Woman internet kissing computer addicted

Are you addicted to the web?

When I was 38, four or so years ago, I quit social media and spent the next two years learning to play the drums. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It made my spirit happy. It was like dancing, and punching; creative and cathartic. For several years prior, I had been wallowing in the depths of an online void, achieving what felt ultimately like the slow death of my soul.

Falling into life online had been swift and unexpected, yet initially very thrilling. I’d been studying for a university degree when social media burst onto the online landscape. I found it a welcome diversion from the tedium and intensity of study. I would log on and plunge myself into hours, days, weeks of largely meaningless yet highly pleasurable procrastination on various social media sites and Forums, escaping the stress of hard work.

Sitting in front of the computer and intermittently surfing for academic sources, I kidded myself that I was studying, but the truth was I was careening off-course. I always managed to eventually apply myself to my studies and I achieved good grades, but I wasted irrational amounts of time and adrenalin in the process, putting my mind and body under senseless pressure by cutting the work down to the wire. It was an inefficient, unhealthy approach that made my study experience harder and opened the door to a growing negative undercurrent that began to slowly chip away at the foundations of my health.

I would log on and plunge myself into hours, days, weeks of largely meaningless yet highly pleasurable procrastination on various social media sites and forums.

What started out as a form of escapism soon turned into a full-blown compulsion and I began to notice that, even when I had logged off, I was still mentally logged on. Online interactions and conflicts followed me into my offline day: into my thoughts, into my bed, into my ability to sleep soundly through the night. I felt constantly unnerved within myself.

I started to find out things about my “friends” online that I didn’t want to know: the otherwise secret thoughts of those who had fallen into the false anonymity trap of online socialising. I bore sorrowful, frustrated witness to opinions I didn’t want to see; to compassionless viewpoints about issues close to my heart, to widespread forms of ugly behaviour that occur when we can’t see the real faces of people. And, instead of letting it all go, I allowed myself to fall into the trap of responding.

I began to engage in senseless arguments, trading insults with internet trolls, cyber bullies and people I would generally avoid in the outside world; people whose bravado would ordinarily be tempered by the norms of real-life social contact. I found myself developing a deep misanthropy, a profound lack of faith and respect in my fellow humans and the state of the world at large. I started using my intellectual powers for evil, striking people down with wit and words wherever I perceived cruelty and injustice.

At the heart of it all, I was sinking into a chronic depression. I had come face to face with my own deep lack of fulfilment in life, my own unhappiness and fears magnified in power struggles with people I didn’t know and whose opinions did not impact on my real life. My emotional day rotated around a cycle of anger, anxiety, hopelessness and a deep sense of shame around my own behaviour. This meaningless drama had become my reality, and I had created it myself.

The prolonged anxiety of living this way inevitably affected my physical health. My digestion, already a problem, increasingly worsened until I was unable to eat without feeling sick, bringing about dangerous weight loss. I slept badly, falling asleep late in the night and then waking again in the very early hours, exhausted yet unable to sleep. My coping abilities plummeted and my whole system was running on empty, succumbing to the chronic fatigue that occurs when the nervous system, worn out by constant stress arousal, starts to fold.

One day, after too much of this despair and sickness, I had a simple revelation. I finally took off the blinkers and confessed to myself that my internet habit was harming me. I looked head-on at what I’d been trying to escape — my own lack of fulfilment — and started to think about what would fulfil me. I asked myself what I would like to do with my life. Music had once been a big part of my happiness and it dawned on me that I really wanted to play the drums.

So I disabled my social media accounts, looked up a local drum teacher — and started drumming. I felt instantly lighter and it wasn’t long before I rediscovered the long-lost feeling of joy. Waving farewell to my virtual self, whom I’d come to identify as the worst version of me, brought an enormous sense of relief. My hands were back on the steering wheel and it felt good.

Unwisely, in subsequent years, there have been times I have looked back.  Wanting to connect with distant friends and family through social media, and believing I could moderate my use, I have intermittently dipped a toe back into the water. I’ve told myself I can play on the outskirts, with minimal harm. This is a lie. The truth is, my predispositions to social anxiety and depression make social media a dangerous playground for me. I can’t just dip a toe in without drowning.

Last week, again, I logged off. Sine then, a lot has happened. I read a whole book (something that falls by the wayside when I’m embroiled online). I re-engaged with my love of writing (here I am, writing this!) and I dusted off my drum kit and started to play again. Already, I can feel myself returning to my real self. I’m moving forward again, into real life.

Jen Nicholson

Jen Nicholson

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