Quitting the internet was harder for me than quitting cocaine

Quitting the internet was harder for me than quitting cocaine

CultureOctober 20, 2017 By Heather Gere

Quitting cocaine was easy for me. As a 23-year-old drug addict who was fed up with having to hang around awful people I pretended to like so I could score, I reached a point in my addiction where the costs clearly outweighed the benefits. I took a moment to reevaluate what I was doing, what was underlying my tendency to self-destruct, and realized that if I was ever going to quit, it had to be now, when I was young, limber and still had so much potential.

The oversimplified, but true way I quit was this: I went to rehab, it sucked, I got clean. The end.

Quitting the internet was a different story. For me, and most people with PIU (problematic internet use), reducing our reliance on the internet is a much taller, much more complicated task. Half of that is due to how being online affects your brain (like a crack-soaked opioid), and the other half is because of how internet life is inexorably woven into modern human existence.

See, unlike cocaine, which is categorically and inarguably bad for you, the internet has a lot of legitimately good, self-improving aspects. It's where your friends are. It helps you be more creative. It's where you go to learn new things. It's where you go to make yourself laugh and cry and feel things that fall under the therapeutic psychological category of "processing your emotions." And, for most of us, it's where we work — it's how we make enough money to eat, pay our rent or get addiction counseling for our other, more powdery habits.

Plus, being online feels good. Really good. For people who are frequently online, it often feels that way because the internet can be used to relieve or escape the stress and anxiety brought on by any number of pre-existing factors in their life. So, not only does the internet help you maintain a functioning presence in today's modern society, it also offers you all the avoidance you need of the issues that are really causing your addiction, and fuels procrastination around addressing them, both of which feel a hell of a lot better than questioning why you need to be online so much in the first pace.  Super healthy, right? 

Rodger that for me. After stopped doing coke, I was left with a void I needed filled, a place where my addictive personality could thrive. When I discovered that the internet could be a source of the same self-gratification, instant validation and characteristic rush cocaine gave me, I immediately, and subconsciously, projected my behavior around cocaine onto Twitter, Reddit, chat rooms, Instagram and pretty much any other place I felt seen.

Convincing yourself to walk away from that — from your friends, your livelihood, your perceived self-worth and your connection to the world at large — is infinitely harder than convincing yourself that yes, you do need a septum. A few studies have confirmed this.

A recent one, published in the journal Plos One found that people with PIU go through actual physical withdrawal when their internet privileges are taken away, a reaction identical to the symptoms of cannabis, alcohol, and opiate withdrawal.

"These cessation-of-internet effects in those with higher PIU are similar to those noted after termination of many depressant substances, such as alcohol, cannabis, and opiate based drugs," the study authors write. "The pattern of results from the current study, thus, suggests that those with higher PIU scores may be experiencing withdrawal effects similar to those seen for such 'sedative' substances."

The study also discovered that, in addition to physical withdrawal, high-PIU people without an internet connection also had psychological impacts from their lack of WiFi. "The removal of internet connection for those with higher PIU scores increased their state anxiety and negative mood," the authors wrote.

Why? Because all addictions, whether they be to cocaine, sex, food, Vicodin, vibrators or Facebook, operate the same way in the brain. Internet addiction itself resembles a physiological dependence on substances like cocaine, alcohol and cigarettes that it activates the brain's innate dopamine reward system, the neural process which makes you feel good whenever a rewarding stimulus fulfills a certain desire. When this happens, the brain releases a cubic boatload of dopamine, which makes you feel satisfied, euphoric, and like you scratched an itch only one, specific thing could scratch.

Problem is, when you don't have that rewarding stimulus, your brain goes into dopamine withdrawal. You feel like shit, regardless of what's causing that feeling and especially if everyone else has that thing except you, which is often the case for internet addicts who must taper their use in order to wean themselves off the web.

These findings are concerning for the long-term health of people who spend an inordinate amount of time scrolling and tapping — which is becoming pretty much everyone, nowadays. "The constant separation, re-connection, and separation, and resultant psychological and physiological stress that this may impart, may impact a range of physiological systems, increasing risks of physical disease, as well as psychological distress," the researchers write. "The current results, especially those related to systolic blood pressure and heart rate, indicate that cessation of an internet session for higher PIU scorers is such a stressful event."

However, while quitting the internet — even for brief periods of time — is no doubt "stressful," it's every bit as necessary as quitting cocaine, heroin or what have you. Globally, experts estimate that six percent of adults suffer from debilitating internet addiction, a number which accounts for millions of people suffering the side effects of online obsession. For many, short-term PIU can lead to decreased productivity, unfinished tasks, forgotten responsibilities and weight gain, while long-term effects include backache, neck pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, vision problems from staring at the screen, social isolation, decreased self-worth and depression. For some, it can also lead to bankruptcy, especially if the time spent online is focused on shopping, gambling and gaming.

Personally, I've even noticed online addiction affects my relationships in much more serious ways than with cocaine. I've struggled with this to no end. My ex, frustrated by my reliance on my phone (I was always on it, scrolling and updating), would tell me it made him feel "less than" to see me do that while we were together. He said he didn't feel good enough for me, like that I cared more about what the diaspora of faceless online contacts I had thought than what he did. He thought I was missing what was right in front of my eyes, which was him, a loving, available and present human with who I'd developed a real, meaningful relationship outside of a microchip. He was right, but ... I wasn't addicted to him. I was addicted to me. Online me. The person I saw myself wanting to be; the person I wasn't in real life. Bet you can guess how that relationship turned out.

Things were easier with cocaine. I'd go in the bathroom, do a line, come back out, and be present (albeit inebriated) in my life. Unless they'd been doing it with me, no one really knew I was on it. That's not to say substance abuse doesn't destroy relationships, but, it's not always as in-your-face as internet addiction, a peculiar brand of dependence that necessitates you constantly have a computer, which is something people can physically see. Everyone knows when you're online, either because you're right in front of them, pretending to listen to them while you check your SnapChat, or because you're online, posting and liking and sharing all the parts of yourself you wish you had the balls to share with people in your real life.

In some ways, I'm glad I went through cocaine withdrawal and addiction treatment before I went through treatment from PIU. It taught me the pain is intense, but temporary, and that I needed to focus on myself and my goals. I learned that I could overcome anything if I believed I could and was worth doing so, and that was immensely motivating for me. In other ways, though, it hardly prepared me at all. I did the cold turkey thing; while not all addiction recovery programs recommend getting completely offline all the time, it worked with coke so I figured it'd work with my laptop.

Getting offline meant I needed to quit my job (you try working at a record label without email), had to figure out how to socialize with actual people (and lost many of my online friends as a result), and weirdly, had to learn how to read a map (I Lewis and Clark'ed it like pre-Google Maps America). I couldn't look for jobs online, so I went broke cold-calling companies and showing up in person until I found a temporary gig at a clothing store to float me until I could log on again ... although I will say the money I saved from switching to an internet-less cell phone plan designed for AARP beneficiaries did help with that. I couldn't online date, so I went through a strangely nice period of unwitting celibacy. I couldn't update my status, so I started journaling. I couldn't scroll through pictures and newsfeeds, so I leafed through books and actual newspapers. It felt weird and different, but also right — the things I was learning how to do for what seemed like the first time were things people all through human history did to entertain and better themselves. I felt oddly connected with humanity. Granted, it was a lot less fantastical version of humanity than I was used to, but a welcome one nonetheless.

Now on the other side of all that, I see our reliance on technology and the internet in a new light. I see how it invites addiction — we rely on it now not just for entertainment and efficiency, but for survival. For many of us, that addiction is less of an accidental wrong step and more of a necessity. Taking it away is almost like taking away the capacity for fire for a prehistoric civilization — we might live, but hell, it'd be hard to live without it.

The solution? It's hard to give one, given that the internet is as intrinsic to contemporary human life as fast food and mildly polluted water. However, the more that the media portrays PIU as something dangerous or undesirable, or shows people more fulfilling, real-life alternatives to the online dimension, the more likely we are to notice when we've gone too far down the rabbit hole and might need to log off for a while. And the more marketers get wise to how their technological implements can harm their users, the more (hopefully) likely they are to advertise people using those implements in adaptive ways.

As for me, I've spent too much time online just writing this. Signing off for now.