Here we share the experience, strength and hope of ITAA members. We share about how it was, what changed, and how it is now.
Recovery is possible
As with many other internet addicts, my addiction started early in life. I was fascinated by the first screens I was exposed to. In my childhood, I definitely had phases of obsessing over certain media (including books) but my parent’s rather strict guidance prevented it from getting too problematic. When I got my first computer in my teenage years and was free to use it for long hours at a time without anyone noticing, my use started escalating. I didn’t have friends I felt close to, I was being bullied at school, I didn’t get along well with my parents, and I didn’t really feel like I had any significant hobbies. The internet was the only place where I felt free and relaxed. I spent more time consuming content online until I literally considered watching videos on a certain platform my hobby. Through a student exchange and two years of intensive study for my final exams, my addiction took a back seat in my life for a while. Periods like this where I could shorten my internet usage for a greater good in my life later had me question if I was really addicted.
After finishing high school with impeccable marks, I fell into a black hole. I moved to another city for university and expected everything to be better there. But I had too much free time and freedom and I couldn’t handle it. I was technically an adult but the tasks I wanted to live up to were too big for me. In my youth, I had learned few life skills because I had been used to fleeing from my problems.
So, I fled again. After a few months of trying to achieve social and academic goals at university and failing, I fell deeper into depression. I subconsciously gave up on myself and instead filled the hole of frustration, anger and emptiness with the internet. Nobody could tell me anymore that I was using too long or that it was time to sleep, so I stayed up whole nights watching content online. I got into a habit of skipping half of my university classes because I felt no motivation to go, or I overslept because I had been up for long hours the previous night. Being sleep deprived became my new default state. I didn’t try anymore to make real life friends or really engage in activities. I had found my online communities that I felt like fulfilled my need for socialization and fun better than any contact in real life.
Mostly, I watched videos posted on a particular platform and I read texts in forums. I developed a sort of crooked perfectionism with my usage. I spent a tremendous amount of time creating and reorganizing watch lists and picturewalls online because I thought that “one day,” I would read/watch them all and be sure of my complete knowledge. I often liked to consume content of people doing things I would like to do in real life as well, and I would be so amazed by them. The most painful part was seeing these people do amazing things with their time while I spent all my time watching them. I desperately wanted to be able to do these amazing things as well, but I felt like I couldn’t. I was scared of failing and so I resorted to just consuming information about the activity, half-heartedly telling myself that I was doing that “in preparation” for when I would actually do all of these things one day.
This motivated information-collection was the more positive part of my addiction, though. I also spend a lot of time watching stuff I didn’t even feel interested in just to watch stuff. I was always searching for the next interesting piece of media to give a kick to my emotions, but as I was becoming numbed by the great amount I had already consumed, this was getting harder. I lost the concentration to watch anything longer than a short video. I watched for the purpose of watching, often quitting videos halfway through or playing games while watching because one video alone wasn’t doing it anymore.
All of this dug me deeper into my depression. I had developed light social anxiety too, and everything felt like an extremely hard task to me. My “problem” throughout all my use was that my life never got so bad that it looked truly unmanageable from the outside. I kept on track with my university courses, although with mediocre marks, occasionally took short-term jobs and upheld a few loose “friendships” without ever being close to my “friends”. When people invited me to hang out, I had happy, social times without the internet. I sometimes managed to force myself to do hobby activities. All of this made me reason that my life wasn’t so bad after all, and nobody ever got concerned about my way of life. I kept going with it.
I didn’t have a specific rock bottom about my internet use that I can remember, but I remember one holiday where I felt absolutely bad the whole time. I made a decision to stop giving up on myself because of the state of depression I felt then. Back in my university town, I made an effort to always stay busy, taking internships and jobs to never have too much free time on my hands, which I thought was my problem. In order to become more productive, I had also installed a blocker on my PC and started blocking online pages for a growing number of hours a day.
As I was spending more time outside of the PC, my life was becoming a lot better and I felt less urges to spend time on it. I was using the internet freely for about half an hour a day at this point and my free time activities had already improved tremendously; I was going outside more, doing my hobby and never stopped being amazed at how much time there is in a day when I don’t spend it in front of the screen. As I was active in online forums about spending less time online, I found the link to a local ITAA group by coincidence. I went there, not really knowing what it was about. I started attending it even though I didn’t even feel like I was an internet addict, just someone who wants to become more productive by wasting less time online. For a few months, I just went to meetings, shared a bit and still used the internet for entertainment 30 minutes a day.
After a while, I met up with a fellow member and she told me her story of becoming completely abstinent. Even though I still didn’t feel like an internet addict, I decided to become completely abstinent the day after our meeting. I wrote down all the pages and online activities that were triggering to me (my bottom lines) and stayed abstinent from them. I had only cut out that last half an hour a day of free internet but the change was still noticeable. I felt more emotions more intensely because I had previously numbed them with internet usage. As I kept my abstinence, my life improved more. There was no magic change within a day but slow, tiny improvements.
A year went by. After about 10 months, I started having doubts about the program and my abstinence. I didn’t feel addicted and I consumed some entertainment online to prove myself I’m not. Even though I didn’t go into a binge, I could feel the mental shift. Consuming things on the internet makes me feel nervous, like my body is out of tune with the outside world. I get hectic and distracted, try to multitask and fail, as always. I stopped it again and switched to a stricter model of abstinence.
The internet won’t make me lose my job or risk my life but I can feel it is bad for me mentally. I use it to numb my feelings, intensify my feelings, avoid contact with fellow humans or myself, or cope with my fears and self-doubt. It never gave me any solution. It is harder to ask people in real life for help, to address a problem head-on myself, to work instead of consuming, but it’s worth it. I feel balanced. I can feel my feelings, which it turns out are not there to make me suffer, but to guide me in how to live my life. I feel pain and then I know there is something I need to change. I am more active, I do my hobbies and engage socially. I focus on what I really need in the moment when I want to go online. Most importantly, I feel more alive, present, there in my body and in the world when I’m not glued to a screen.
My internet usage still isn’t perfect. I switched to CDs and I’m noticing the struggle of finding analogue music. I still shop online because it is often very effective and I haven’t yet found a better way. I switched to a flip phone for a while but got annoyed by the discomfort and now I am using my smartphone again. But I am aware of all of my media use and I try to question myself every time I turn on a screen. Do I really need to look this up? What is the thing I really need now, emotionally? And this way, I know I will figure out the bricks that are still loose in my abstinence.
The internet harmed me. I feel like I am only now, almost a year abstinent and one and a half years almost-abstinent, noticing the true scope of the negative effects my usage had on me. All the information, opinions, ideas, suggestions and lifestyles I read about online still affect my thinking. I keep wondering how I should behave according to what some people said online instead of trusting my inner voice which hasn’t been listened to for so long. I sometimes still have trouble concentrating on long texts or videos. My sexuality is twisted from my porn consumption and the ideals it set up in my mind. I sometimes can’t differentiate if I really want to do something or I only think I want to do it because I once saw it online. These things will take a long time to heal, maybe even longer than the time I spent online. But I am living in real life now. And it’s better here.
At the end of an ITAA meeting, we always have a moment of silence for the addicted internet and technology user who is still suffering. Sometimes I think of myself when I was younger and needed strength to get out of my addiction, and sometimes I think of other members, possibly such as you who are reading this. I don’t know you, but if you are suffering from internet and technology use, I pray for you that you can get out of the twisted claws of the internet like I did. I promise you, it will be worth it.
The only thing that worked
My parents were highly educated, and in the 1980s we were one of the few families in the neighborhood that had TV and computers at home. I remember that on the weekends I would watch the four hour morning cartoon show for children. I also was fascinated by the computers. As a kid I was a real computer nerd, typing in game codes from computer magazines, debugging the programs, and then playing computer games. Computers also gave me status and a way to connect to neighborhood kids, as I could invite them to play on our computer which they didn’t have.
When I was 12 years old, my parents divorced and I moved with my mother and sister to a new town. There I wasn’t able to connect to peers and I became increasingly isolated. That was when TV and computer games became increasingly important to fill up the loneliness. At some point when I was around 15 years old, my parents gave me a television and computer in my room as a present. From then on I isolated myself fully in my room, spending my free time watching sports and news on TV and playing computer games. That was also the first time that I wanted to diminish my use of TV and computer but discovered that I couldn’t stop watching and playing. I was somehow glued to those machines. Obviously my homework suffered from it and sometimes I would fail tests because of it, but overall I had good grades in high school.
At university, life got better. I finally got an active social life. For the first three years I didn’t have a computer at home. I did have my TV at home and I do remember a strong compulsion to watch the weekly broadcasted porn movie, as well as the yearly sports events, but for the rest my compulsion was pretty much contained. I was pretty obsessed about technology though. I still identified myself as the tech nerd and made sure I was the technological frontrunner. For example, I was the first among my friends to buy a cell phone (we are talking about the late 90s here).
My compulsion really took off when I bought my own computer with internet at home. In particular internet porn became very addictive to me, and this is what really brought me to self-destruction. This is when I started to consider myself an addict, and when I really tried to control my addiction to internet porn. It started by deleting files and subscriptions to news services after acting out to raise the barrier to start again. It didn’t work. In a similar vein, I tried to hide the modem from myself by unplugging all the wires, putting the modem back in its box, and putting it in the closet. It didn’t work. My brain still knew where the modem was. (Looking back at it now, it is incredible that I thought these things work.)
I fell in love and got into a romantic relationship. It didn’t stop the addiction. I simply kept my internet porn problem completely secret and continued to act out behind her back. After three years I revealed my internet porn problem to her. At that moment she was very supportive and loving, which gave me hope to overcome my problem. I also went to a sex therapist for my problem. It didn’t work. After a while I would start acting out on internet porn, keeping it secret from my girlfriend, until she discovered, I felt compelled to confess, and I made new resolutions to stop this time for real. Until the next wave of secretly acting out, discovery, promises, etc, etc, ad infinitum.
New things I tried: a brand new clean laptop. For sure I’m not going to pollute such a virgin-like machine—that will save me. It didn’t. Then I tried parent controls. I blocked certain websites, sites with particular key words, and access in the evening and night. I kept the password at a different place. That was very inconvenient. I remember that at some point I was working on the computer with a colleague and we needed to look at something on the intranet. However, that parent control was blocking the website, so this stupid parent control warning showed up. I had to explain to my colleague that I couldn’t access the site now. Of course all these parent control things were my own plan, and I kept it completely secret from the rest of the world. I felt very embarrassed and ashamed about it. Moreover, sometimes I needed to make an exception and I looked up the password—at moments that I decided of course. The consequence was that I still kept relapsing with the internet binges, because at some point I started to remember the password by heart. I also managed to find ways to bypass the internet filter. All in all, it didn’t work, and it only created stress. Nowadays, I see these parent control internet filters as just another way to control my addiction, just another way to do it my way. Now in recovery, I don’t use parent controls or internet filters anymore. I feel much safer and more relaxed without them.
Here I should mention that my attempts to control the internet were not only related to stopping watching porn. At work, I didn’t watch porn on my computer, but I still looked at a lot of blogs, videos, and news stories. Often I spent more working hours surfing on the internet than on actual work.
In the end, after ten years of internet and porn addiction, my life crashed. I was suicidal, my relationship was a nightmare, and I even got in touch with the police. I came to realize that I was heading towards one of the three Cs: correctional facilities, the psychiatric clinic, or the cemetery.
Luckily, through a helpline I got into twelve step recovery for sex addiction and I threw myself completely into it. I gave up my job and moved in with my mom just to focus fully on recovery. In my first two years of recovery I didn’t have my own computer. The first half-year I would sometimes use my mom’s computer which she had the password to, and I also used the computers in the public library. I think this period helped me tremendously withdrawing from my porn addiction.
After half a year, I got a job again and moved to my own place, still without a computer or internet at home. But now I could also use the internet at work. This initially worked well, and I tried to use the internet at work for work purposes, but slowly I spent more and more time for non-work related purposes as well. And I sometimes had binges at work, in which I stopped working and I started surfing on the internet for the rest of the work day.
I discussed this with my sponsor, and he suggested that I take a computer and internet at home again. I did that. That was scary in the beginning, but it worked quite well. Most importantly my cravings to watch porn on my computer had disappeared. I still consider that one of the miracles of recovery. I’m grateful to my sponsor that he insisted that I do not use any internet filters or time control applications on my computer. God is my internet filter and time control, and if I want to keep my internet use manageable, I will have to rely on my Higher Power rather than on internet filters or parent controls. Having said that, while in recovery from sex addiction, my internet use still remained unmanageable at times, falling into internet binges either at home or at work. Having worked through other character defects first, this internet thing became more stubborn to resolve with steps six and seven alone.
With it, my desire to stop increased. I felt my recovery was fake. I had internet binges until deep in the night, just totally powerless to stop. It was exactly the same as before I got into twelve step recovery, the only difference was that there was no porn involved. My sponsor suggested that I look up a twelve step program for internet addiction. I did that, and finally a fellow told me about ITAA.
However, I didn’t want to go to ITAA. I had no confidence at all that going to ITAA would help me. Finally, another internet binge in December 2018 convinced me to call in to my first ITAA meeting.
Did it help? You bet it did.
I was really surprised, but it turned out that I really needed ITAA—I needed to admit that I’m an internet and technology addict by calling in and saying it aloud to other understanding internet and technology addicts. And I needed to hear the voices, the suffering and successful recovery stories, of other internet and technology addicts. Yes, I am an internet and technology addict. I cannot control it, and my life is unmanageable. I need a Higher Power to manage my life, and ITAA fellows to stay away from internet binges.
And the miracle is that since I joined ITAA I haven’t had a severe internet binge (although I have briefly crossed my bottom lines a few times). I feel my recovery and my life have reached a new level. I’m very grateful for that.
Quantifying Internet and Technology Addiction
As a demonstration of the potentially devastating consequences of Internet and Technology addiction, this is how one member quantified the loss resulting from their addiction. No matter our past experiences, we have found the exercise of quantifying the consequences of our addiction to be illuminating and powerful.
What 25 years of Internet Addiction has cost me:
- 25 years of living in extremely messy dorm rooms and apartments.
- 20 years of chronic injuries and health problems.
- 19 years since my last serious relationship.
- 17 years since my last close friendship I spent much time with in person.
- 11 years since the last time I’ve gone on more than one date with the same person.
- 10 years since I’ve been able to handle a full workload at paid employment or school.
- 7 years since the last time I’ve gone on any date.
- 6 years since my last paid employment.
- 5 years since my last cancelled date.
- 5 years since my last attempt at having a social life.
- 2 years living/traveling abroad with very little time spent sightseeing.
- Over a year’s delay getting into graduate school two different times.
- Roughly a year’s total time of being underemployed at work that I could have spent learning new skills but didn’t.
- 2 grad schools that were a poor fit for me, partly out of fear of taking online classes.
- 2 graduate schools I dropped out of.
- 10 dropped or failed classes.
- Final grades of a B, C or F in my last classes at a school as a direct result of internet binges that had major repercussions on my future.
- 1 research paper never turned in that a professor gave me credit for.
- Missing my opportunity to have children.
- Ruined relationships with roommates.
- Early diabetes that got severe because I only ate things that could be eaten with one hand while at the computer.
- Multiple messed up moves.
- Being 8 months behind in a job training program that is only supposed to take 6 months.
- Not finishing a different job training program that only required 32 hours of work and that I had 5 weeks to do while unemployed.
- Sidetracking from a plan that when I was in my late 30’s would have put me retiring comfortably in my late 40’s.
- And roughly a cost of one million dollars.
Alive and in communion
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.