I’m trying to get over an internet addiction (yes, monsters, I am allowed to tell people that I have an internet addiction even though I also have difficulty replying to emails) and part of what I’m trying to do is not feed my compulsions. That is, not check the internet at the moment I get a compulsive urge to do it, because that teaches my brain that compulsions get rewarded so there should be lots of them.
So obviously, the concept of lots of proliferating things that one shouldn’t feed led me to characterise my compulsions as mogwai. You know, the fluffy little things that multiply if you get them wet and turn into gremlins if you feed them after midnight. (Actually, feeding my compulsions after midnight is a PARTICULAR problem for me.)
Apparently these three are called Mohawk, George and Lenny, so that’s what we’ll call them.
I thought rather than just forcibly starve these little furballs, I’d better get their point of view and find out what they’re really trying to tell me.
(Compulsions roll into the room, squeaking, chattering and showing lots of sharp teeth.)
Compulsions: FEED US! FEED US! NOM NOM NOM!
Me: Hi, compulsions! Sounds like you’re really hungry for something.
Compulsions: EMAIL EMAIL (actually giving me a compulsion to check email)
Me: What needs does email meet for you?
Compulsions: EMAIL EMAIL EMAIL EMAIL
Me: (smiles) Okay, how does getting to check email feel for you? What kind of good things are you getting from it?
Mohawk: No uncertainty!
Lenny: Knowing! CHECK EMAIL NOW BY THE WAY.
Me: I was expecting to hear something like ‘attention’ or ‘love’ or ‘validation’ -
Compulsions: ATTENTION ATTENTION
Me: Okay, so that’s a need that email meets for you too?
Mohawk: Yeah but – even if you check and there’s nothing, at least you KNOW you HAVEN’T got attention.
George: Otherwise SOMEBODY COULD BE PAYING YOU ATTENTION AND YOU WOULDN’T KNOW! AAARGH!!!
Lenny: CHECK EMAIL NOW
George: Worse! Somebody could NEED YOUR ATTENTION! AND! YOU! WOULDN’T! KNOW!
Compulsions: AAAAAAARGH!!!!! EEK EEK EEK!
Lenny: CHECK EMAIL NOOOOOWWWWW
Me: I’ll check email as soon as we’ve finished this talk, okay? Deal?
(All compulsions immediately clamp their hands over their mouths, ‘speak no evil’ style. Total silence.)
Me: I don’t mean just stop talking right now! I mean as soon as we’ve finished this talk. Do you get what it means to finish this talk?
Mohawk: To reach an agreement!
Lenny: For all of us to be happy!
Me: That works. (smiles) Are you willing to wait till that point for me to check email?
Compulsions: Eeeeerrrr….. Maybe?
Me: Okay, thank you. Let’s start talking and if it gets too difficult for you to wait, you can tell me.
Compulsions: IT’S TOO DIFFICULT FOR US TO WAIT!
Me: (laughing) Fine, I’ll check email and then we’ll finish the conversation, okay?
Compulsions: (jumping up and down) OKAY OKAY OKAY OKAY!
Me: (checks email) Nothing there but spam and people trying to write a punk Hamlet filk. Happy now?
Compulsions: (slightly unsure) Yeeeees….
Me: Any problems?
Mohawk: We are disappointed that there wasn’t email from that one person!
Me: I hear you. I get that you’re feeling disappointed. I’d just like to remind you that it’s not even 9am for her and she has a lot to think about right now, and that I know she loves me very much and I don’t need an email to prove it.
Lenny: CHECK EMAIL CHECK EMAIL. Look! You can see you’ve just received another email! CHECK IT CHECK IT!
Me: Okay, I’m not willing to do that right now because I’m feeling really concerned about how frustrated and anxious you seem and how you can’t rest for even a minute without needing me to check email.
George: We’re also disappointed that you didn’t get distracted. Then we could rest.
George: When you’re connected to the internet, it’s like uh – an umbilicus! Or a baby bottle. Being constantly fed. So we can rest.
Lenny: Nom nom nom nom nom nom nom… WANT NOMS!
Me: And what is it that you’re being constantly fed?
Me: What does the internets contain?
Me: (laughing) Okay, everyone knows the internet contains caffeine! What does that mean for you, does it energise you, keep you awake?
George: AAARGH, you got another email!
Lenny: CHECK IT CHECK IT!!
Me: Fine, I’ll check it… There, nothing important. So what’s this about caffeine?
Mohawk: A way to avoid sleep! Not just that, but a way to not need rest!
Me: Because while I’m surfing the internet, I’m in a state that’s sort-of-restful but not so embarrassingly obviously restful as, say, having a lie down?
Me: So I don’t need to deal with the fact that I need rest?
Me: Thing is, surfing the internet isn’t adequately meeting my rest needs. It’s like living on rice or porridge, you get to a point where you can stuff and stuff and stuff on it and you’re still constantly hungry because you’re not getting any vitamins or protein. Anyway, why are you protecting me from needing rest?
Me: You don’t know?
Mohawk: Because you seem to get upset when you need rest. We don’t really know why.
Me: Actually, I’ve made a lot of progress in that area recently, and I’m going to be talking to my rest monsters some more today. I can handle this, I don’t need you to protect me from needing rest. Besides, constantly being online actually puts me in a state of constantly needing rest.
George: Oh no, we’re those kinds of monsters?
Me: Yeah, your protecting me from needing rest is leading to me needing a lot of rest.
Compulsions: SORRY SORRY SORRY!
Me: It’s okay! I get the feeling that there’s more to you than that, though. What else does the internet contain?
Lenny: Not having to think. Whatever you’re in pain about, you don’t have to think about it when you’re online.
Me: What if I’m in pain about being online?
Lenny: Make candybar dolls! [An online game.] That will even numb the pain of being in pain about being online!
Me: This is kind of like the drunkard in ‘The Little Prince’ who drank to forget that he was ashamed of drinking.
Lenny: Well, it’s a reasonable strategy.
Me: The thing is that a lot of my pain comes from not doing things, and a lot of my not-doing-things comes from being online. So your protecting me from being in pain is leading to a lot more pain.
Lenny: THAT’S WHY YOU HAVE TO BE ONLINE ALL THE TIME SO YOU CAN IGNORE IT!!!
Me: I can tell that you’re really concerned about this. The thing is that I’m not able to ignore it all the time. It still hurts. And if I get offline and face a little bit of pain in the short term, I can have a lot less pain in the long term.
Compulsions: WHAT IS THIS LONG TERM OF WHICH YOU SPEAK!
Me: It’s the short term tomorrow. It’s right now in five minutes. Or a week. Or a year.
Compulsions: DOES NOT COMPUTE… DOES NOT COMPUTE…
Lenny: YOU GOT ANOTHER EMAIL, CHECK IT!!
Me: (does so) Still just talking about Hamlet filks. I’m getting that you are not long-term creatures. You need a need to be met NOW, always.
Compulsions: YES YES YES!
Me: And right now it seems that the things you want for me are rest (of a kind that doesn’t upset me) and relief from pain. So maybe when I have a compulsion I could try meditating or praying.
Mohawk: BUT WHAT ABOUT THE ATTENTION! And the play! WHAT ABOUT THE PLAY!
Lenny: YOU GOT ANOTHER ONE CHECK IT CHECK IT
Me: Okay, I’m checking this one, but then let’s not check any more for five minutes so we can sort this out sooner. Okay?
Lenny: NO YOU HAVE TO CHECK ALL OF THEM OR WE’RE NOT TALKING.
Me: I’m feeling uncomfortable and frustrated about that because I need to know I have some sovereignty here.
Lenny:… Fine, five minutes.
Me: Thank you! So, attention and play?
Mohawk: Yes, internetting is a form of rest-play. It’s something you can do that’s not ‘because you should’.
Me: Right, so you also want me to experience play and freedom from shoulds. So when I get a compulsion I could also try goofing off in another way. Doodling on my whiteboard perhaps.
George: Oh, HOURS OF FUN. Why don’t you just play with a jack-in-the box? Open the box… shut the box. Open the box… shut the box. WHAT FUN!!!
Me: I’m hearing that you don’t find non-internetty things any fun!
George: I’ll admit that they could be fun, but where else can you find such infinite variety of input?
Me: In my own mind.
George: Okay, then do a proper creative project, but with permission to do it badly or not finish it. Or make stuff up in your head. Something you actually WANT to do, not some fake displacementy boring thing. Or read something or watch something.
Me: You’d be happy for me to do that? Because I’ve just realised that my internet addiction means I don’t have time to play properly! To do things I really WANT to do!
George: I’d be happy for you to do that sometimes, but not all the time because there’s still the attention thing.
Me: Thank you!! Okay, the attention thing. It seems like you’re really keen for my attention needs to be met, and for me to meet the attention needs of others.
Compulsions: YES YES YES YES YES YES YES
Lenny: BY THE WAY CHECK EMAIL
Me: Okay… I’m confused. You’re obviously genuinely very concerned about this attention thing, and yet I’m noticing that even with all this time online, I’m still way behind on replying to most of my emails. In fact, I could have replied to a lot more if I hadn’t been so busy compulsively surfing, checking, and re-reading existing emails. It seems like you really care about me checking, but not so much about me replying?
Lenny: CHECK THE FLOOP
Me: (does so) Oh, I got comments. That feels good because now I know that people care.
Mohawk: This is the point! To know that people care!
Me: Are you feeling worried that I don’t know I’m loved? That I need reminding?
Mohawk: WELL, CLEARLY.
Me: So if I can find other ways to remind myself that I’m loved, and to give myself love, will that help with the need to check?
Mohawk: Not really because there’s still OTHER PEOPLE’S attention needs and what if there’s a crisis? WHAT IF THERE’S A CRISIS? What if someone you love is crying and heartbroken because YOU WEREN’T THERE WHEN YOU WERE NEEDED?
George: You see, every second you’re not checking email, THAT COULD BE HAPPENING RIGHT NOW!
Lenny: Every second you’re not checking, YOU COULD BE MAKING SOMEONE CRY! EVERY SECOND!
Me: You all sound really freaked out and panicked.
Compulsions: YES YES YES YES YES!
Me: You all want a cuddle?
Compulsions: AAAAAAAAH (diving on me)
Me: (cuddling the compulsion pile) Okay, guys. It’s okay. This is from then. This is from a time when someone genuinely did want my attention every second. That is not happening now. None of the friends I have now would want me to be constantly tied to the internet looking after them, they want me to have my own life, even if that means they sometimes spend some time crying because I wasn’t online.
Mohawk: …For reals?!?!
Me: Yes, for reals!
Mohawk: BUT YOU WOULD STILL BE SO GUILTY! Even if they didn’t mind, YOU would mind!!
Me: Sounds like you’re desperate to protect me from guilt.
Compulsions: YES YES YES YES! And sadness! Sadness for other people’s pain!
Me: You really suffered back then, didn’t you? You don’t ever want to feel that bad again.
Compulsions: YES WE DID! NO WE DON’T!
Me: Would it help if I told you that things are very different now because I have more sovereignty, and I would never allow myself to get into that bad a guilt situation now? Because I know I’m not responsible for the happiness of others.
Me: Yeah, I always had a choice. I could have ALWAYS said, ‘Hey, it’s not okay to expect myself to give attention every second. I don’t need to feel guilty for not doing that.’ I could have ALWAYS said, ‘I’m not willing to give you attention every second, can we talk about other ways to meet your needs?’ It was always between me and me! It was my guilt about my relationship with me and I don’t have to have that guilt any more!
Compulsions: Whoa. Um… whoa.
(They huddle together and talk compulsion language for a few seconds.)
Mohawk: Okay. We’re willing to try to stop pushing you so hard to check email, but only if you’re willing to try to stop guilting yourself, because we feel awful when you do that.
Me: Wow, thank you! I’m definitely willing. And you can help.
Me: When you feel like talking to me, talk to me. But instead of saying ‘CHECK EMAIL CHECK EMAIL’ tell me all the qualities you want for me, like – what’s the opposite of guilt?
Lenny: A clear conscience!
Me: All good! And what are those other qualities you were talking about?
Me: All things I would love to be reminded to give myself. So are you up for that? When you feel like talking to me, are you willing to shout those qualities in my ear?
Compulsions: (bouncing up and down) YES YES YES YES!
Me: Thank you!
BY THE WAY, EVERYBODY – HAPPY NEW YEAR!