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We are all addicts. We all have our own idiosyncrasies, our own draws.

We think of addicts as toothless junkies living in car parks. Yes, they are addicts too. But we forget – with our better educational opportunities, stronger support networks, money and fewer traumas – that we are just as susceptible. We are quick to judge people who fall into the grasps of addiction without accounting for poverty, race, disability and social circumstance. All tie with our susceptibility. We are all the same, we are all human searching for a handle on our emotions.

When you get to the heart of people’s lives, you realise we are all trying to get by. We all have methods of coping – some healthier than others. It could be an on-going weed habit, online gaming, smoking, caffeine, Instagram, using sex to deflect emotion or a socially acceptable middle-class bottle of wine at night. Quiet rumbling addictions. Interchangeable with the word habit.

Addictions can be a way of seeking connection or emotionally numbing pain. How many times have you reached for your phone to get a small hit of connectivity? Or poured yourself a drink to blot out the pain of stress, loneliness or heartbreak.

Some of my better methods of coping include cleaning and exercise. Give me my morning cup of green tea, a dose of Lily Allen, a pack of floor wipes and I am a new woman. Get me lifting weights at the gym and I will feel the blues drift away. Something as simple as a conversation over coffee, decent sex, proper sleep, a letter from a university friend or a home-cooked meal offers relief. Something with meaningful connection or a small act of nurture and I feel the hollowness subside.

I’ve had my fair share addictions. I’ve been addicted to starving myself, bulimia and shopping. I’ve made myself sick in the shower. I’ve pilfered money. I’ve hidden behind shame and compulsion. I’ve done many dark upsetting things to fill voids in my life.

My addictions were clearly problems by the amount of deceit and denial they compiled. I shopped beyond what I could afford and had multiple cover up stories for my acquisition of a new bag. I had so many excuses to depart family meals to throw up. I’d leave a wash of milk and muesli in a bowl on the kitchen counter, so my mum would think I’d had breakfast. I’d swallow down the guilt of ruining a perfectly lovely birthday meal or family trip to Las Iguanas, reeking of my own vomit. I rejected the love people bestowed on me with food. I relied on my parents not having a clue about what to do with a skinny teenage daughter with a chronic Topshop habit. There was no end, no final goal – no matter how skinny I got or how much I bought. Gradually my norm became maintaining a degree of constant dysfunction.

I was a conscientious child and from a young age, I felt a responsibility to be appearing to cope. I felt I must always exude independence. As the eldest of three sisters, I wanted to appear more grown up than I actually was. One less child for my busy parents to worry about. When I started high school, this morphed into a sublingual pressure to be perfect – with my grades, aesthetic and skills. The right amount of pretty, bright and cool. I’ve had a very privileged education and went to a private girl’s school aged 11-16. It was a place where eating disorders were rife. The vogue way of coping with unhappiness. I never expected to form one of my own. Turns out, I was unhappier than I realised.

Shopping and bulimia fit well into the private girl’s school stereotype. There’s a reason for this. Bulimia enabled me to control my weight, hunger helped to blot out emotion but conveniently kept me gnawingly alert enough to study. Shopping kept me distracted, forever on the hunt for the perfect skirt and became a method of channelling anxiety. They were methods that would mentally tax and emotionally cope, but also acceptable enough to absolve any discredit in my social circle that a drug habit or alcohol problem might bring. They were addictions that meant I could still pass exams and look outwardly successful – thin with nice clothes. They were addictions that seemed so normal – I shopped and skipped lunch like many of my classmates. At other schools the vogue was self-harming, cannabis or sniffing glue. If we had access to free-flowing prescription drugs like in America, who knows, we’d all be on Adderall. The form of our addictions is interchangeable, depending on our milieu. They are symptoms of our sadness. Our addictions are products of our environment. We are products of our environment.

In order to change my addictions, I needed to change the environment that produced them. I needed to be in a place where I could talk openly and feel supported, moving away from current expectations and status quo. I changed my ecosystem in big ways and small – switching to a state college with a fantastic pastoral support team, enrolling in therapy, exercising regularly, garnering support from friends and disassociating myself from anyone toxic.

I never went cold turkey on my addictions. Addictions, like everything in mental health and medicine, is nuanced. There is no fast rule for all. I tapered off. I built mental strength slowly over time and broke the habits gradually. Further gaps between bulimia, spending less and less often. I’d choose exercise or a brisk walk whenever I felt anxiety closing in on me – the claustrophobia that routinely led me to the back of a toilet bowl or web browser. Recovery involved daily mindful practice. It was not a smooth road. It was bumpy, I relapsed and then one day after many many days I realised an eating disorder was no longer part of my life any more. I’m still working on the shopping, it’s a past time I use to counteract boredom and mundanity, but I’m pleased to say I’ve got a much better handle on it. I’m finally in control of my finances and I buy and wear clothes because I love them and they serve a purpose. Not because I’m fixated on fantasy – dressing to be someone I want to be rather than the person I am. An imaginary girl wanting an imaginary life.

At the core of my addictions was an addiction to perfection. The perfect wardrobe. Perfect body. Because for so long I felt less than. Underneath my coping mechanisms was a core feeling of never feeling good enough. My low self-esteem catapulted me into the arms of addiction. Addiction quells pain. But only temporarily. A sticky plaster on an open wound.

The hardest thing about recovery was coming face to face with said pain. Without the distraction of starvation and spending, emotional anguish came out of Pandora’s box. I felt huge waves of anxiety, my insides twisting into knots and my back aching from mental exhaustion. I frequently visited the GP convinced I had pyelonephritis or an undiagnosed bowel problem. My head would be filled with worry, overthinking to the point of torture. I felt as if everyone else was operating in a different space time continuum. I felt derailed.

In some ways, addiction was easier than that first stage of true mental recovery. I knew where I stood with my low calories and liberty to fill up my shopping basket. Without them, I felt cut off from my lifelines. I was yet to learn the knowledge that would help me grapple with mental instability. I started asking for help. For so long I’d tried to cope alone. I felt so out of my depth with young adulthood, so overwhelmed.  Needing help felt like a sign of weakness and was a huge source of shame. I didn’t realise that no-one can flourish without support.

We are hard wired to seek reward. It takes greater mental power to seek beyond quick dopamine hits and arbitrary goals of ‘thinner’ or ‘more clothes’ or ‘perfect’. It takes willing to process your unhappiness. I’m aware addiction has added complexity when you are dependent on an external substance, something I’ve never been privy to. Breaking the cycle came because I found motivation for something to live for. Reaching my lowest point gave me conviction that there must be a better way. My mindset became focused on something with longevity – a healthier body, a happier mind and feeling good enough for myself. I had to disconnect my old wiring. With daily practice, I focused on building something more positive and holistic. I exercise regularly, keep my true friends close, express myself creatively with writing and drawing, plant tulips, dance to records in my bedroom. I learnt to not see food as an enemy, but something that could enrich. I learnt to understand my motivations behind shopping and the difference between want, need, desire, fantasy and fabrication. I learnt to talk, to vocalise when I was unhappy with the right people who could help me. I stopped blaming myself for my fuck ups and sought out ways to make positive changes. It took time, it took tears. Since speaking openly, the shame that surrounded my addictions dispersed like a morning breeze. My eating disorder now feels like something that happened to a very different girl in a very different life. What we once were may not always be. You are never a finished project and you mentally have the power to change your fate.

Words by Imogen Bicknell 

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