05/08/2020 14:36 EDT

I'm Fighting Relapse In The Pandemic And Questioning Why I Stay Sober

The pull of opioid addiction is strong, but my will to stay present for those I care about is stronger.

An acquaintance’s roommate passed away from an overdose about a week after Canada started social distancing. 

Reading this news while fighting off my own waves of cravings, I was washed over by sympathy and sadness, but also an immense sense of guilt. As though, as another addict, I was somehow partially complicit in my friend’s grief.

Nour Abi Nakhoul
Nour Abi Nakhoul, who has battled an addiction to opioids, is shown here. 

This sense of guilt is something I feel whenever I see a person hurt by another person’s drug habit. The uneasy truth of the matter is that some of us with long-term addictions have hurt others — through the lies we tell, the things we steal, or simply being too wrapped up in our own problems to be attentive to those of others.

Every person’s relationship to drugs is unique, and not all are starkly negative or positive. Some continue to use so that they can continue to live, rather than the opposite. For me, a part of my usage was always a desperate longing to turn away from the world, its constituent pain, misery and strife — parts of the world that the pandemic has made overt, but that are nevertheless present even in times of relative calm.

My addiction began amid conditions familiar to many these days — isolation and loneliness.

In the starkness of isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic, the temptation of relapse or indulgence beckons, over and over. You think, what use is a one-month badge when the streets yawn emptily? What use is a sponsor when they can’t rest a calming hand on your shoulder? What use is staying sober in a world that seems to be on the verge of global collapse?

It’s a difficult time to be an addict. Researchers tend to see spikes in substance use during emergencies like COVID-19. On top of the general stress of social distancing, the shuttering of support meetings and health-care centres increase the possibility of relapse. This situation is complicated by the disruption of the drug market due to border closings; as supply goes down, erratic usage and overdoses rise. People start taking substances they’re unfamiliar with. Vancouver, the centre of the opioid crisis in Canada, saw a spike in overdose-related deaths during the month of March.

The point of staying sober and present during the pandemic is the same as it’s always been; to be around to care for and support those around us. 

An unpredictable and dangerous beast

Kicking my opioid habit last year was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I think of oxycodone as one of the Greeks’ mythological sirens — crooning beautifully from the edge of an ocean it’s itching to pull you down into. The drug was seductive, manipulative and incredibly bewitching. It was also an unpredictable and dangerous beast.  

I found my solution in the opioids I was prescribed to manage post-surgery pain.

My addiction began amid conditions familiar to many these days — isolation and loneliness. While recovering from a major surgery in 2018, I was confined to my apartment for weeks and weeks as a nasty Toronto winter raged outside. I spent my days performing complicated aftercare while also trying to complete the coursework for my undergraduate program at the University of Toronto. My always-tiny social circle revealed how small it actually was while I panicked over meal prepping and essay writing.

My anxiety skyrocketed, and I found my solution in the opioids I was prescribed to manage post-surgery pain. I knew it wasn’t going to work in the long-term, but I wasn’t in the frame of mind to plan that far ahead; all that occupied me was getting through the grind of my daily life. My health started to quickly decline, and dependence thrust itself on me so quickly that it was hard to leave the house sober. 

Morphine derivatives are very skilled at quickly converting a person’s ideological convictions into a diehard existentialism: “It’s OK, nothing really matters all that much, come and indulge yourself.” An argument composed entirely of negation feels very difficult to contest. I found myself agreeing. A person’s drug dependence isn’t going to suddenly shift the moral balance of the world — we’re all just webs of cells on a rock hurtling through space, I thought.

Jasmin Merdan via Getty Images
"One thing that keeps me sober is knowing I'm part of a community of people facing similar challenges," writes Nour Abi-Nakhoul.

What gave me the strength to turn away from the drug was the knowledge that we’re all adrift in this “meaninglessness” together. I realized I wanted to be there for the people around me, and being high all the time meant I couldn’t properly be present. I also started building a relationship that’s very important to me, and addiction almost ruined it, like it almost ruined many of my friendships. I didn’t want to lose that social interdependence. This is the conviction I centre to push through the jolts of cravings that do, still, continue to afflict me. 

‘Someone else may depend on you’

Social distancing has made it difficult to tap into this reserve of strength. Stress and being unable to leave the house are a recipe for relapse; any bad feeling or mishap can tip the scale towards giving in to a self-destructive want. It’s easier to turn towards nihilism when every other online post is apocalypse-mongering. It’s easier when feelings of loneliness creep up on you, threatening to thrust your thoughts back toward meaninglessness.

We need more than ever is to be present for our communities and those we love.

My cravings tend to be quieted by anything that reminds me that the lonesome condition of the human individual is an illusion. I turn to private online groups visited by others echoing my struggles with sobriety and connect with networks of support. I seek out others’ perspectives. I check in on what my friends are up to. I read writing by others who’ve walked similar paths. I scroll through message boards and support groups.

Feeling like I’m part of a community, and knowing others are going through the same thing, helps foster resistance. Not only do I want to stay sober for myself and those around me, but also for fellow addicts who need me to be strong. It’s easier to ignore the part of you that craves the bliss of ego-annihilation when someone else may depend on you.

This is why this current pandemic clarifies, rather than obfuscates, my reasons for being sober. At a global moment where uncertainty is so pronounced, what we need more than ever is to be present for our communities and those we love. Our world is changing in irrevocable ways, and only together can we build a new one that’s stronger and more beautiful.

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