Here we share the experience, strength and hope of ITAA members. We share about how it was, what changed, and how it is now.
I’m 26 years old, and I have had a compulsive relationship to the internet and technology for as far back as I can remember. When I was a kid, I watched television and played my gameboy, and I’d go to a friend’s house to play other video games. These things felt so incredible to me – I felt a complete sense of freedom and bliss when I’d get to do them. They were really in a category of their own. When I was about 10 we got the internet, and this strengthened this feeling. For me the internet made me feel so free and so alive. As I grew into adolescence, I started spending more and more time online. I think of myself as a “closet addict” in that I kept the extent of my usage very secret. Sometimes after my family had gone to sleep, I would wake up and go on the computer until dawn, before getting back in bed and then pretending I was sick. I was often procrastinating and not doing my homework, telling myself I would just watch one more video, or do one more level. This created a cycle of secrecy and shame where I was hiding the internet usage, which caused more problems for me, which made me want to escape even more, which made me use more. For me, my problematic behaviors are watching videos online, binge watching movies and television, playing video games, social media, pornography, and obsessive research. Around my late teens and particularly in college, I started to try to control my usage, which would lead me to periods of staying away from my problematic behaviors followed by periods of intense binging. Often right before a big deadline, when I really needed to start applying myself, I would fall into a total binge. I could stay up all night until I passed out at my laptop, literally too weak to keep my eyes open and click on the next video. Sometimes on weekends or holidays, these binges could last for multiple days.
One summer in particular I’d gotten a scholarship to work on an independent project and I just couldn’t stop watching videos. I felt trapped behind my eyes, wishing that I could stop but totally powerless to not keep clicking on the next video. I was watching videos I didn’t care about and didn’t want to be watching, but I still couldn’t stop. I was hiding in my apartment and I’d only leave my room to buy more junk food and use the bathroom. There’s a recovery phrase that really captures how I felt at this point, and that captures my general relationship with addictive internet usage: “When I start I can’t stop, and when I stop I can’t stay stopped.” I felt frightened by what was happening to me, and I started to wonder if this was anything like how alcoholics felt about alcohol. I tried googling for internet addiction groups, but I couldn’t find anything, neither in my city or anywhere else. I tried talking to my therapist about what was happening, but they suggested that maybe I was being too hard on myself, and that maybe it was okay to let myself relax from time to time.
After I graduated college, I was still struggling a lot with my secret problem. I had one really bad episode where I missed my birthday because I was up the whole night before. I think of this as one of my “rock bottoms”, a phrase used in recovery to describe a really bad situation that our addiction takes us to. After this, I finally found and started attending an online group for video game addiction, and I now haven’t played a video game for a little over two and a half years. After a month in this program, I heard about a few other members working on their general internet usage, and I asked to join them. This was June 2017, and so I’ve now been in ITAA for two and a half years.
ITAA was a lot more difficult for me than CGAA, because it’s not as black and white. I know if I’m playing a game or not, just like an alcoholic knows if they’re drinking alcohol or not. But it wasn’t so clear to me what being sober from the internet even meant. I could start doing something like checking email or going to my bank account, and 8 hours later I’d be in the middle of a binge. It was very confusing to me. But I just kept going to meetings, I kept sharing about what was happening to me. The experience of being able to tell somebody about something I’d felt ashamed about and kept secret for years was so incredibly liberating, and to hear others share their own experience with this helped me realize I wasn’t alone. I slowly gained deeper awareness of what was happening to me, and how and why it happened, and I started to learn tools to help me stay away from unhealthy behavior. I learned how to define my sobriety, I learned how to respond to my triggers in healthier ways, and I learned what healthy internet and technology use looks like for me – a process we refer to as setting top, middle, and bottom lines. I tried getting a dumb phone, and getting rid of my personal wifi connection at home. I also was able to start bringing awareness to all the underlying issues that I’d been numbing and escaping from with the internet – childhood abuse, divorced parents, social anxiety, depression, fear of failure, fear of abandonment and rejection. After 6 months of relapses and frustration, I had my first prolonged period of sobriety. I have had a few relapses in the last two years which have helped me grow, but largely during this time I’ve been sober, meaning I haven’t engaged in any of my problematic behaviors. I can’t understate how enormously life changing this has been. I really feel at a loss of words to describe how profound and far-reaching this has been for me. I never imagined the depth of what I was struggling with, and the relief I’ve felt at finding real, lived freedom from my mental disease. I feel alive and in communion with the world and my life, and I feel I spend my time in ways that align with my values and bring about a positive impact in the lives of others and of myself. I don’t feel buried by my shame and secrecy. I take care of myself, I meet commitments, I don’t hide or lie, I’m able to talk honestly with others. It’s not perfect, but that’s the point – I’m finally able to engage with reality, the good and the bad, instead of escaping it. I’ve lived with my addiction my whole life, and I never knew how deep my problem was until I started to experience life without it. There’s always more for me to learn and grow, but today I really can say that I feel clean and sober, and I’m grateful for that.
For a long time I felt self-conscious about thinking about this as an addiction, and I’d never thought of myself as an addict before ITAA. I wondered if I was being dramatic or pretentious. But when I use the internet, a warm feeling spreads through my body. I feel numb and relaxed, and all my feelings go away. When I come out of a binge, I’m irritable, emotionally absent, and all I can think about is using the internet again. While I can’t overdose on the internet, my usage has exacerbated depression and brought me to the brink of suicide, and more pervasively it trapped me in a kind of “living death”. When I hear others come into ITAA and share their own experiences, I’m reminded of how severe this can be.
I tried to control this so many times in my life, and the only thing that has worked is joining a group of other addicts who understand what I’m going through. Getting help and bringing in somebody other than myself has made all the difference.