions.
Emotionally, it was a different challenge altogether.
I decided to go before Christmas, and I spent the holiday with my brother and his wife in the Bay Area, because it would have been too tough emotionally to spend Christmas at home. While I felt like I had outgrown my life in the UK, I still have good friends and family there. I had also established a solid recovery program. Still, I knew that the relationships that were meant to last would not let an ocean stand in the way of them. I began to prepare friends and family for my impending departure.
We all shed tears, and it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make. Many continued to call me crazy and asked: why on earth would you want to move to a country that had an uncertain political and cultural future? They asked, why would you leave an established recovery network? They challenged my motives for making the move. Some accused me of making a “geographical,” or simply shifting my life to a new locale.
I knew though that my reasons were my own and I never felt as if I were running away from anything.
Some people understood my dream: the allure of something greater, a promise of more to life than the one I had outgrown. The thirst for new adventure called so loudly that I couldn’t continue to ignore it. After all, recovery is about questioning the possibility of living a life you didn’t think you were destined to live.
It is about daring to dream big!
On December 19, 2016, I boarded the plane, US bound, with tears streaming down my cheeks, but also with the greatest sense of purpose I have ever felt.
What happened next was a series of shocks, surprises, joys, worries, sorrows, and delights.
Click here for Liv's Next Entry in this Series with PART II
Olivia Pennelle is a regular contributor to Transformation is Real. She now boldly claims her home city as Portland, Oregon and works as a freelance writer and recovery advocate. Visit her fine website at Liv's Recovery Kitchen and discover her wonderful (and healthy) recipes and frequent interviews she conducts. She's also on Facebook and Twitter.