One time, my mother and I were in the car. I think I was probably in high school, earlier on. Freshman or sophomore.
She was exasperated. We had been arguing about something, as was pretty normal for that time in my life. I don’t remember what it was, but something had set me off, upset me, got me wound up to the point where I didn’t feel like I could control myself, that I just needed to let out this negative energy and spit it out at my mom. The more I did, the more the strain in her voice came out, sounding like her vocal chords might break at some point if there wasn’t an emergency intervention.
Finally, she just said something that felt like a thesis of the conversation: her way of expressing what about the whole thing was driving her so batty.
“You’re just… you’re so sensitive.”
This set me off. Which, of course, proved her point.
At the time, and for years afterwards, I had trouble letting go of that moment. It upset me deeply. That she would reduce me to sensitivity instead of listening to my thoughts. That she thought what I felt were perfectly normal responses to an upsetting discussion were somehow abnormal. That strain in her voice when she said it.
But the other reason it stuck with me is because it hit something in me; an insecurity. I had never really heard her or anyone express my reactions in quite that way before. And it felt like there was… something… to what she was saying.
Why did I get angry so much? Why was I so hurt by even mild jokes made at my expense at school? Why did it seem like I was the only one who felt this way, whose emotions would rise and fall, and cried a lot, and beat myself up in private, literally ranting out loud at myself, and got into yelling matches with my parents, and didn’t seem to fit in when we visited extended family, and didn’t fit in anywhere else, and…
I mean, I could go on. What’s the point, though? This was my life, lived out in moments both with others and alone. My day to day.
So since they were so embedded in my life, and my mom’s exhausted comment had burrowed its way into my consciousness, the comment would reemerge like the gopher in Caddyshack, refusing to die no matter how much I tried to bash it or blow it up.
It was clear: whatever was going on, whatever word I used, I was definitely tuned differently than other people. As if I was a television that had been tuned wrong, so the colors were more intense and harder to look at. It was hard for others to be around me, and it was even harder for me to be around me.
I’m not sure exactly when these thoughts and emotions coalesced into my thinking that there was something broken in me, but I do know that they seemed to be the logical conclusion of all these thoughts. I had received so many messages from so many people (especially myself) that seemed to basically tell me this, that it didn’t feel like a far leap to make. My teachers scratched their heads at the fact that I seemed fascinated by their classes but also unwilling to do my schoolwork or try for good grades, and the results often involved them telling me that I was lazy etc. My bullies, well, they had a more direct form of attack.
And my brain, determined to make sense of all this sort of messaging, found a simple answer: I wasn’t a badly tuned television. That would imply I could be tuned properly. No, I was a broken piece of electronic trash that nobody, from my teachers to the psychologist I briefly was assigned to my parents could fix, no matter how hard they tried (and boy, they tried).
This is when the next step in the process occurred. Thinking you’re irredeemably broken means that your brain needs some way to process and deal with this reality. Even if your conscious mind isn’t aware of this (since most of us aren’t built to consciously think such things unless we want things to get even darker), you’ll try to find a way to create a reality in which being a broken television is a bearable life.
This might be why many such people try to transform themselves. They choose a different life, or a different identity, with the hope that doing so will at least cover up whatever is broken.
I didn’t go for that, as part of my mind was also convinced that at some point people would figure me out, no matter how hard I tried. In fact, pretty much any identity I had was in some form a performance since, unless I wanted to go around telling people I was broken, I had to go about my day acting like I wasn’t feeling what I was feeling. And, of course, then there was the work of convincing myself of this, an exhausting process on top of the already exhausting reality of feeling broken which was an exhausting emotion on top of my sensitivities.
And since my day to day life was filled with reminders, constant nagging moments (the teachers, homework, bullies, life), that I was this broken thing, the only option I had left was to not be myself in the first place.
Again, this does not mean changing my appearances or my behavior with others. Rather, it was more about how I perceived myself. I had to hack my brain so that it couldn’t even be aware of what it was, of who I was. I had to lose myself.
There were moments I had achieved this in my life. Reading a good book, for example, would allow me moments of respite from myself. I was the character in the book, or the observer. Lost, I could have moments of peace where it felt like time disappeared, and my physical body dissolved, and all that was left was the story.
I distinctly remember reading the Redwall series, a deeply imagined world of animals living in something resembling a fantastic version of the Middle Ages, and wishing I could enter the book itself. Be one of the characters, be part of the story.
It was also why I loved television and movies, which had a better ability to overwhelm my senses, but didn’t quite have the deep experience of books. I became so obsessed with television at a certain point that my parents had to start putting limits on my usage, which drove me no ends of crazy.
And then there was video games.
Video games represented everything I loved about television and books. The sensory overload that allowed me to forget I was human, and the depth of experience that allowed me to forget I was me.
Even when I was younger, in 3rd grade, and I didn’t have any way to play them at home, I purposefully became friends with someone because he had a Super Nintendo. Our entire friendship was built around playing video games together, and that was how we both liked it. He could have a friend without the bothersome aspect of getting close to someone, and I could not be me. Perfect.
But then one day, things took a deeper turn.
It happened when we moved.
I was in 6th grade, and we were moving from Connecticut to a suburb of Chicago. I wasn’t so popular in Connecticut, but moving was like a demotion on top of another one. I was the only Sephardi in a school full of white Ashkenazi Jews and Christians. I was a nerd. I was oversensitive.
So I was alone, and it was almost immediately it was clear that this wouldn’t change. And this, of course, occurred during the time when young minds are most sensitive to rejection, adolescence.
So, my developing brain needed a stronger escape. TV was limited, and wasn’t enough anyway. Reading was my option when I couldn’t watch TV. And video games… well.
Well, something happened that changed that equation.
My parents bought me a computer when we moved. When I was younger, I had loved playing educational games on my dad’s old school Macintosh (Reading Rabbit! Math Munchers!), and I suppose they thought that with schoolwork requiring more computer work, I’d need something like that in my life.
It was a big fat Dell desktop machine, the kind that was considered one of the cool machines back before iMacs changed the equation.
At first, it basically was a homework machine. It wasn’t like I was getting my parents to buy me computer games or anything.
Until something changed it all: the internet.
It started with the AOL CDs in the mail. The kind that seemed to arrive every day (how did they get all our addresses?). Like many people, most of us had no idea what it was. My dad had a better idea since he had been using email early on as a professor (thus the Mac), so I guess that’s why we ended up signing up.
Like most early internet users, I was at first fascinated by the chat rooms and message boards. I could talk with people from all over the world: instantly! It was kind of hard to imagine.
I remember once, when I was taking the debate class at Northwestern that inspired my interest in politics, writing some sort of rant about the mistreatment of Native Americans on a message board and getting literally hundreds of responses. I realized that these people probably thought I was an adult, and 7th grader me was thrilled by the idea of that. It was a step towards another reality, another place where I wasn’t me.
But that wasn’t enough, not in any sense of the word.
Rather, it was something that I ran to as I was exploring keywords on AOL (remember keywords?). It was a game. They called it Dragon’s Gate.
It was an early version of the kind of game that would eventually take over the world when it was transformed into a graphical multiplayer game called World of Warcraft. But for now, in the world of dial up internet, the most used multiplayer games were ones that were text-based.
Based on Dungeons and Dragons, these roleplaying games were called MUDs, and, in many ways, were the embodiment of my dream of becoming a character in a story. Not only that, most of them mimicked the fantasy worlds I had come to love in novels, from Redwall to The Black Cauldron to Lord of the Rings.
I was not only not myself: I wasn’t even in a world that resembled mine anymore. In this world, I was the hero. I could choose exactly what kind of person I wanted to be. Good or evil (I loved being good). Human, elf, orc, dwarf (anything but human). Warrior, wizard, thief, paladin, priest (warrior or paladin usually). I had a different name. No one knew what I looked like, how old I was, and there was always a race of people I belonged with.
When I played, the combination of sensory overload and depth of absorption was higher than I had ever experienced. This wasn’t Super Nintendo: this was a richly imagined world that gave me more control than I ever had over my identity.
I became so deeply obsessed with it that it began interfering even more with my schoolwork than anything else. My grades slipped, I spent less time with friends, and I got more sensitive than I was before due to the contrast between my fantasy world and the real one deepening my awareness of how painful life was. All of this, then, made me want to escape even more. And that made me play more.
Of course, soon enough, my parents had caught on to the fact that I had become obsessed with this game, and then AOL went by the wayside, so soon I was just plain old addicted to the normal things I could get my hands on.
Until I discovered a game called Carrion Fields, another MUD. But this one was even more immersive: players were required to act like their characters. If we didn’t, if we gave any hint that we were real people with real lives, we’d be dragged before the gods (moderators), and warned that we’d be kicked out if we tried any such nonsense again.
It was a dream come true: a place where I was totally, utterly immersed. Where I was as close to literally not myself as possible. Where I would be punished for being myself (something that happened in my daily life anyway). And everyone else was the same. We were a world of escapists.
And these games, if you’ve never played anything like them, are immersive in more than one way. The more time you spend on them, the more you’re rewarded. You can join guilds that give you extra powers (but that also require time investment, almost as if they are real jobs). If you work with others, the whole point of a multiplayer game like this, you can accomplish far more difficult quests, but those quests require you to be logged on for as long as your questmates. And since these games aren’t huge (a thousand players was probably the maximum amount playing at any one time), you could make a name for yourself by building a reputation.
In other words, the more you became immersed in your life in Carrion Fields, the more your real life became an impediment. And when your life is mainly made up of reminders of failure, of being a broken irreparable thing, then it’s not really much of a competition with the game where you’re a holy, good, lawful Paladin who keeps the order in the main town because he’s joined the Guardian guild, who has all the best equipment in the world, and who has regular chats with his chosen god in the heavens.
I didn’t know it at the time, but all of this was the makings of addiction. We tend to think of addiction as a mainly physical ailment (or failing, depending on your moral perspective) of sorts where a person snorts something or injects something, they first feel a sense of euphoria, and then use it over time until it is no longer new and exciting but necessary for their simply keeping a sense of normalcy.
Withdrawal is strongly associated with this view, where we have popularly depicted symptoms where a person goes through a painful time of letting go of the drug that has so controlled their physical beings that they must expel it, thus further deepening the narrative that addiction is marked by physical dependency.
But this is a relatively outdate depiction of addiction. Or at least, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, drugs create physical dependency. Yes, withdrawal is hellish for those who must go through it.
But if drugs are so utterly seductive to our physical beings, why doesn’t it affect everyone who has tried those drugs? In fact, only 25% of people who try heroin become addicted. Same goes for people who use cocaine recreationally.
The truth is that our depictions of drugs as purely physical is something that is deeply connected to our belief that the mind and body are two separate realities, when, in fact, there is no way to separate the two. “Mental addictions” as they are called are physical and physical addictions are mental. That’s why people can become addicted to gambling. Or why we have national smartphone and social media addiction epidemics.
But even in those cases, only a percentage of people become addicted?
Well, we’re missing a crucial ingredient: the addict.
In other words, there is no such thing as addiction without the person who becomes addicted. It takes two to tango, and when it comes to the unhealthy relationship of addiction, it’s not only (or even primarily) the physical power of addictive substances and experiences that capture some of us, but the conditions within ourselves that allow us to be susceptible.
After all, even withdrawal, if you think about it, isn’t so prohibitively scary that it should be something that would prevent someone from quitting a drug. Especially a drug that is destroying their life. How bad, really, is a period of time where you essentially have an extreme form of the flu for 2 to 3 days, when compared to the disastrous consequences of addiction?
So, there is more. There is us.
My story of the first steps towards addictive behavior (one that eventually led to drugs and gambling in college), is to share the conditions in which addiction becomes fertile ground. In which addiction is not just physical, but one where the addictive act is, in fact, seen (if only subconsciously) as the preferable option. Even with the consequences. Even when it becomes unenjoyable.
I was (and am) an oversensitive person. Someone whose emotional tuning was set differently than many others, and so who felt the comments by adults, the bullying by others, the pain of failure in ways that others may shrug off or at least not be debilitated by.
Those feelings led me to respond either in anger or in remorse, causing people to see me as even more sensitive than I was. That then led to me eventually internalizing the messages I had heard about not simply being sensitive, as my mother had noticed, but broken, as the bullies of life had taught me.
I wasn’t tuned wrong, as I wrote, I was broken. I failed not because I had made mistakes or hadn’t learned how to organize my time, but because I was a failure. I got bullied not only because these students were mean but because I was made to be bullied. My teachers didn’t like me not because they had issues with disassociating behavior from personality but because I was bad.
When you’re irredeemably broken, when there is literally nothing you can do to make yourself better, then your inner equations change.
What’s the point of improving your life if any improvement would only be temporary, a respite from the norm, which will inevitably be failure and rejection? Why fight being broken if there’s no way to fix yourself?
And, most importantly, what’s the point of living your life if your life is predetermined to be a failure, filled with pain and misery and anger?
There is no point in trying if all it will do is hurt you. In fact, trying is worse than not trying because it simply reminds you of your own brokenness. And it reveals your brokenness to others. Okay, you do good in school for a bit. But then you slip, and now that is the real you being shown to the world, and so all you’ve done is disappoint the people around you. Let them down. Which means you’re just increasing your misery, especially as you’re oversensitive already. Butter not to try. Better not to put yourself out there.
So some part of me made a calculation: I didn’t want to commit suicide, but I also didn’t want to be myself. I didn’t want to live my life. And so, anything, literally anything, that could make me escape myself was better than the rest of life, which by definition meant being me.
And the more it could help me escape, the better. It would have to be as absolutely immersive as possible. It would have to be so airtight that life wouldn’t be able to get inside through the seams. And if it could last for as long as possible, that would be great too.
All of these things describe an addiction. The negative consequences weren’t things I didn’t like, as with so many other people who have suffered from addiction. It’s not that we didn’t notice the pain of addiction. Quite the opposite: we are painfully aware of it, and it hurts us terribly.
But the consequences are secondary to the escape from the self. The escape from life.
It is for this reason that simply quitting a substance or addictive activity is not enough to stop an addict from their addiction. Addiction hopping occurs not only because we are looking for a high, but because we have still not learned how to be ourselves. The pain of life just returns, and we are reminded of our broken states, and we make the calculation again: “Okay, not this thing, because it did so and so to me, but this other thing, because while I’m sure it will hurt me, it’s better than living my life.”
We are vessels, all of us. Or, more accurately, our bodies and minds are vessels.
We choose every day what to consume and how to act. In other words, we choose what to put into our minds and bodies, whether it be the food we eat, the things we read, or the work we engage in.
It is the way our vessel is constructed, both by nature and nurture, that then decides whether an experience like video games is a delightful distraction, an unbearable bore, or an addiction. It is what will make a person feel excited and joyful when trying a drug, like they’ve found a new home, or whether it makes the uncomfortable and uninterested in trying again.
The vessel might be sticky, ready to attach itself to anything, even as the vessel is broken by it as it fills. Or it may have been constructed in such a way as to let in mainly healthy substances in healthy ways. Or it, most likely, will be some combination.
It is our mental health, our genetics, our experiences in life, our relationships with others, and so many other things that construct this vessel.
And, unfortunately, for those of us with sticky vessels, the very way our vessel was made makes it hard to see that the vessel is not a fixed object, but one we can constantly change.
The work, then, is not only in quitting our addictions, but in reimagining those vessels. Reimagining that our bodies and minds and essences are not fixed things, but changeable. Growable. Fixable (or maybe, even, that fixing is not the way we should word what we’re doing). Learnable.
And, of course, it would help if the world around us learned this as well.
A great deal of this piece is informed by Unbroken Brain, a fascinating in-depth look into the nature of addiction, and the many myths that surround it.