Most of the women on the addictions counselling Zoom call are older than me, and they talk about how their kids don’t want to be around them anymore. They say they have a hard time standing up for themselves and being honest about what they want.
“I need my son to be around me all the time,” says L. She’s the only one calling from an in-patient detox centre. Her hair is white, and her voice is gruff, like her throat has been rubbed down with sandpaper. The camera is angled up from the bed she’s sitting on, showing the underside of her nose – two black, round push pins. There are deep lines that cut down her cheeks and the undercarriage of her chin. She rocks back and forth on the bed. The other floating heads on my screen nod.
“But I can’t force him. How can I make him want to see me without forcing him?”
The Zoom call is hosted by a province-funded addiction centre that provides group therapy to women who have been referred by a doctor, a social worker, or the courts. Some of the women struggle with alcohol and alcohol only. The others have issues with meth, benzos, heroin – anything that makes you go up, down or numb.
“And I just have the shakes all the time,” L is still rocking back and forth. “My skin is so itchy. I feel like there’s bugs crawling over me.”
I want to tell her I understand, but we’re supposed to leave our microphones on mute. Instead, I sit and watch my floating head on the screen in front of me nod up and down and up and down.
I landed myself in an outpatient addiction centre two years before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it didn’t take. I had been drinking alone every day for as long as I can remember. It was a gradual process, like water boiling. Like everyone who drinks or uses drugs, I didn’t believe I had a problem. I was never arrested. I was never fired. Nobody ever said anything to me about my drinking. In fact, the opposite happened. My drinking was some kind of joke that made me likeable. I was the girl who was “good at drinking.” I had “Irish blood.” “You were always a bit of a lush, eh?”
When my drinking was at its heaviest, between 2017 and 2019, my natural state was that fog between slipping out of consciousness and into a deep sleep. I would start off the evening with two drinks while making dinner, then gradually move to the third and fourth while trying to do something productive like cleaning or putting up shelves or doing laundry, faltering in my attempt to convince myself that drinking wasn’t degrading my life (see! I did the dishes! There’s water everywhere and I broke two of them, but they’re done!) Then, I would drink more until I blacked out, started crying, vomited, or fell asleep while watching TV. For a while, all I would drink was beer. It was cheap and accessible. But then I noticed I was gaining weight, so I switched to pre-mixed cans of vodka sodas. It was a balancing act. I had to buy enough to get me through the night, but I couldn’t buy too much, or else I’d be incapacitated the next morning and wouldn’t be able to go to work. If I bought a whole bottle of hard liquor, it would instantly be gone. My tolerance level also shifted from day to day, which made planning even trickier. Some days I could drink two bottles of wine and be fine the next morning, but other times five tall cans of beer would knock me out. If I found myself down to my last drink after the stores had closed and I still needed more, I’d either go out to a bar alone, or I’d steal my roommates’ vodka or gin from the freezer. I would do a cost-benefit analysis in my head, but the thought of not drinking at all would never cross my mind. Drinking is a full-time job. The substance takes over your body, but it also takes over your mind, demanding your attention 24/7. It’s not a passive activity; one fights to find their substance like a drowning victim fights for oxygen. If you’re not thinking about where you’re going to get it, you’re thinking about how much you should do, when you can get it, and how you should plan out your day so acquiring it is not inconvenient. For example, if my friend asked me if I’d like to go grab dinner at a restaurant, my first thought would be, do they serve booze? If the answer was no, I’d have three options:
1. Ask if they wanted to go to a different restaurant, one that served alcohol.
2. See if they’d want to grab drinks afterward.
3. Decline and drink alone.
The morning after a night of drinking, I’d sit at my desk job in an office in downtown Toronto, drink my coffee and stare at my computer screen, waiting for the fog and nausea to lift. When the day was over, I’d commute back to my apartment in Little Portugal, stop at the LCBO on the way, and start the whole mess over again. I felt like a loose clump of hair in the shower that just keep circling the drain.
My therapist at the time, who I was seeing for sexual assault-related depression and anxiety, asked about my alcohol use after it had been brought up during a session. Up until that point, I had never talked about how much I drank because I didn’t think anything was wrong. I rarely drank during the day, so it couldn’t be that bad.
“I think it’s something we should examine,” I remember her saying. I hadn’t gotten to a point yet where I was sick of being sick all the time. I had no idea how interconnected assault and addiction was, nor did I know, or any of us know, the massive tidal wave that was going to descend upon us in a year’s time, throwing everyone with a substance abuse issue into the deep end without a life jacket.
“I fucked up yesterday. So, I’m feeling shitty about that,” C is lying on her side on a bed, and her video is dark. She sounds high, and even though we’re told we should try to be sober for the meetings, sometimes the facilitators let it slide. “I bought a new wig to make myself feel better. Feel prettier.”
When the pandemic hit, there was an influx of relapsers, but all addiction centres had to close their in-person meetings. AA and other groups moved online. People were stressed about getting laid off, losing loved ones, or contracting the illness – the uncertainty of it all. The curtain was drawn back, and we saw that, not only was the whole show run by a handful of fools, the fools learned that the jig was up and were skipping town. People’s perception of how much control they had was shattered, and nothing breeds substance abuse more than the shattering of our understanding of what is real and what is not. Alcohol sales went up. People started using their drugs again, just harder and in larger quantities. More overdoses. More deaths. It was a pandemic hidden inside a pandemic, like a strung-out nesting doll.
Many people criticized the government for keeping liquor stores open. To some, these shops are not essential. To some, these shops are just a bonus. But to others, cutting off supply means withdrawal seizures, hallucinations, or delirium tremens. To others, it means death. Withdrawal from alcohol can be dangerous, and safe detox sites are difficult to find, especially if a person doesn’t have access to online resources or health contacts. Whether or not the government deliberately considered this in their decision making, and not solely economic activity, is not for me to say.
C usually falls asleep halfway through the meetings, and sometimes we can hear her soft breathing. Her boyfriend yells at her sometimes too. He shouts long strings of sentences that I can’t fully understand, but I can hear the rise and fall of words and the reverberations through the walls of her bedroom. We’re not allowed to turn off our cameras because it’s a private group, and cameras prove to the councillors that nobody is watching over our shoulders. Or if someone does come into the room, the councillors know if we’re in danger.
The group is run through an organization that offers free services, so the waitlist is long. Traditional rehab is expensive and not practical for the average person, which is why a lot of people end up relying on AA. Not only does the average rehab cost thousands of dollars, but it also requires you to give up months of your time. I still had to work through the pandemic – taking time off to go detox wouldn’t fly. Free weekly group meetings are all some of us can afford, in time and in money. Because the sessions are online, the maximum number of participants for each group is 30 people, and the spots fill up quickly. It’s incredible that therapists and organizations shifted so fast to offer programs online, and the fact that we have this technology is amazing. But the pandemic posed a significant threat to people’s ability to access recovery resources – especially those who do not have access to a private device – or the internet at all.
Some of us chose this specific centre because we don’t feel comfortable talking about our issues in front of men. Some of us are court-ordered to attend. It’s rare to find addiction programs specifically for women that are free and not based on the 12 steps, like AA. AA works for some people, but it’s also a program based on the idea that we’re powerless over substances and we’ll be inflicted all our lives. It’s explained as a disease that we’re born with, rather than a symptom of something more sinister. What’s never taken into account in AA is the “why?” Why some people need to numb. Why some people can drink occasionally and be fine, but for the rest of us, we can never drink enough. AA can reinforce substance abuse stereotypes that are ubiquitous in our society, from an institutional level to a community level. The idea that recovery is just a matter of willpower and determination is what has guided health policies and rehabilitation programs. It forces community members to experience a lack of empathy toward people with substance abuse issues. It becomes an issue of morality, not trauma.
For years, I held my drinking close to my chest because I was scared that if I told anybody about it, I would be judged and chastised. There’s a teeter-totter phase in addiction where you’re constantly oscillating between “yes, I’m ready to try and give it up” and “no, I don’t really have a problem.” Giving up alcohol would mean that I was no longer fun or interesting. Alcohol had been part of my identity for so long and moving into sobriety would mean I’d lose part of myself. My favourite part. The part that smiled all the time and made people laugh. The part that didn’t care about my assault and didn’t let it define me. The part that didn’t care about anything, because I couldn’t care, because I was always numb. I wasn’t ready to grieve her.
But after a particularly humiliating night out in 2018 where I vomited all over Queen Street in downtown Toronto, I called Ontario’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. I had to amp myself up for it, going back and forth between being ready to try and find professional help and believing that my drinking really wasn’t that bad. CAMH allows you to self-refer for their outpatient program, although you can get a referral from a doctor or therapist. The intake appointments were booked up for the month, so I had to wait. When the day finally came, I sat in a small, sterile office, and the doctor asked me about my drinking habits and how much I drank in a week. I couldn’t give her a straight answer because I honestly didn’t know. 30 drinks? 40? What’s considered a drink? At a certain point, I just lose count. She said I had severe alcohol use disorder and gave me Naltrexone, a drug originally used to curb opioid addiction but had been successful in trials for alcohol use as well. It works by decreasing the desire to use, but it also blocks the reward chemical that ignites in your brain when you do use. That feeling of euphoria. Comfort. The thing addicts are always trying to chase. Some people define addiction as the narrowing of pleasure. When you take away the behaviour that culminates in that very narrow window of pleasure, like drinking, you risk falling into a deep depression because there’s nothing that compares to what alcohol can give you. This is why for some alcoholics, the risks associated with quitting outweigh the benefits. In fact, there are no benefits to quitting in the mind of an addict. The other side looks like a desolate wasteland, bleak with nothing but the reality of everyday life. That’s why people almost always relapse. It’s hard to see the advantage of giving up your only access to serenity when it means surrendering yourself to the pain of the doldrum.
The medication made me dry-heave and want to sleep forever, so I gave up it up after about three days. The CAMH doctor offered group therapy, but the thought of talking about my problems in a circle of strangers put me off. I eventually built up the courage to talk about my issue with a friend since I’d never tried before. Their reaction was mixed.
“A diagnosis doesn’t really mean anything,” they said. “You’re probably not that bad. Why don’t you just stop drinking if you really want to quit?”
After that, I started dodging CAMH’s calls. I skipped appointments. Besides, it was getting close to Christmas and I couldn’t stop drinking during the holidays. And I wasn’t that bad. A diagnosis doesn’t mean anything. If I really wanted to quit, I could do it alone.
Almost all the women in the online addictions group have been sexually abused or raped. We’re not allowed to speak in detail of our trauma as it could trigger someone, but every now and then it just comes out.
“I was violently assaulted.”
“I live with my rapist.”
“I didn’t realize until seven years later that what happened to me was rape. I’m so far into my addiction now, it feels too late to stop.”
The world hates women addicts. They hate queer addicts. They hate addict mothers. We’re either not addict enough and faking it for attention, or we’re too addicted and deserve whatever we get – failing as mothers, daughters, wives, and partners. The only empathetic addict, it seems, is a white man with a jawline, mysterious and brooding. Someone women can try to save, and other men can call a genius. The Addictä we see replicated in movies and TV shows.
After trying to get sober and failing and cutting down and relapsing, I learned that alcohol was never my problem. Alcohol was how I dealt with my problems. We turn to drugs and alcohol because we don’t think our problems are real. We don’t deserve to take up space with our lived experiences. If we’re assaulted, we were asking for it. If we’re hit, we should have left long ago. If we had abusive parents, it’s “daddy issues.” We’re told that our inability to carve out the lives we want for ourselves is due to the fact that we’re weak, and it has nothing to do with a systemic issue. The drowning victim’s thrashing is misconstrued, and instead of help, gets a polite wave from bystanders safe on the shore. The clump of hair circling the drain is finally kicked down. Having empathy for ourselves doesn’t excuse the harmful things we do to others, mainly the people we love, while in active addiction, but it explains it. Alcohol and drugs were the hugs we never received.
I started to see how interlocked addiction is with trauma. How one of the biggest triggers for addiction is not a moral failing on the part of the addict but a moral failing of society. And when systems fail to protect us from abuse or fail to reprimand those who cause harm, our glasses fill up fuller and fuller and we sink deeper and deeper.
Two months into the pandemic, I reached out to CAMH again to do another self-referral and they gladly accepted me back. Because of the long waitlist, I wasn’t able to talk with anyone for a few months. I was eventually paired up with an addictions councillor who would call me once a month for 10 minutes. Because of the pandemic, CAMH stopped offering group meetings, so instead, they’d send me links to online AA meetings. During our sessions, my counsellor couldn’t offer me in-depth support and instead would just check in to see if I had any goals or needed more medication. I refused to take the medication because of the nausea but also because, as a contract worker, I didn’t have health insurance. Naltrexone costs close to $200 out of pocket for their lowest supply. I was thankful to have someone checking in on me, even if it was only once a month for 10 minutes, but it wasn’t enough.
It’s hard to explain wanting so desperately to quit something and wanting to keep doing it at the same time. It’s like wanting to break up with someone but continuing to fall for all the good times you had together. Maybe next time it will be different. They’re the only ones who can make me feel this way. I hate alcohol. I despise the look of it, and I despise the taste. I hate what it’s done to my body and my life. But I wasn’t ready to give it up. My brain still associated it with reward and enjoyment. When I drank, I was 18 years old again, feeling like I could do anything and go anywhere – I had the confidence to do what I wanted and feel no anxiety about sticking up for myself. It was my oxygen. My best friend. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked to the liquor store on autopilot, only to come into consciousness while standing at the check-out. Walking to the liquor store was a reflex. Like putting your hands up when something is thrown at you. It’s how the body protects itself from pain. But addiction is also isolating. A lot of time is spent hiding your using from family and friends and lying to them about what you’re doing. This creates a lot of shame in the body and anxiety about being caught. Even if you use or drink with other people, you’re doing it alone. There’s also the risk that if you do talk about it with other people, they might try to get you to stop when you’re not ready. Then you’ll fail them when you relapse. Being held accountable by loved ones can feel like a trap when you’re not ready to get sober.
But with a pandemic, that isolation was compounded. The early weeks felt like I was floating, stunned underwater. Time had stopped, and there was no ground underneath to catch my footing. I was screaming into a void. My drinking had skyrocketed, as well as my use of benzos which I had been prescribed for my anxiety. I had squandered all the support and resources available to me, and I was getting what I deserved.
“When we talk about anger, usually it’s in the form of anger management,” the councillor on the Zoom call talks in a calming and strong voice. “But anger is a useful and necessary emotion. Anger is trying to tell us something. Usually, it’s a protective or reactionary emotion. And it’s almost always correlated with fear.”
I had never allowed myself to be angry about my assault, mostly because I had convinced myself for so long that what had happened to me wasn’t that bad. I had thought there was ambiguity or variables I needed to account for. Did I know and care about this person? Yes. Did I agree to hang out with this person? Yes. Did I agree to get into bed with this person? Yes. So, no boundaries or trust could have been broken, right?
I told myself the anger wasn’t justified, but that didn’t make it go away. And when you don’t, or can’t, acknowledge your anger, it becomes misplaced. Instead of being angry at the person who hurt you, you became angry at yourself. When you drink in excess, you’re actively trying to kill yourself. Drinking just looks different from the other forms of suicide. You’re trying to escape the pain because the alternative is sitting with the emotion, which means acknowledging the truth. The pandemic forced us all into isolation, and at the same time, asked us to confront the things we had been actively trying to avoid. I had once again found myself stuck.
As my drinking worsened leading into the summer of 2020, I decided to look for a therapist again. But this time, I wanted to find someone who specialized in addiction. Most therapists mean well, but if they’re not trained in addictions counselling, they can do more harm than good. This is especially true if they approach it as if it’s an issue of self-control. My last therapist would always try and give me suggestions on how to cut down.
“What if you choose days where you absolutely don’t drink alcohol?” or “Have you tried substituting wine with herbal tea?”
Approaching addiction as if it’s about self-control usually triggers shame. This, in turn, triggers feelings of inadequacy and self-hatred, which triggers using substances to cope; and the snake begins to eat its own tail. Finding a therapist who knew about addiction was a game-changer. She knew I wasn’t lazy or indulgent. She knew I didn’t lack willpower or that I was weak. We would FaceTime and discuss the concept of “harm reduction” and radical self-acceptance, which includes trying to quiet the voice in my mind that would get angry at myself for drinking. Harm reduction is a strategy that doesn’t ask a person to abstain from drinking or drug use but rather tries to reduce the health and social harms associated with it. It acknowledges that people coping with addiction can’t just switch it off. This can look like nicotine patches, safe injection sites, or drinking water while you consume alcohol at a bar. At first, it seemed counterintuitive to be gentle with myself after a slip. I was so used to the notion of tough love and trying to pull myself up by my bootstraps.
When you first start the practice of self-compassion, it can be uncomfortable and actually makes the pain worse. Dr. Kristin Neff calls this phenomenon “backdraft,” a firefighting term that describes what happens when a door in a burning house is opened and oxygen rushes in, fueling the flames even further. “When we give ourselves unconditional love, we discover the conditions under which we were unloved,” she says. But eventually, it reduces your shame. You relinquish feelings of inadequacy. You can be struggling with addiction and also be a good person, and also be breaking ground with your mental health.
Having a therapist guide me through this other approach to addiction completely changed my mindset. Practicing self-compassion challenged me to take myself and my problems seriously. There was no more minimizing. No more saying “well, other people have it worse.” My therapist asked me when my drinking really started taking off. I told her it was probably around the time I had gone back to school, in 2017.
“What were your thoughts,” she asked me, “around the MeToo Movement? That grew in 2017.”
I told her I couldn’t remember.
“I think you can’t remember because you were numbing yourself by drinking,” she said.
In July of 2020, I was able to quit drinking for a month. It was the longest I had gone without alcohol in 7 years. The first week, I sweated through my sheets every night and never slept. The second week, all I could do was sleep. Bugs crawled all over my skin. All I ate was candy or anything high in sugar. I was irritable. My hands shook. I couldn’t shit. By the third week, I was anxious all the time. I started smoking again, going through half a pack a day and avoiding conversations with friends. It was a huge achievement. But it only lasted until the first week of August. That’s when I found out my contract was ending. My department had cut their funding because of the pandemic, and the company couldn’t keep me on full-time. Goodbye steady income. Goodbye structure. I couldn’t afford to pay for therapy anymore, which was $185 a session. By the second week of August, I had eased myself back into a bottle of wine a day. My therapist’s last-ditch attempt at providing me with free support was directing me to a little-known community-based organization that helped women suffering from substance abuse.
The waitlist was three months.
“I’m a little annoyed with myself,” K says. “I agreed to do something that I really don’t want to do. And I’d feel bad if I try to get out of it.”
This type of issue is brought up a lot: saying yes when you mean no. Agreeing when you disagree. Staying silent. When the councillor asks the group if we could define the term “boundaries,” nobody says a word.
A lot of addicts are people pleasers. The most common personality trait among substance users is extreme empathy. We take on other people’s problems and feelings as if it’s our responsibility to manage and placate the people around us. Feeling too much too often means we get overwhelmed, especially if we were never taught how to cope with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Having an addictive personality is a myth – it’s a red herring. The truth is less of a thought-terminating cliché and requires more cognitive energy: compassion overload.
The way to heal from this is to learn how to put ourselves first by setting boundaries and practicing radical self-acceptance. But for many of us, we don’t know how to put ourselves first healthily. We were taught that it was selfish. The way we learned how to put ourselves first was through using drugs and alcohol. To us, that was self-care. To us, that was autonomy.
The pandemic ruined sobriety for many people and challenged the rest of us to take a hard look at our relationship with substances. It caused significant barriers for accessing resources and strapped councillors and therapists who, even before the pandemic, were already burning out. The pandemic magnified the cracks and inequities in our systems, revealing that they’re as sturdy as a house of cards.
“We’re going to move into check out,” the councillor says. “I’ll call your name, and if you’d like, say two or three words about how you’re feeling. Try to avoid words like ‘good’ or ‘bad.’”
Check-out lasts about 20 minutes. Sometimes it goes over because people need to vent or talk about something that was missed in the session, but for the most part, people just say a few words.
“I’m feeling overwhelmed and angry.”
“I’m feeling grateful for the group.”
“I’m just tired.”
“I’m feeling lonely and scared.”
We all say our goodbyes and the councillor tells us to email her in order to sign up for next week but to do so as soon as possible. The spots fill up fast and they can’t accommodate everyone. I close my laptop and sit in my empty apartment with the sound of the appliances buzzing into white noise. I think about whether it’s too late to run to the liquor store, or if I should smoke a cigarette instead, while the world continues to be walloped by waves of distress, and uncertainty engulfs my brain.