After getting lost in the woods 45 minutes outside of Seattle, I finally found reSTART; an internet addiction recovery center on the outskirts of Fall City, Washington. The double garaged, soft blue home was owned by a couple who, after raising their children and sending them off to college, decided to convert it to a recovery center. The high ceilings, beautiful open kitchen, warm living room; they all seemed to wrap their collective arms around me. Knowing the center was once a house, gave me something of a nostalgic feeling; like going home for the holidays and being bombarded by the smells of my childhood kitchen.
I quickly learned that Ryan, a 19 year old who had recently failed out of college, was recovering from gaming addiction. Ryan shared with me that, at the hight of his addiction, he would play computer games for hours - 24, 32 hours, even - until he was forced to sleep. He would sleep for a few hours, maybe four, then wake up and do it all over again.
I then learned about Peter, a 30 year old who was living out of his car before coming to reSTART. Peter had been in recovery for love and sex addiction, and spoke about his inability to stop using the internet to watch porn and, later, to obsess about the current political state of our country. Peter and I share the same alma mater, a small detail that impacted me greatly.
Our culture's perception of a "nerd" shape my assumptions about internet addicts. I envisioned skinny, quiet, socially awkward men who weren't as addicted as much as they were just infatuated. After all, how does one even become addicted to the internet? Can't you simply, "turn it off"? Is this even a real problem? Are these individuals really struggling?
The answer, of course, is yes.
Internet addiction affects the mind and body in a variety of potentially deadly ways. Many of the clients that have come in and out of reSTART suffer physical ailments as a result of their addiction. They're either overweight or underweight, failing to eat or choosing to only eat convenient food; like a microwavable or popcorn or something from McDonalds. They drink soda and energy drinks, anything with caffeine that will keep them awake. They develop insomnia, early onset eye problems like the loss of their peripheral vision. Many develop type 2 diabetes, problems with their postures, immune deficiencies, problems falling asleep and problems staying asleep. Ryan shared with me that, for the first time in years, he had started dreaming again. Peter was still struggling to sleep through the night.
Emotionally, internet addicts suffer from depression and severe anxiety. They lose the ability to connect with others, a human necessity that is vital to cerebral development. "The complexity of social interaction requires maintenance, and if you neglect it, you lose confidence" Dr. Hilarie Cash, co-CEO and Director of Media and Education at reSTART said as she explained the mental state of her clients. The passion in which she speaks about addiction and recovery, is rivaled only by the level of care she clearly has for addicts looking to change the very dangerous course of their lives. I learned that, as internet addicts withdraw from the real world and become more and more engrossed in the internet world, they lose the confidence that comes from and is created by social interaction. Addicts start to feel worthless, experience suicidal thoughts, lose relationships and allow the allusion of a social life to demolish any chance at a real one.
"Think of it like a hungry person who eats sugar. It might satisfy you momentarily, but eventually you'll starve." Dr. Cash said.
Ryan and Peter, were starving.
But at reSTART, they're learning to eat again. Both literally, and figuratively.
While the in-house program looks, sounds and is structured much like a drug and alcohol recovery program - strict rules, group and individual therapy sessions, chores, etc - it is also extremely holistic, in a way I didn't imagine but now seems obviously necessary. Clients learn about nutrition, are required to cook meals, and required to work out and/or engage in a physical activity. The double car garage had been converted into a gym, and just outside there's a life-sized chess board, complete with giant chess pieces. There's a dog, a tenacious cat, and a few chickens that call reSTART home. Feeding the animals are also requirements, so clients learn to not only take care of themselves again, but to care for someone else. There's a garden, and while tending to it, clients learn how to reconnect with nature and natural, organic foods. All throughout the house, you'll find musical instruments and board games; attempts at sparking a personal interest in an activity that doesn't require a log in or password. Peter was determined to learn a song on the guitar before the day was over. Ryan has just learned how to successfully make homemade pasta, and was excited to share the recipe.
The holistic approach to internet addiction recovery comes as a direct result of the unique problems internet addiction poses. Dr. Cash put it best when she compared internet addiction to an eating disorder. "You can learn to stay away from certain foods, but you have to eat. You can stay away from gaming or porn, but in our society, you have to use the internet." And, it's true. Hell, I had to use the internet to find an internet addiction treatment facility. Unlike a drug or alcohol addiction, internet abstinence is not conducive to a healthy, successful life.
Which is why reSTART offers Phase II, an outpatient treatment program. Clients live in an apartment with other recovering addicts, are subjected to random apartment searches, are given a dumb phone, and are allowed to check out a computer for two hours, which will be monitored by their therapist as to hold them accountable for the commitments they made in treatment. They're slowly and surely encouraged to engage with technology in a sustainable way, and Phase II allows for a slow reintroduction into a world that is ran by technology.
It's lunch time now, and I stand awkwardly in the massive kitchen while Peter and Ryan make themselves a meal. I ask if I can continue picking their brains while they eat, and they kindly agree. Peter explains the four core beliefs of addiction: "I'm worthless", "my needs won't be met", "my addiction is most important" and, "if you knew me, you wouldn't like me", and, for the first time since my visit, he seems nervous. I know that Peter believes all of those things about himself, and the gravity of his addiction fills the space between us. Ryan shares an early childhood trauma that, he is learning, has directly impacted his gaming addiction.
Peter and Ryan are not just fighting an addiction, they're fighting against a culture that doesn't believe their addiction exists.
Internet addiction, just like sex addiction, is not recognized in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In fact, gambling addiction was just added, a milestone for sex and internet addicts, as it is the first behavior addiction to be included. Hopefully, as our collective understanding and acceptance of behavioral addictions expands, sex addiction and internet addiction will be added. When that day comes, therapist, psychologists and psychiatrists will be forced to educate themselves on internet addiction, and (hopefully) health insurance companies will be forced to cover treatment.
But until that day, there are places like reSTART, tucked away in the woods outside a major city known for its inclusion of technology, and there are people like Ryan and Peter. It's safe to say that I will be thinking of them and their recovery, for a long time to come.
If you or someone you know is suffering from internet addiction, you can contact reSTART and/or any of these helpful resources.