The Withdrawal Experience
After a period of long-addiction, completely in bondage to your compulsion, you have arrived at a personal bottom, a place of utter defeat. This is a painful arrival place, but it is also, paradoxically, a powerful and necessary place. It will serve as the bedrock from which to construct a new, sober and sane life. Once you make the choice to let go of the addictive behavior and abstain from self-destructive internet use, withdrawal will be upon you. It is a finite experience, but it can feel infinite while you move through it. Just as the disease expresses itself in a threefold manner (physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual), so will your withdrawal (and later your sobriety) express itself on three levels. Ours is a WE program. We have learned that we cannot recover alone. In fact, our illness thrives on and exacerbates isolation. Nor can our best efforts or self-will eradicate the addiction. Ours is a program based on surrender of our will and best ideas to a power greater than ourselves, which we avail ourselves of through working the program. This is HOW our program works: honesty, openness, and willingness. Be willing to keep an open mind, and be rigorously honest. There is nothing you have experienced or thought that one or more of us has not already experienced. You are not alone!
Physically, many of us experience the following symptoms during withdrawal from internet and technology addiction: exhaustion, insomnia, restlessnesses, oversleeping, erratic sleep patterns, headaches, body aches, rashes, etc. We may experience great physical hunger, which camouflages an inner emptiness, and begin to consume food to fill the void. It is important to watch for substituting internet use with other compulsions that we may turn to in order to avoid the feelings we have long suppressed with a screen. As we move through withdrawal, these feelings will inevitably emerge. It is important therefore to rest, and take gentle and basic care of yourself. Even small actions like drinking water or taking a shower are acts of courageous self-love. Truly you are worth it, and if you are not convinced, “act as if,” you are worthy until you come to believe it. When all else fails, come to many meetings, where, “we will love you until you can love yourself.”
The mind, long accustomed to deadening itself, will feel as though it is in a fog. Without our digital crutch, we will become aware of our inability to concentrate and our lack of memory recall. Be compassionate with self, attend meetings, and seek fellowship with those who have gone through the withdrawal experience. They can assure you that the fog will lift and your concentration and memory will be restored. Be patient with the withdrawal process. Also, the mind, warped by the disease, manufactures negative self-talk and at its extreme, can project suicidal ideation. Know that you are not these thoughts. They are a symptom of the disease. Do not stay alone with them. Talk to fellow recovering addicts, who generally have also experienced self-destructive ideation. Begin to gently affirm your worth and inherent goodness.
Emotionally, withdrawal can bring about a range of feelings, including sadness, depression, grief, despair, anger, irritability, loneliness, boredom, emptiness, fear, and anxiety. Alternately, some of us experience moments of elation; we can feel after a couple of sober days or weeks that we have “got this,” and we begin to think that perhaps we are not addicts after all. Our experience has taught us that this latter feeling, and belief, is a cunning way by which the disease lures us back into compulsive use and relapse. Having a sponsor and recovery fellows to connect with are important ways to break out of the delusional thinking that arises in isolation and the faulty decision-making that comes from it. Sharing your most current emotional state helps to relieve the burden of strong emotions, which left unattended can drive us to use again. Keep the company of those who understand that internet and technology compulsion is a disease. In other words, attend meetings, get phone numbers and be willing to make outreach calls. Outside of our recovery circle, be with people that affirm and celebrate you, and keep a distance, when possible, from individuals who are shaming and negative or limit exposure to such people. Developing deeper discernment about the people, places, and things that will either uphold or erode your commitment to a new way of life is both a powerful necessity to unfold your recovery and a fruit of it. While it can be challenging, with the support of ITAA recovery members, it is possible and necessary to communicate IT boundaries with non-recovery people.
The active disease disconnects us not only from our own selves and other human beings, but also from a Higher Power. The lower power that drives us to compulsively act out in isolation with media, and internet and technology, is powerful, baffling, and cunning. Our shared experience has taught us that whatever our spiritual belief or lack thereof, there is a Higher Power we can avail ourselves of, including and especially whenever two or more internet and technology addicts come together. Whether in a meeting, after-meeting, or conversation with a sponsor or fellow recovering member, connection is a powerful antidote to the destructive consequences of the disease. The wisdom of the rooms of recovery also teaches us that it is never too early to pray and/ or meditate. You do not have to wait until you get to step eleven. Perhaps it is a nature walk or listening to a particular musical genre or staring at a candle flame that restores a semblance of peace and hope. Some members explore world faiths and/or return to a faith from childhood. Whatever your personal path, it is important that you connect with a stabilizing and quieting practice, formal or informal, on a daily basis during your withdrawal experience and thereafter. Connection to a source of love can feed you spiritually in a way that technology never could or ever will. With consistency of spiritual practice, your consciousness will transform and your spirit will be renewed.
Additional Reflections on Withdrawal
Expect that temptations will arise throughout your withdrawal experience. It will sing its seductive call externally and internally. The external temptation can appear as a friend or relative who is eager to share videos or links, or insist persistently that you have to watch a certain on-line content. It can show up on holidays when families gather around electronic devices or in public spaces with large flat screens streaming a favorite movie. The best tactic is to have a plan for these types of encounters, which can include “bookending” boundary-setting conversations. It can alternately mean avoiding certain places or people altogether. Those decisions can be best made in conversation with a sponsor preferably, or recovery fellows. Inner temptation can manifest as internal dialogue like, “Maybe I’ve got this; I can watch this program; Perhaps I’m not an addict after all.” It can also manifest as hidden feelings of shame rooted in low self-esteem. Bring these inner thoughts and feelings to meetings and to recovery-based conversations, and better yet to a sponsor and to your Higher Power. You will discover that we can all identify and “together we can make it.” Having a recovery plan, like giving the “monkey mind” something to do when intruding thoughts pop up, can help you stay sober. For example, if we cannot contact a safe individual and there is no scheduled meeting to attend, we need to have pre-planned ways to be with our constantly fluctuating mind, especially when it is in an agitated state. Giving the mind something to do can include repeating the serenity prayer or a mantra, or saying any type of prayer; repeating an affirmation; focusing your mind on your breath. The choices are endless and the self-care path is one that will inevitably invite you to explore how to be in right relationship with yourself, and your mind.
There are two types of withdrawal experiences, neither better than the other. The first is hard, and fast, everything is given up all at once. The effects of withdrawal are likewise hard and fast. The second type is gradual. Perhaps after a month of abstaining from your bottom lines, you gain an awareness of another compulsive IT behavior that previously was a blindspot. You add it to your bottom lines, and thus expand your sobriety. Whether we go cold turkey or gradually withdraw from our addictive-compulsive internet and technology use, ultimately Higher Power is the architect of our withdrawal experience. Our sobriety begins when we give up that final last go-around. No more justifications. We say “I’m done. I’m willing to go to any lengths.” That is the beginning of our sobriety and the gateway to newly redeemed lives.
Tools to Support You in Your Withdrawal
(This list is not meant to be comprehensive)
- ACCEPTANCE – Accept that you are an internet and technology addict. You are not alone.
- AFFIRMATIONS – The disease wants us to be self-negating. Daily affirmations are powerful antidotes.
- BOOKENDING – If you have to do something online (shop, for example), be accountable to a member or sponsor. Call them before and after the activity and commit to a time limit. Bookending can also be helpful to do topline activities, like meditating or doing stepwork. If you feel resistance, call someone and bookend.
- HIGHER POWER – Find one of your own understanding.
- HONESTY – Go to a meeting and share honestly; do the same when you speak to a member in between meetings. We are as sick as our secrets.
- JOURNAL – Writing is a powerful tool (putting pen/pencil to paper) because it allows you -the one that’s always running – to slow down enough to catch up with your authentic inner self. We can process feelings on paper and uncover what is really at the root of our discontent at any given moment. It is also a powerful tool to reach for when cravings arise. For many of us, journaling is a form of conscious contact with our Higher Power.
- LINES – Identify and write down your lines: top, middle, and bottom. Top Lines are healthy activities that affirm your worth (exercise, healthy meals, etc.); middle lines are vague and sketchy activities that can lead you to act out on your bottom lines (having the phone near you at nighttime; not tending to your feelings, especially when feeling sad or lonely or angry); Bottom Lines are the activities you do that are the active addiction (ie. binge watching shows or other video streaming platforms). For more information on writing lines, see the Discovering Sobriety Worksheet.
- MAKE A PLAN – As they say in recovery, “Don’t worry, make a plan.” If you are going to visit family or friends and expect that there will be screens and online activity present, make a sober plan with a sponsor/member prior to attendance. If weekends, nighttime or unstructured time are vulnerable times, make a plan in advance.
- MEETINGS – There’s an expression in the rooms, “Meeting makers make it!” Also 90 meetings in 90 days is an old school suggested practice.
- MOVE – Another saying is, “Move a muscle, change a thought.” This disease in particular is a sedentary one. Any type of exercise will help your brain to dispel the blues. It releases stress and oxygenates the body and will improve your sleep quality.
- NATURE THERAPY – Vitamin N is a powerful antidepressant. Whether you hike, or garden, or swim in the ocean, contact with nature is another way to feed the senses in a nourishing way. For some, God stands for the Great Out-Doors.
- OLD SCHOOL TOOLS: Be willing to use alarm clocks, watches, kitchen timers, paper dictionaries, maps and journals.
- OUTREACH CALLS – Pick up the phone and call ITAA fellows. You will be of service to the person you call too!
- SERVICE – Service is an esteemable and needed act. By serving as a timer or taking an outreach call or leading a meeting, etc., you enhance your sense of belonging and make a meaningful contribution to the fellowship.
- SLEEP HYGIENE – Try and be consistent with bedtime and wake-up time. Try not to drink anything caffeinated late in the afternoon.
- SPONSORSHIP AND THE STEPS – Another recovery saying goes: if you want to feel good, go to a meeting; if you want true and lasting transformation, work the steps. To work the steps you need a sponsor, someone whose worked the 12 steps and has recovery you want. At the very least, get a co-sponsor. That is when another recovery member and you agree to move through the steps together. The wisdom of the rooms strongly recommends that you work with a person that you will not develop romantic or sexual feelings for.
- TAKE CONTRARY ACTION – When you don’t want to go to a meeting, run to one; When you don’t want to pick up the phone, call someone; When you don’t want to pray…
- URGE SURFING – When cravings arise, set a timer for 20 to 30 minutes and do something else instead: walk, call a member, pray, journal, etc. Have a plan (see above tool) for how to deal with cravings when they arrive. Share your plan with a trusted member, sponsor, co-sponsor. Share your victories at a meeting.
Signposts that Your Withdrawal is Coming to an End
Each person’s withdrawal experience is unique, in spite of common experiences. Generally, withdrawal and its accompanying symptoms begin to subside after 2 to 3 months. You will experience a greater sense of peace and joy, a deeper feeling of belonging, and an ability to bypass temptations with greater skill and confidence. You will be able to read with greater concentration and retention, and your mental clarity and focus will improve. Fear of others will begin to fade away. Boredom, restlessness, and fog will lift, and you will find real pleasure in offline activities. Anxiety will subside. Addictive activities which used to consume you will appear senseless or unappealing. You will feel in tune with your emotions, and you will know peace.
Long term humility and diligence is needed for long-term sobriety. We commit to remaining vigilant and active in our recovery. The hubris that we no longer need the daily reprieve of our recovery program may creep into our spirits, and we may come to believe that we have been cured of what had simply been a bad habit. These thoughts lead us back into our disease. Those of us who have relapsed after months or years of recovery have found ourselves using as destructively as we had before recovery, or worse. We reverted to our old ways of thinking and acting with frightening alacrity. We have been shocked to realize how close our addict had been standing to us the entire time. Long-term sobriety asks us to maintain humility foremost in our recovery process, and that we always be willing to ask for help, practicing and deepening our sobriety on the good days to better support ourselves on the bad days. What’s more, if you have long term sobriety, then “in order to keep it, you have to give it away.” Internet and technology addiction is a cunning disease with global reach. There are many who are sick and suffering and if you have reached the stage of long-term sobriety, you are invited to be an instrument of service to the suffering newcomer. We have found that such service is vital to sustaining our own sobriety.
Withdrawal is more than just abstinence from usage; it is about identifying the lifelong patterns of avoiding our feelings, others, and our Higher Power. It will provide freedom from tech and internet addiction, and from the emotional blocks that have kept us in bondage to it. Without working the steps with a sponsor, abstinence will be the equivalent of a dry drunk. These are people who stop drinking alcohol, but they do not do the internal house-cleaning and amends work that creates transformed lives. The goal is not just to be abstinent from abusive IT use, but to do the 12 step work so we experience a true psychic change and spiritual awakening.
Our active addiction kept us running from ourselves our whole lives. We painfully learned that we cannot outlastingly outrun ourselves. The withdrawal experience allows us to finally stop running, turn around, and face our true selves. When we give up this addiction, we get our authentic, precious self back: sober, sane and spiritual. Ultimately, by withdrawing from the compulsive use of internet and technology, we will be given the gifts of time and newfound energy. We will experience new or restored dreams, relationships, and life-affirming joy.
Four ITAA Members’ Withdrawal Experiences
I remember when I came out of my longest binge, which lasted 11 days. It was my bottom. I experienced the highest level of anxiety I had ever felt. I think that’s common. I had been hiding from my emotions in my acting out and then it came out when I stopped using. The anxiety was compounded because of the binge. I was avoiding anxiety about work and my mom being ill with dementia. When I came out of the binge, I felt anxious about leaving the bed, let alone the house. I’d learned a lot by then in recovery to find my circumstance interesting. I realized I caused this crippling anxiety by my addictive behavior (11 days on a video-streaming platform). Before I only associated anxiety with outer circumstances, but I realized that when I hide out with a screen it makes it worse. Logically, if I don’t hide from stressful people, places and things, it will make life less anxiety-producing for me. That was my first memorable experience with withdrawal.
However, I don’t think I realized I was an addict yet. I went into a different fellowship, got a sponsor, and because she was an alcoholic all she knew to recommend was abstinence. She recommended I use a non-smart phone, and told me to leave my laptop at home. The thought of it filled me with anxiety. I didn’t do it. Later, with a second sponsor who suggested I do a detox for 30 days, and only use the internet for absolutely necessary things, I became more willing to implement the suggestions. At this point I was in ITAA and she was a sponsor from Alcoholic Anonymous. I switched from a smart-phone to a non-smart phone, and I was only using the internet for essential activities: 12-step meetings, and administrative tasks. Apart from that, I couldn’t do anything on-line unless I checked with my sponsor first. Also, I was detoxing from television too.
In time, I had quite a bit of recovery, I wasn’t binging 24 hours a day anymore. I attended ITAA meetings at least once a day, made outreach calls every day, worked on my steps with my sponsor, and stepped up to do service. Also, I added in meditation twice a day. I had accepted my mom’s illness and her eventual death and I had changed jobs. I had grown and had increased acceptance about my addiction.
Once during withdrawal, I had a rash on my leg and it was so uncomfortable that I gave in and watched tv to numb the pain (16 days into sobriety). Lying in bed after that night, the itching came back and it was hard to sleep. The muscles of my legs were twitching; eventually I fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning, there was still discomfort, but when I pulled the blanket back the rash was gone. I don’t know if that was a detoxing symptom but I can’t help but notice the synchronicity.
Still, I could never get more than 30 days of sobriety from my bottom lines. I’d get two to three weeks of sobriety and then I’d have another binge. I noticed I wasn’t in the same place of all-or- nothing usage. I also noticed that not carrying the smart phone all the time, made me feel like I was missing a part of me. I felt like I would forget important things because I previously relied on my digital calendar. I actually didn’t forget any appointments (hardly any; my memory was getting restored,) but I had fear that I would (I wasn’t trusting my memory or Higher Power). Similarly, I didn’t trust my ability to get to a destination and return home without digital maps. I became willing to take actual maps with me and I actually took a look at them. Soon, to my surprise, I realized I didn’t even need to take a look at them. I was going places I’d been to before, and I actually had a sense of direction. It started to dawn on me that I didn’t need the phone as much as I thought. I got rid of apps too.
Today, I have a smart-phone but it doesn’t have a sim card. I make calls and text on my non smart phone. The smart-phone is there when I need it. I used the non-smart phone the majority of the time. When I call someone internationally I’ll switch to the smart-phone. It feels good not having this heavier object and not having it beep at me all the time. My non-smart phone is light and the battery lasts for a longer time in comparison. I am becoming more aware of the beauty of the world. Detoxing helps me to look around more and see the world as more colorful.
I think back to when I started the program and an average day was generally very down. I didn’t feel in control of my time and I felt hopeless about having control over what was going on with me. I didn’t know I was an addict. I remember trying to quit using tech with the support of a therapist for 30 days. I made it to day 8. I put blocks on the computer. Then I relapsed. I spoke with my therapist, he said, “Dude, you got an addiction. You should try going to an AA group.” I initially thought, all I have to do is get this under control then I can feel better. He said, “That’s not how it works.” I went to an AA group. I felt very out of place. Everyone was talking about alcohol and I am not addicted to alcohol. I didn’t speak the entire meeting but I felt there was something there for me, still it wasn’t the right group.
I remember going on-line and searching for internet addiction. I found ITAA and went to my first meeting and I finally felt like I could say, “Hey, I’m an internet addict.” It was very daunting but I also felt hope. At that time, I was bingeing six hours a day on average just on my computer. I had data tracking on my computer that kept a log on time before and after joining ITAA. I was getting back six hours per day. In the first two weeks, I was on a pink cloud. I felt excited. My sleep schedule had been all over the place. Staying up to 2 a.m. Sometimes until 6 a.m. on bad days. Even when I told myself to go to bed earlier, I couldn’t. I was excited to get time back. I made it to five days sober and then I had a binge. I went back to the same old behavior. Right after that I got an ITAA sponsor. I went from feeling really excited and happy to fear about having to give up the coping mechanism that helped through childhood. Clearly, it does not help me in adulthood. I was really scared of losing that security.
Regarding my internet use, streaming websites, social media, games and pornography are my big bottom lines, along with random internet surfing. My sponsor said to focus on one line, and let the other addictions just go now. That made it a lot easier and I felt more motivated. My sleep was a struggle and erratic despite my best efforts. Even though I was going to bed on time, I would be awake with nothing to do or I’d wake up really early and feel tired in the afternoon.
I would call my sponsor sporadically. A few days after the first big binge, I had another binge. I developed a pattern of calling my sponsor intermittently, interspersed with meeting attendance and then binges. To get to the first stretch of – 8 consecutive days of sobriety – it took two weeks of going to meetings and then I started to binge every three or four days. I kept showing up no matter how inconsistent my sobriety.
Something that changed for me for the better was getting my sleep level normalized. I got a digital alarm clock that is set up across the room. I set it for the exact same time every day. I have to get up physically to turn it off. That made it so I could feel reliable. Before I couldn’t rely on myself to get up and do something. Once I had more stability with my sleep, it had a profound effect on my recovery. I began to add top lines to my morning activities.
For the next seven weeks, I still had intermittent binging with video streaming platforms and then stretches of sobriety for less than a week. A pattern emerged that I noticed and my sponsor confirmed: I was doing quite well with abstinence with video streaming platforms, but pornography kept leading me back to the internet and that would lead me to cross other bottom lines. My sponsor told me to make pornography the primary bottom line. Strong emotions, like sadness and anger and fear, could no longer be soothed with pornography. I felt extremely sad about losing a comforting coping mechanism, but it became a big symbolic (bottom) line in the sand. Moving forward, I need to not use porn. Cutting it out has had a marked improvement on my recovery.
ITAA also helps me to not binge on my other bottom lines. I got my first stretch of 13 days of sobriety a few weeks after that. I’ve been adding and getting more rigorous about my morning routines. I’m waking up on time. My mood is more stable; I experience less mood swings. I feel less worrisome. I have an enormous amount of time in the day. I’m filling it with top line behaviors: calling friends, walking outside, exploring the outdoors, working on electronic projects, and other hobbies. I feel genuinely positive in the morning even if I feel tired.
Once I had a basic understanding of what my bottom lines are, it was more helpful to know what behaviors led me back to the bottom lines (a.k.a middle lines). The next challenge was to not do these behaviors and learn how to lessen the stress of normal life. Just cutting out my internet usage doesn’t stop normal stresses of life from happening. I had to find a way to replace the stress-reducing aspects of internet usage with something that does not destroy my life. I began to practice meditation. I wake up at the same time every day, and practice meditation as part of my routine. I noticed that cravings that were triggered by stress were reduced, because I found another way to deal with that stress. I also started calling fellows in the program, and when there wasn’t a meeting, I could look forward to the calls and often that delayed urge to binge.
I got to a point where I was using as many tools as I could that were really helping me. In this new state of clarity, I discovered that I have a food addiction. It too, like pornography, had an impact on my internet usage. In order to continue and strengthen my journey on this program, I had to start going to two others fellowships to address my other addictions: food, and sex and love addiction.
Recently, I’ve been noticing that when I want to binge it’s my other addictive cravings that are triggered first, rather than the internet. It’s still there; still present but it’s much, much less. Something else that I’ve been doing recently is listing all the random searches I would have looked up into a text document. That delays the impulse. Overall these past 16 weeks, I have experienced an enormous amount of growth personally and I have learned more about my impulses and negative behavior than I have in the past four years in therapy, which I still attend. My outlook on life has greatly improved. I’m feeling like I can focus on school. I got a job and then lost it but I didn’t binge. That was a miracle. What that tells me is that I can deal with the big stresses of life in a way that isn’t destructive. That gives me an enormous sense of hope. I’m learning to enjoy myself and I now often go on walks in the morning and leave my phone at home. Even though I’m resistant to doing that, I enjoy being with my thoughts.
I’m an atheist and coming into ITAA, I had fears about being converted. I needed to find something I trusted, and I found the Atheist and Agnostic AA meetings, and now the ITAA Atheist and Agnostic meetings. They are helpful. They gave me permission to believe in the Higher Power that I found and that I now have.
When I first came into recovery, I didn’t know what to expect. It was the first time I had identified as an addict, and I was a bit self-conscious about this. But when I experienced real withdrawal I saw that I really am in fact an addict.
In the beginning, any serious attempt to get sober would follow a bad binge. I’d end up in a rock bottom with lots of shame, and I would come out of these depths with a resolve to never put myself through this again. Despite my good intentions, I was often shell shocked from my binge and I could feel irritable and discontent straight away. Alternatively, I might feel a high, a sense of hope that I was turning over a new page – that this time it will be different. This feeling of hope could last as little as a few hours or as much as a few days, but in time it would always fade, and the irritability and discontentedness would come back. I’d begin to feel bored by sobriety. Soon, I’d start to convince myself that I was back in the driver seat, that it was never really that bad or so hard to control.
As my withdrawal would deepen over the coming days and weeks, I would feel incrementally worse. This included feeling tired all the time, feeling foggy-headed, not feeling joy, feeling that the world is grey, and feeling overwhelmed even with small obstacles like taking out the trash, getting out of bed, or responding to a phone call. These small obstacles could suddenly magnify to incredible proportions in a way that seemed out of step with all reason, and I would be overwhelmed by a desire for any source of relief. In these moments, I often experienced physical pain that paralyzed me. My arms and hands would hurt if I tried to handle anything, my feet would hurt if I tried to take a walk. Just sitting and doing nothing could fill me with unbearable psychic pain.
In this gray, tired, painful fog – which could grip me for hours or days – my mind would stumble across an idea for some internet and technology activity. It could be one of my bottom lines, but more often it was simply the idea to check the weather, or respond to an email, or research a certain product I thought I needed to buy. Whatever the thought was, it would fill me with light. It would give me hope that perhaps I could get through this day. As I would ruminate on the activity, the tiredness would begin to fade from my body. And on the occasions that I gave in, and particularly those in which I went straight for my bottom lines, all of this terrible pressure would simply vanish. The pain in my body lifted. Just getting to open the computer gave me an immediate sense of relief, and I would deeply feel that this was the right and self-compassionate thing to do. I would feel the anxiety melt, and a cool numb feeling of comfort would spread through my body. Soon I would be back where I had promised myself I would never go again.
Those were the lows of my withdrawal.
What I found I needed most during these difficult moments was to prioritize my recovery over everything else. If I put anything before my recovery – work, or social life, or passions, or errands – my mind would always find a justification that would lead me back to relapse. For me, prioritizing recovery means really and fully leaning on the program, and allowing myself to just do nothing if that’s all that’s available to me. If the choice is between using and doing nothing, even when I have bills to pay, work to show up for, people to call – I allow myself to just do nothing. Often that meant just laying down and feeling pain and crying. When I was able to, I would make phone calls to other members, get to meetings, journal, practice self-compassion, and do stepwork. My only qualification for a successful day is that I don’t relapse. Anything else is ok. Maybe I don’t get to work, or I miss an appointment – that’s okay. For me, staying sober is a daily accomplishment.
These could be hard days. But looking back, I can see that there has never been a single instance in which prioritizing recovery made things worse. Every single time, things got better.
After the first few weeks of sobriety, I would start to feel moments of freedom in which I did not feel the desire to use the internet. These periods themselves could be dangerous, because I might start to believe that I’d gotten through it. I might relax and stop working the program as rigorously. And then inevitably something would disturb me – some failure or someone cancelling plans, or maybe I simply wake up feeling bad – and because my pride would keep me from reaching out and admitting I needed help, I would find myself back in a relapse. I had thought I’d gotten a handle on this and I didn’t want to show others that I was actually still struggling. I really had to humble myself to say I need daily support, even in the good times. These fluctuations between feeling good and feeling intense urges lasted for approximately the first two months.
After about two months of sobriety, I felt momentum come in and then I felt long, sustained periods of not having any desire or interest to use technology or internet addictively, sometimes weeks or even months. This required its own kind of humility. I could start to think, “Well, this really is it. I know I’m an addict, but now I have the tools under my belt.” And I would sooner or later make an attempt to move away from the program because I didn’t want to spend so much time doing all of this work, attending all these meetings – I wanted to get back to living my life. Inevitably, my attempts to move away would lead me to relapse. The most I was ever able to go was two weeks without contact with the program before I had a hard relapse. My addict brain was frighteningly close to me – right there in fact. I’d thought I had months and months of emotional growth between myself and it, but my old patterns of thinking took back over in a flash.
These painful experiences were necessary for me to truly give up the fight. To say: That’s it, I can’t do this on my own, and I’m done taking any risks. I have a disease, the same physiological condition that alcoholics had in the 1930s when the first 12 Step group was formed, when for the first time addicts found what would turn out to be lifelong sobriety. Like them, there is no cure for my condition. Like them, I need daily treatment and support. And like them, I need help from a power greater than myself.
There is a saying in the rooms: “Surrender and win.” I could never have imagined the richness, peace, presence, meaning, or clarity that I have been given by my true surrender. The spiritual growth that ITAA offers me is no longer a burden—it is a multiplier that nourishes everything else in my life. My fears of others and financial insecurities have fallen away. I have deep and sincere relationships, within and beyond the program. I spend my time every day in ways that align with my values. I am kind and gentle with myself and others. My focus, memory, and creativity have been restored. I no longer feel I am not living my potential. Instead of fearing the trials of daily life, I take quiet pleasure in making my bed, taking showers, cleaning my house, taking walks, meditating, being with loved ones, and learning new things. I have seen that I am able to be of help to others. And every single day I call another member, go to a meeting, ask for help, practice honesty, work the steps, and let myself be guided by my Higher Power.
The patient love I was given in this program helped me through my withdrawals. I now have more than a year of continuous sobriety, and more than three years since my last all-night binge. Before recovery, I found the word ‘miracle’ off-putting, but there are few better descriptions for what I have experienced. The transformations I have experienced in every aspect of my life are beyond my understanding.
“Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.” (cf. AA’s Big Book, pp. 84)
To keep my sobriety, I work to deepen my recovery on a daily basis. I look for what I am called to do next in my spiritual growth. I find these opportunities through step work, through service, and through deepening my relationship to a Higher Power of my own understanding.
The main arena of my addictive IT use had always been at home, alone. There, I would go online and completely shut myself off from the world: I would use for hours, days, sometimes weeks on end, not responding to calls and not leaving the house. In that space, I was desperate to not face myself, my feelings, my responsibilities, my life. It was my ultimate refuge and at the same time a really, really dark place. So, in the beginning of my recovery, I decided to make sure I couldn’t go to that place anymore: I got rid of my computer and smartphone altogether (sold them) and thus was no longer able to isolate myself at home and disappear into the internet as had been my moribund habit.
At first, I felt a great rush of excitement: there was a sense of freedom and possibility. But this was quickly followed by a sobering encounter with the phenomenon known as “addiction shift”: I simply switched to another medium and continued exactly as before. I remember quite vividly how one morning just a few days into my new life (sans computer and smartphone), I woke up and felt completely overwhelmed by the prospect of facing my day. This feeling and the urge to escape were indistinguishable from how I had so often felt before going into an internet binge. Instead of going online, which I couldn’t do anymore, I picked up a thick, easy-to-read, entertaining novel and buried myself in that: for the entire day and late into the night until I passed out.
It was easy to feel discouraged at the time but in hindsight I can tell that this was only a temporary part of the process for me: I was already meeting with other internet addicts on a regular basis and talking to them made all the difference. Through that, I was able to reflect on what was happening and let go of the substitute addictive behavior relatively quickly, at least in its extremity and seamless continuity of how I had binged online media. It was a symptom of the temporary state in which my main “substance” had just fallen away and I hadn’t yet figured out new and better ways to deal with my feelings and use my time. The more I learned new strategies, the less I came to rely on substitute behaviors.
And it was incredible how much time and energy freed up for me in the absence of my addictive internet use. To be cut off from this thing that had exerted such a devastatingly strong pull on me, that had kept me in bondage for so long, was powerful. It gave me the space to focus on basic self-care such as taking showers, doing the dishes, preparing meals, going for walks and to do all that with patience. I had completely neglected all of these things when acting out and even outside of my binges, they had often felt like a burden. So the early days of my recovery were focused on taking small steps towards building a more stable habit of taking care of myself. For some days, just getting out of bed and taking a shower was a victory.
Now, two and a half years later, I still feel that this is what my recovery is all about: an ever deepening understanding and practice of loving care towards myself and others. For example, a few weeks ago, a friend reached out and asked whether I wanted to hang out that day. He came over pretty much right away, we had a good time just talking about random stuff and I ended up making lunch for us both. This may seem like a very basic thing but I was struck with gratitude at the realization that this is my life now: I can show up for myself and others with relative ease and regularity. This, to me, is one of the miracles of recovery.
I mention this here, in the context of my withdrawal experience, because I know that in the early days of my recovery I could have used some encouragement that my struggles would be worth it, that such wonderful changes lay ahead. It was difficult, at times, to feel the progress and to not lose hope because it was often two steps ahead and one step back. The setbacks came in the form of slips and relapses into the core behaviors of my addiction when using IT outside of my home (at libraries or when staying with friends or family) and cyclical struggles with escapism into other stuff such as podcasts, books, magazines or junk food.
If I could, I would tell my former self to not be discouraged and to not overlook the immense progress I was making despite these challenges which were minor in comparison with what I had dealt with in active addiction. In the one and a half years that I ended up living without the internet or a computer at home, I was able to build completely new habits for my home life. I know that especially in the early days of withdrawal, my concepts of relaxation and reward, my sense of identity as well as my entire being and outlook on life were still so closely interwoven with the internet, that it would have been extremely difficult to resist the urge to go online and act out, had I physically been able to. So it was a tremendous opportunity for detox to be cut off from my “substance” like that.
Besides this radical banishment of access to IT in my immediate living environment, another transitory phenomenon of my withdrawal experience was the urgency I felt to distance myself from certain friends and social situations. Some friendships had been so based on bonding over internet culture and online media, that it was important to step away from them for a while. In my fragile state of early recovery, anything that confronted me with things I had consumed online posed a great risk of relapse. There were times when I thought I had to cut all ties to the modern world and move to a lonely island, to avoid being triggered all the time: the internet was everywhere.
With time and my evolving relationship to higher power, my recovery became less focused on the external and more on the internal. It’s about learning to not want to use, whatever the circumstance, instead of trying to control my addiction by avoiding temptation at all cost. Like the recovered alcoholic who can go to a bar with friends and not feel tempted to drink (cf. AA’s Big Book, pp. 100-103), I can now handle the occasional friend talking about a series they streamed or a funny video they saw online and not feel pulled back into my addiction – provided I keep in fit spiritual condition. Amazingly enough, I have been able to live with reintroduced internet access in my home and stay sober since ten months: this is truly higher power working in my life.
This brings me to another thing I would like to tell my former self who was struggling through withdrawal: it is never too early to turn to higher power for help. Part of the frustration of early recovery for me was that I was still sort of doing it in a self-help mentality: I was obsessed with the idea that if only I was good, flexed my willpower hard enough and did all the things I knew were healthy, then I would have this problem under control. The toxic implication of this thinking was that if I didn’t have it under control, I was bad.
And indeed, I do not have it under control. That is the nature of my disease. Instead of trying to control the uncontrollable, I now take a more relaxed and loving and humble approach: I acknowledge my powerlessness without judgment and try to involve higher power in everything I do. The further I progress, the more I realize that anything I do for my recovery – be that step work or outreach calls or bookending – avails to nothing much in the long run, if my motivation for doing it is based on control (“I will be the master of my addiction if I do this”), ego (“I will be a winner at life if I do this”) or shame (“If I don’t do this, it will once again become clear how truly rotten I am”). Instead, I try to allow that my actions come from a place of love which is what higher power is to me.
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