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Op-ed: What Addictive Behaviours Taught Me During the Lockdown

If you’re struggling with psychological pain, take this time to find what’s hurting.

CW: Depression, substance usage, addictive behaviours. 

Author’s note: My intention with this piece is simple: to share my experience. If reading this can prevent you from going through what I did, I’m happy.  Moreover, I’m in no way an authority in the field of trauma-related addiction. 

Winter 2020, I went abroad to study in Monterrey, Mexico. On February 3, the city became my new home. The following week, school started. 

I had amazing classes, my Spanish level increased exponentially, and I attended all the conferences I could attend on campus. Early on, I made a solid community of friends coming from all parts of the world. I also stopped smoking cigarettes. 

For a long time, I had not been this happy.

However, when March came around, things changed for the worse. On March 12, a little more than a month after classes started, Tecnológico de Monterrey closed its doors after recording its first case of COVID-19. On March 15, while I was fighting a hangover by eating goat brain in an overcrowded market, a friend texted me that the government of Canada was going to close its borders on March 17. Since my host parents were an elderly couple and I still intended to go out to enjoy the little freedom I could have (seeing my friends, going on hikes, etc.), I decided to move. 

The next week, I was living in a glass-walled apartment on the eleventh floor of a 12-story fancy residential building. I had the entire place to myself. 

The food was cheap, so I ate out; alcohol was abundant, so I drank; drugs were easily accessible, so I bought some. I also started smoking again. For the first month, this hedonistic life was bliss. However, after a certain period, fun withered away and loneliness took its place. I became resentful towards the virus. For eight months, I had worked tirelessly, surmounting countless obstacles, to go on this exchange, and it all went to shit in an instant. 

At first, I denied what I was experiencing. During the week, I became a booze-driven recluse and on the weekends, I went to my friends’ place and unleashed my repressed self by blacking out on whatever I could put my hands on. Denial evolved into deep anger towards myself, mainly. I became selfish and used others as means to reach my ends. Then, my anger turned into a deep state of depression. I started recognizing that I was swamped in a pool of my own wrongdoings. Because of that, I hated myself and consumed even more. 

Despite all that, fortunately, my marvelous friends supported me through these rough times. They are the ones who kept me within the limits of sanity. 

When this exchange came to an end, I cried my heart out. At the airport, curled up in a ball, I was talking to my father while weeping like a pathetic lost dog.

On July 7, I came back home penniless, jobless, and went to live at my parent’s place. When I first saw my old folks, I barely even acknowledged their presence. I did not want to be in Canada.

The first night, I went through something that was resembling withdrawal symptoms. I was squirming in my bed and my mind was constantly running but couldn’t think of anything. Tears continuously rolled down my cheeks. 

Yet, that night, something clicked; I understood that I couldn’t repeat the experience I had in Mexico.

The next day I woke up and I quit everything cold turkey – it’s not like I really had the choice. I built myself a schedule, set some short-term goals, and came up with a work-out plan. But most importantly, I vowed to stick to a discipline that would keep me away from my own destructive behaviours.

The two weeks of quarantine passed in an instant.

After my confinement, I discovered Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician who specializes in trauma and addiction. I watched all the interviews and podcasts I could find on Maté. It was at this moment that I understood what I went through in Mexico.

In a podcast Maté did with Russell Brand, he explains that nothing is addictive in nature**. When grandma gets morphine for her hip replacement, she doesn’t necessarily become addicted to opioids once she’s out of the hospital. The same is true that I didn’t become an instant gambler when I played the slot machine for the first time.

However, we are all susceptible to fall into addictive behaviours. Simply put, addictions are attempts to soothe our pain. 

Maté says that “addiction is an attempt to regulate your inner state to an external behavior.” In other words, when there’s something within yourself that is unbearable, you may start looking for external stimuli to alleviate and cope with your pain – i.e. starting to compulsively eat ice cream in an attempt to cope with the emotional trauma of a breakup. In turn, these addictive behaviours reinforce your addictions because your brain, by getting what it’s craving, sends you a temporary rush of dopamine. This rush of dopamine is “activating the same brain circuits as … as when [an addict] consumes [their] stimulant,” says Maté. The physician adds that we crave this very dopamine because it makes us feel alive, focused, and present. 

Back in Mexico, lonely and under quarantine, unable to recognize and deal with the source of my pain, I alleviated my grief with external components. When I was drunk, high, or climaxed, I found solace in the tranquility that came right after the rush. It’s not the actual consumption that I was craving, but the numbness that came shortly after.

It’s only once back in Canada that I understood that this pain came from repressed traumas that I had been putting aside for way too long. This “failed exchange” was what ignited everything. 

When I came back to Montreal, I was able to stop engaging in these addictive behaviours by finding new ones that impacted me positively.

Building myself a strong schedule, and having the discipline to follow it, is what anchored me to reality. Because I simply “did things,” I was able to achieve something and find value in what I’ve accomplished. 

Moreover, moving back to my parents’ place turned out to be great. They became a strong community for me. Cooking, talking, and going on long walks with them was exceptionally therapeutic. The point here is to have a strong community – physical or virtual – to fight isolation and loneliness.

If ever you’re struggling with psychological pain, take this time to find what’s hurting.

Lastly, when I was struggling with my own thoughts, I would write them down instead of keeping them inside. Laying down your emotions on paper is an excellent introspective device; you become your own psychoanalyst. 

I recognize that these tips personally worked for me. Yet, they might not for you. I’m in no way saying that these are infallible answers to deal with addiction. If they can help, I’m glad. If they don’t, I invite you to try and find the things that work for you and fit with your personality.

My intention here is not to be a phony self-improvement coach, nor to sell you an overly simplistic armchair-twelve-step-guide to fight addiction and find happiness. I’m not an authority in the field of trauma-related addiction.

My intention here is simple: to share my experience. If reading this can prevent you from going through what I did, I’m happy. 

Amidst this second quarantine, in times of isolation and loneliness, try to find something that truly drives you. If ever you’re struggling with psychological pain, take this time to find what’s hurting. This is easier said than done, but try it. 

And if ever things get unbearable, please, ask for help. Reach for your friends, family and loved ones. You can also call listening centers like Face à Face or Le Havre among others. If you aren’t too keen on talking with others, you can also try online therapy with apps like Talkspace or Betterhelp. If these two options do not work, you can always seek professional help. A good place to start could be reduced-rate therapies offered by places like McGill’s MindSpace. To stay in that line of thought, you can also look if your university is offering counselling and psychological services. Finally, there is always the option of low-cost psychology sessions. 

The most important thing here is to allow yourself to be helped.

And if ever you want to talk, I’m here.

Reminder: This article does not substitute professional diagnosis. Gabor Maté is a prominent expert on trauma, childhood development and mental health. But as a public figure, his views are not beyond criticism. 

**We tend to emphasise that addiction finds its roots in chemical causes which subsequently create physical addiction. Although the latter statement is true, addiction goes deeper than that; it also heavily relies on a slew of circumstantial, personnel and environmental factors.

Author bio: My name is Olivier and when I’m not traveling, I study Journalism and Sociology. I’m an assumed movie-goer, eternal melomaniac, sports enthusiast, and inexhaustible conversationalist. Yet, I learned that when I stop talking, I know something fishy is going on. If it’s also your case (or not) and you want to talk, feel free to contact me at