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Mother, scholar, entrepreneur, and recovering addict: Belgian MORGANE VERCRUYSSE CONLON ticks many boxes at once yet has learned to let go of labels and accept every part of who she has become along the way.

– Text Stephanie Fiz

When we set up Moments a few years ago, we wanted it to be a platform for different voices and thoughts, for stories that echo life as it is: beautiful and harsh. No one has ever benefited from living in a fairy-tale world, even more so: obsessively trying to make that mirage happen brings forth feelings of shame, insecurities and, in some cases, destructive coping mechanisms. I suffer from an addiction and an eating disorder. I know now there’s no shame in telling the darker pages of my story, even in a glossy magazine portraying the beautiful art of family life. I’ve been in bad places, but in time knocked on the right doors to get the help I needed. 

One of those doors was Liberty Home, run by the woman who would soon become my best friend and real-life hero: Morgane Vercruysse. She taught me to consider myself in a new light and is living proof of how liberating total honesty can be. Liberty Home is a halfway house in Cape Town offering a safe, substance-free environment to people suffering from addictions. After detox, patients can check in for a few weeks or even months to readjust to life outside treatment. The home doesn’t function as a classical clinic: no hierarchy or complex structure, but open-minded honesty. Upon entering the house, one of the name tags reads “Morgane, MeToo”. Morgane, a recovering addict herself, is the beating heart and soul of the project and refuses to turn her back on her past. Not anymore. “There is no shame and no judgement in recovery. It’s not about changing people; it’s about creating an environment allowing them to let themselves in, to embrace who they are. It doesn’t matter whether you are skinny, poor, rich, fat, bisexual, or asexual, … you’re you! We try to help people become comfortable with establishing an authentic picture.” Not that she’s always been cool with that; quite the contrary. Painting the perfect picture kept her going for years. And she’s still quite good at it. When meeting her for the first time, you wouldn’t suspect this radiant 30-year-old mother of one, beloved wife, and accomplished scholar to have had a troubled past. People tend to call her a superwoman, successful, powerful and honest, but today the only label that matters to her is the latter. “Finding humility is the key to my life now, my main value, and sharing what I’ve been through might help others. So here we go…”

PICTURE-PERFECT I am a person who seeks and needs to obtain to feel satisfied. This can be powerful, of course, but there’s also another end to that over-achieving spectrum, and it is far from healthy. For different reasons, I got stuck on the wrong end at a young age. I grew up in a loving household with two strong parents. My father is a wonderful man and has greatly impacted my life. I inherited his go-getter personality and noticed early on how he would give me confirmation whenever I managed to achieve something. I went to boarding school when I was twelve and found myself in a strange new world, surrounded by people I couldn’t help but feel different from. It bothered me that I couldn’t compete with my schoolmates on a financial level, so I tried to beat them at everything else: scoring the best marks, winning sports competitions, being the prettiest girl, the skinniest girl, the toughest girl, … It started rather innocently, as I am naturally sporty, and it seemed to work for a while. I was kind of happy and had lots of friends. As I got older, I started craving affirmation outside our 1 safe school world. Adults marvelled at how poised and grownup I was; they congratulated me on my looks and slim silhouette. It compelled me to continue down the road I was on, and I set myself radical goals, which I also achieved – such as losing twenty kilograms in 20 months. Looking back, this is where my descent into anorexia began. I started losing interest in social life as achieving my goals became an obsession. Weirdly enough, it still felt like I was doing the right thing here – I told myself I just happened to be more mature than my classmates. Men increasingly noticed me, a feeling I loved, which again seemed to affirm how well I was doing. When I was about fifteen, I discovered something new: the buzz provoked by alcohol that numbed all my fears and insecurities, clearing the way for powerful, “successful” feelings only. 

THE CRACKS My first serious boyfriend came from a different financial background than I did. I couldn’t afford his lifestyle, so attaching myself to him in an extreme way felt like the only way out of my world and into his, the only way to be good enough. Again, I relinquished myself and got male affirmation in return – that feeling of power! From then on, whenever I stepped into a new relationship, I mentally got engaged with that person. That first dating experience marks where a split happened, and I fully started living two lives: the one I portrayed publicly and the one going on behind closed doors. I became the queen of overcompensating, taking on the role of president of the student counselling, organising a fundraiser and raising 25.000 euros in one evening, setting up a benefit run with none other than triathlete Marc Herremans. All that for a high-school student who was secretly smoking in her bedroom and drinking alcohol with one of the teachers during lunch breaks… 

I went from being extraverted and joyful to self-absorbed, irrational and isolated. Looking back, you can say I was fighting a lonely inner battle every minute of every day. Of course, my family noticed something was off and offered their best help. But I figured they couldn’t understand my pain and fooled them repeatedly. I had so many clever ways of hiding how bad the situation was: people struggling with addiction are the best at covering up. A therapeutic team was supervising my eating disorder, I was restricted from doing sports at school, and I was put on a medical diet, but I always found my way out of it.

FALLING At university, my anorexia changed into bulimia. The guilt and shame over it were overwhelming, especially since no one around me seemed to deal with issues like these, so I forced myself to make up for it. How? By achieving even more, of course. I juggled my studies, eating disorder and unhealthy drinking habit like a pro for two years. During the academic term, for instance, I’d use alcohol to keep the eating disorder’s voice quiet. Even though I ended up in the hospital or blacked out most of the time, I told myself I was just having “fun” like any other college student. With every morning waking up without memories, however, the remorse grew bigger, as did the urge to drink even more – because only getting drunk would shut out my feelings of guilt. During exam time, I put both alcohol and my other feelings on hold to focus on studying, which made me a pretty successful student and allowed me to look normal again to the outside world. And then, a series of unsettling events occurred: my then-boyfriend died in a car crash, one of my friends took his life, and my parents got a divorce. These circumstances gave me the perfect excuse to “go crazy”: I quit school, which was the only thing that had stopped me from going off the rails before, moved to another city and started working in a restaurant and bar. I lived in an unfurnished flat of barely eight square metres, next to a homeless man, for six months. You can hardly use the word living to describe my state. I was addicted to alcohol, got into drugs and unhealthy sexual behaviour, and took two attempts on my life. Even then, however, my family kept trying to help me. One day I got harassed on my way home, which ended in an unwanted sexual encounter. That day, the last boundaries disappeared, my last stronghold of sanity left me, and nothing could keep me from falling. And with those boundaries, all my values equally left the building: I would lie, steal, hurt the people around me and most of all, refuse help because I didn’t care anymore. Addiction is a progressive disease, a disease of loneliness, and once things get out of hand, there is an urge to make it worse and worse. There was no escaping the negative spiral of alcohol and drug abuse anymore, as was my toxic sexual behaviour and all the accompanying traumatic consequences. I was twenty-three years old and utterly dependent on my so-called best friend, a bottle of vodka. In the end, the little spark that saved me was the hurt over losing my female dignity. I woke up in the bed of a stranger who treated me as little more than some paid-out service and decided to ask for help.

CLIMBING So, there I was … a complete mess, ticking all the boxes of severe addiction. I chose to get help far away from home because once the effect of all the mind-altering substances I took wore off, the shame and guilt I felt almost crushed me. Thank God accepting those same feelings later proved to be the first step towards recovery. I’ve been clean for six years, but don’t expect me to tell you it’s all sugar and spice. Getting free of substances doesn’t mean you are “cured”; there is no cure for addiction. My path to recovery was harrowing on all levels, and I wanted to give up more than once. To this day, I owe everything to a dedicated team of therapists supporting me, which is why I want to give back. I made huge mistakes during recovery. After years of numbing my feelings with alcohol, drugs and sex, the emotional impact of those mistakes hit me hard and sharp. Being clean didn’t free me from my demons, nor did moving from Belgium to South Africa. I worked as a model in early recovery and was obsessive about airbrushing my pictures, still feeling the pressure to be found attractive. I was falling again. I’ve been clean since 2016 but had to be admitted to a psychological hospital in 2018 due to self-harm, depression, and the inability to cope with a sober life. Looking back, I realise I couldn’t be authentic, still hooked on the perfect picture I wanted so hard for myself. It still is my weak spot. There is no before and after recovery. Whether it’s 2014, 2016 or 2023: the struggle remains, and my demons will never leave me entirely, but I know now that there’s a way of working with and around them. When I met my husband Vincent, he helped me tune in to my softer side. He showed me it’s okay to let him take charge now and then, even let him take care of me. This side of me didn’t come easy, but that’s how I discovered humility. He is my first healthy relationship, a man I respect more deeply than I can put into words, the first person who treats me as his equal. He makes me feel safe, an emotion I’ve hardly ever known. 

LIVING I wish I could erase the darkest parts of my journey, the total dependency on alcohol and the loss of my dignity. I cannot. What I can do, however, is alleviate the pain of others going through similar struggles. I can recognise myself in other addicts, make them feel less lonely and give them a story they can relate to. That’s why I started studying Psychology at the University of Cape Town and founded Liberty Home in 2017. Little Olivia was born in 2021 and even though I love her unconditionally, having a child revives my tendency to make everything picture-perfect. I’m happy to share joyful pictures of us hiking together, but what about the hours of crying, the loss of my free time and the insecurities that come with motherhood? I didn’t want her involved in Liberty Home at first, but then I realised it is no good to shelter her from “it”, from that part of who I am. The dark horse of addiction is always looming, and I genuinely fear she has inherited my tendency towards addiction.

Sometimes I cry, and sometimes I can laugh at myself over-analysing her. It’s about balance: she comes in now and then and interacts with patients and staff. I don’t want to repeat my mistakes: my daughter will grow up surrounded by reality and experience pleasant and unpleasant emotions. I want her to be free to express all her feelings, whatever those may be. That will be her superpower should she ever encounter the same struggles I did. It may sound unconventional, but Olivia isn’t my sole priority; both she ànd my wish to help others are. I sometimes feel guilty about this, but I figure there is more to life than being a mother alone; balance is essential. It doesn’t change anything about how much I love her. People sometimes call me a superwoman these days, asking how I combine motherhood, my studies and running a recovery home. I’m far from being super. I sacrifice a lot to do this; my life consists of study-baby-work and back again. I sometimes still crave, not necessarily alcohol, but the numbness and darkness of living outside the lines. I don’t slip back into it because I know I’m not alone. I’ve got a husband and a child, a recovery home full of beautiful souls whom I can help. I’ve learned to set priorities and overlook idle longings such as a picture-perfect life: I know my true passions now; my lifeline is love. 

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