When I was five years old, the only television in our house was in my mother’s bedroom at the top of the stairs. While I watched, I would move closer and closer so that the screen progressively filled up more and more of my field of vision. Sometimes, I’d lay my face right against the glass and let the colors flood my eyes while I slowly rolled my forehead back and forth to feel the static prickle on my skin and taste the acrid electricity in my teeth. I felt a deep and hypnotic sense of calm in these moments, and my chest would fill with a pleasantly cool numbness.
I couldn’t have known it then, but this sensation was to grow into one of the defining features of my life. It became my greatest companion and source of refuge, until it weaved itself so tightly into my being that it nearly killed me.
The sight of screens filled me with a secret joy that it seemed only I could recognize, as though they were beyond and outside of the world—a glimpse of magic. The internet arrived when I was ten, and soon I was waiting until everyone else had fallen asleep so that I could slip downstairs to play games and watch videos on the family computer until early in the morning. Crawling back into bed just before dawn, I’d complain of a terrible stomach ache when my mother came to wake me up, and I missed so many days of school that I nearly had to repeat the seventh grade.
As I grew older, it became increasingly common for the whole day to disappear into the screen, with occasional, panic-filled breaks for studying. I managed to scrape by in classes by preparing at the last minute, comforting myself with the thought that I was above school. In some moments of murky self-awareness, I wondered why, if I felt I was above school, I was choosing to spend my extra time not on more fulfilling activities but on an endless stream of pointless videos and games. I pushed these thoughts away.
These were years of loneliness and melancholy. I felt as though I were on one side of a window and life was on the other: visible, but out of reach. The thought that these were supposed to be some of the most important years of my life filled me with great sadness. My days passed by in the moments between glances at the clock on the top right of my screen.
I was fortunate enough to be admitted to my top choice for a university to study what I was most passionate about, where I soon found myself using more seriously than I ever had before. In the days leading up to my first round of finals, I fell into a tremendous bender in which I didn’t sleep for three consecutive nights. I showed up four hours late and delirious to my final presentation, and then felt indignant when my professor nearly failed me. What did it matter if I was late? I’d pulled together a spectacular presentation in those last four hours. The problem, I thought, was that my teacher had it in for me.
Unfortunately, it was me who had it in for myself. Over the coming years, I began to act out a nearly clockwork pattern of falling into intense, days-long binges at the worst possible moments. Right before important deadlines, social gatherings, and trips, I’d tell myself that I could relax my nerves with a short, ten minute break online. Ten minutes would turn into thirty, which would turn into an hour, then two hours, then four, and then all night. I’d wrap myself up in a heady whirlwind of games, videos, television shows, movies, social media, pornography, online research, shopping, memes, forums, podcasts, health articles, news, and anything and everything I could get my hands on. When one activity’s hold over me began to wane I’d switch to another to keep myself going. I’d keep telling myself that I’d stop after the next video, the next article, the next game, but of course by then a new set of possibilities had presented themselves, so it was only reasonable to extend just a little longer. By the time the sky was turning gray and the birds began singing, I was passing out on my laptop, too tired to move my hands or keep my eyes open, going in and out of consciousness while the last movements and sounds played themselves out on my screen.
A few hours later, I’d wake up to a potent mixture of harsh sunlight and unbearable shame. My mind was foggy and my emotions were dead. I knew I had to do better today—and there was so much to do. But after a long period of lying in paralyzed misery, I’d think that perhaps watching just one video would help jolt me awake. So would begin another endless deluge, until some impending appointment would spark my self-loathing and fear to a breaking point and I would manage to pull myself out of my stupor with a wave of violent threats, demanding that I would never, ever, ever do this again. Sometimes I’d manage to go several weeks without succumbing. Just as often, I’d be back in the same dark oblivion within a few days.
Whenever I began using, it felt like I was wrapping a large blanket around myself. I experienced an indescribable sense of comfort and safety, as though I were a child being held in my mother’s arms. What I wanted most was to disappear, to become invisible, for time to stop. For a few hours or days, the world would become still and my body would become numb, and I was able to feel peace.
But my peace never lasted long, and a growing current of pain was widening inside me. I was becoming more capable and mature in every other area of my life, but in this arena I was progressively losing all control. Why couldn’t I stop watching pointless online videos? I could no longer explain away my behavior by claiming I was above school—I was studying what I was most passionate about. My self-sabotage had now become a truly senseless mystery. I felt incredibly embarrassed that despite my best efforts to the contrary, my life was disappearing into the void that I carried around in my pocket.
I managed to keep my problem well-hidden and scrape enough work together to achieve academic distinction, and one summer I was awarded a scholarship to pursue an independent project in a major city—an incredible opportunity that I’d dreamed of since I was young. However, several weeks into the summer found me in a perplexing state of affairs. I was sitting on the hard, wooden floor of a small apartment with no furniture except a mattress, a single poorly fitted sheet, and a used air conditioner that I hadn’t gotten around to installing, despite the oppressive heat wave. Thin plastic convenience store bags lay strewn about me filled with empty ice cream containers and junk food packaging. I was sitting against the wall I shared with a neighbor who had offered to let me use their internet until I set up my own service, and my body was sore because I’d been sitting there continuously for the past ten hours. Hunched over my phone, I was watching hundreds and hundreds of videos I didn’t find even remotely interesting or enjoyable. In the early hours of the morning, overcome by physical pain and mental exhaustion, I pleaded with myself in my head: “Please stop. Please stop now. Just stop.” Against my straining will, my hands moved with a life of their own to click on the next video while I looked on helplessly, feeling like a prisoner behind my eyes. For six and a half minutes longer I would forget that I didn’t want to be doing this. Then another wave of exhaustion and pain would hit me and I’d try to convince myself to stop, over and over again until I finally passed out. With no professors and no parents, no assignments or deadlines, the days stretched out ominously before me, extending this gruesome scene without limit, day after day, week after week. I felt deeply scared. Here was an opportunity I’d been dreaming of most of my life, and I was throwing it all away in the most pointless and humiliating manner I could have possibly imagined. What was wrong with me? Why was this happening?
I wondered whether this was anything like what alcoholics experienced when they had a drink of alcohol, and the thought filled me with a dim sense of hope—I’d heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I was certain that there must be a few people in my city who thought they were internet addicts. I resolved to look up a meeting and force myself to go to one. But when I searched online, not only did I find nothing in my city, I found nothing in my country, or anywhere at all in the world. In that moment I felt indescribably hopeless, confused, and alone.
The summer dragged on, and in the final days before I was due to return to school I strained to pull together something which I could show for the past months. My work garnered praise, but it was a hollow victory. Despite my external facade, I was haunted by the thought that I was wasting my life and not living up to my potential.
I returned to university and the next several years continued in similar fashion, with painful, exhausting, secret binges punctuating my weeks. I tried blockers, self-help books, exercise, supplements, positive self-talk, negative self-talk, therapy, meditation, and any and every other strategy I could think of to stop my acting out behaviors. Nothing worked. Upon graduating I was awarded another scholarship which afforded me three months to work independently, during which I did little more than obsessively scroll social media and read the news. After my scholarship money ran out I got an excellent job from which I was promptly fired after showing up to work six hours late, having stayed up until dawn the night before watching television. A relationship fell apart because I wasn’t able to give enough time or intimacy to my partner. The next several relationships fell apart in much the same manner. My bank account became a revolving door and I started sleeping in my car because I couldn’t afford to pay rent. Between it all my using grew even more unregulated and excessive. My fantasies began vacillating between visions of abandoning all ambitions to live out the rest of my life playing games and watching television, and mental illustrations of cruel and gruesome ways in which I could take my own life. I rarely enjoyed using anymore. I began pressing the points of knives to my chest to quiet my anxiety and would travel out to bridges in the middle of the night to stand at the edge.
In a moment of desperation after a particularly bad binge, I again tried looking for some kind of support group for my problem. This time I miraculously stumbled across a Twelve-Step fellowship for gaming addiction with daily phone meetings. It’d been years since I’d started looking for a group like this, and I’d finally found an answer.
But after surveying the website, I decided that it wasn’t for me. It was helpful to read about some of the tools they used, but it had now been nearly a week since I’d stopped binging, and I was truly serious about stopping this time. My last binge had been incredibly painful and I’d firmly decided that I must stop at all costs. I was confident that I was finished now.
Several months later, early on the morning of my birthday, I passed out after 70 hours of continuous gaming. I had traveled to my hometown for a few days to go through my childhood possessions before my mom sold our house, and I’d made plans to celebrate my birthday with the rest of my family while I was in town. By the time I woke up from my blackout, I’d missed my own birthday party and had less than an hour left before I had to leave for the airport. My phone was filled with missed calls and my room with piles of unorganized things. An unbearable weight of shame and panic settled over me. After sitting for some time in stunned paralysis, I started going through my room in a crazed frenzy, throwing my lifelong possessions into the trash with little more than a cursory glance. In the last few minutes before I had to leave, I kneeled down on the floor of the room I’d grown up in and tried to say goodbye. I wanted to cry or feel gratitude for my childhood home, but I felt nothing. After several fruitless minutes, I sat down at my desk, closed my eyes, and promised myself that if I ever played another video game again I would kill myself.
The next night I called into my first meeting for the gaming fellowship. I got the time wrong and showed up just as the meeting was ending, and I was so nervous that I was whispering. Two members kindly offered to stick around and talk with me, and I shyly explained to them, in abstract generalities, that I was playing too many games. After listening to me compassionately, they shared their own stories, encouraged me to keep coming back, and suggested I attend a meeting every day. I listened to their suggestions. Sharing honestly and vulnerably with a group of strangers who came from all walks of life felt uncomfortable, messy, and awkward. There was also a lot of talk about a Higher Power, which made me uneasy. But after years of secrecy, hearing other people share experiences that mirrored my own was like drinking water in the desert, and everyone’s kindness, sincerity, and goodwill kept me coming back.
Unlike everything else I’d tried over so many years, these meetings proved to be the only thing that worked. I haven’t played a single game since my first meeting. Abstinence didn’t come because I’d threatened myself—I’d been doing that in one way or another my whole life. It came because I was finally able to start speaking honestly with people who understood me, and who in the light of their understanding, offered me unconditional love.
While abstinence from gaming was a vital beginning, the rest of my online behaviors continued unabated, and several weeks into my nascent sobriety I found myself settling into long sessions of watching videos of other people playing games. I saw I was headed towards trouble if I continued down that path. I connected with two other members who were also looking to address their problematic internet and technology use, and in June of 2017 we held the first meeting of Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous. We agreed on a weekly meeting time and I felt hopeful that the same freedom I’d been granted from gaming would soon extend to all my other problematic internet and technology behaviors.
The process wasn’t as straightforward as I would have liked, to say the least. For my first five months in ITAA, I relapsed constantly. My sobriety felt like a tenuous ledge on an icy mountain slope. I’d begin checking my bank account, and 16 hours later I’d find myself in the middle of another terrible relapse wondering how it had happened.
But I didn’t give up—I decided that I would go to any lengths to find recovery. I started a second weekly meeting, began calling other members regularly, read literature from other Twelve-Step fellowships, and started keeping a time log of all my internet and technology use. It was a noble outpouring of dedication. Then in late November of that year I decided to watch a movie one evening and fell into another terrible three-day binge.
Mercifully, this was to be my last serious binge. I’d apparently done enough footwork that the depths of this particular bottom were enough to propel me into my first period of sustained sobriety. In the initial months of my newfound freedom, I went through withdrawals. I felt foggy-headed, angry, apathetic, and numb. My hands filled with pain whenever I tried to handle objects, and my legs felt like sacks of wet sand whenever I tried to walk. I slept too much or couldn’t sleep at all. Endless stretches of unbearable boredom were punctuated by painful extremes of elation and depression, as well as intense urges to turn to my addiction. I became willing to release myself of all expectations of what I should do or be and to put my recovery before everything else. When I couldn’t muster any strength to face the day, I allowed myself to lay on my bed and cry. When I experienced emotional highs, I guarded against the temptation to stop going to meetings. Eventually the withdrawals passed and I stopped feeling the constant urges to use. I kept my head down and continued trying to further my recovery work.
For a long period, it was important to change out my smartphone for a flip phone and to remove my home internet connection so that I could only connect online when I was in public. I deleted all my social media accounts and stopped reading the news, which had never helped any of the people I’d been reading about anyways. I began treating risky and triggering technology behaviors as things to avoid at all costs. I helped start more meetings. And perhaps most importantly of all, I began developing a relationship with a Higher Power.
I finally understood that the Steps refer to a Higher Power of my own understanding. Even though the words were there, in my heart I’d still thought this phrase referred to a Higher Power of someone else’s understanding. I made up a straw man in my head of what that Higher Power was and decided I wanted nothing to do with it. My fellow members never said a word to discourage me—on the contrary, they listened to me with curiosity, compassion, and acceptance. Eventually I realized that I was only fighting myself. I had to come to terms with the simple fact that there is an immense universe of things that are fundamentally beyond my control and understanding. I slowly began to let go of my controlling grip on the world, trusting things to take their natural course while listening open-mindedly to the experiences of others. Today, my spiritual practices are the cornerstone of my entire recovery program: I pray and meditate each morning and evening, and I practice an ongoing surrender and trust in something greater than myself which I don’t fully understand.
Over the next two years I had a handful of slips. Each time I slipped, I sat down and wrote about what happened, why and where it had started, and what changes I needed to make to my recovery program moving forward. Then I called other members and spoke with them about it, putting into place their suggestions. My last slip was at the end of 2019, and by the grace of my Higher Power, I’ve had continuous sobriety since January 1, 2020. This last slip was to be the foundation for three new major pillars in my recovery.
First, I had to totally admit my powerlessness. Nearly every slip I’d had occurred when I’d tried to take a break from the program. Having experienced long, solid periods of sobriety without any urges to use, I secretly wondered whether I might be able to step back from the program and get back to living my life without the extra commitment of meetings, calls, and service. Over the course of all my experiments during those two years, I again and again received the answer to my question: I was never able to go more than two weeks away from the program before relapsing. My last slip painfully hammered this truth home to me. Just like the hundreds of thousands of oldtimers in AA who have decades of sobriety and still show up to meetings every day, I had to profoundly admit that I am an addict, that there is no cure for addiction, and that I will need ITAA for the rest of my life. I am not the exception to the rule—and if I am, I no longer want to keep trying to find out.
The second major pillar that I established in my recovery was to get a sponsor and start working the Steps. I’d previously viewed the Steps as an optional, additional resource I could draw on when I wanted to. Others had been asking me to sponsor them because of my own beginnings of sobriety, but I didn’t even have a sponsor myself. Again I had to cast away the idea that I could be the exception to the rule. I found an experienced sponsor and at their direction began working the Steps using the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. After having initially viewed the core of our program with suspicion, resentment, uneasiness, and disinterest, I’m so grateful I got to a place in my recovery where I became willing to work the Steps—it’s difficult to describe just how transformative and profound they’ve been for me. They provided a safe container through which I was able to work through a great deal of pain and suffering that I’d been carrying throughout my life from childhood sexual abuse, dysfunctional family dynamics, and a string of toxic relationships. I understood my self-hatred in a new light and was able to gently let it go, along with my desire to take my own life. My work in therapy has been essential to this process, and I’ve needed to rely on trained professionals to help me with my healing. I also needed the directness, humility, and vulnerability that the Steps provided. They have been critical to my long-term, sustained abstinence.
The third pillar was a new approach to sobriety. At times in my recovery, I’d navigated a byzantine web of top, middle, and bottom lines that crossed in a hundred directions, with action plans, time logs, and bookends balanced precariously on top. While these tools are deeply useful to my recovery, after my last slip I adopted a much simpler attitude: I only use technology when I have to. I try to keep my usage minimal and purposeful, and I generally avoid using for entertainment, curiosity, or to numb my emotions. If I find myself straying from this principle, I call my sponsor and talk about it. This simple approach has placed me far away from the rocky crags of relapse and on the wide and rolling plains of serenity. I’d feared this would be the more difficult route, but the opposite has proven true in abundance. Today I meet my needs for pleasure, relaxation, curiosity, and connection in non-compulsive, offline ways. In the process, my life has grown unimaginably richer.
It’s been a very long time since I had the thought “I’m not living up to my potential.” Today I feel fully alive. My capacity to spend my time working towards meaningful ambitions that align with my values has been restored and expanded. I’ve developed rich, fulfilling relationships in which I’m able to be present and vulnerable. The precarity in my career and finances has fallen away. I’m able to take care of my body with appropriate rest, a healthy diet, good hygiene, and regular exercise. I have access to my emotions and can feel happiness, gratitude, and peace without repression or compartmentalization. I can also feel sadness, fear, and anger. I use my devices responsibly when necessary, and afterwards I’m able to stop. I no longer need to hide or lie, and I can keep the commitments I set with myself and others. I’m not consumed with fear, pride, or shame as I used to be. Instead I find myself acting with serenity and clarity.
Recently, I was in the ocean during a light spell of rain. The air was still and soft, and gray light filtered from the sky. The taste of saltwater and freshwater mixed on my tongue, and cool air filled my chest. I stayed still for a long time, standing in the water, in the embrace of a wide and quiet world that had always been here. It had been waiting on the other side of a window that had once separated me from life.
Page last updated on September 3, 2023