I've just come in the door from doing my grocery shopping. I've gone to three different stores, and Stella is starting to get fussy in her carrier. Milo has dirt on his shoes and would like to "help" me put the groceries away. There is milk getting warm on the counter, and chicken in the grocery bag. What do I do?
I turn on the computer.
In one 24 hour stretch not too long ago I received two personal confessions, almost identical in content. "Sometimes," these two perfectly functional, unquestionably sane people told me, "I find myself sitting in front of my computer, just refreshing my email page. Just hitting the refresh button, over and over again."
A few days before that, when I was just starting this project, my friend Liza sent me a Facebook message. She has no internet at home, and controls her media intake via a Netflix account she manages from work. And she likes it that way. But then she goes on to say:
I lost my cell phone last weekend...I don't have a landline...and got extremely anxious because I was completely out of touch with the world...amazingly though, I got through a list of things I had put off because there was nothing to distract me.
There was something to distract me from the dozen tiny things that needed done when I got home from the grocery store. And there was something to distract my two desk-working friends who caught themselves behaving like bar-pushing test monkeys, looking for their serotonin reward. But there wasn't anything to distract Liza, just as long as she was completely isolated from the world.
But which is healthy? I'm finding it hard to address the question of "how addicted am I?" without noticing that the disordered behavior and the sane behavior look an awful lot alike.
Nick and I cancelled our cellphones on a Friday afternoon. On Saturday morning, Nick was home and parenting, so I opened up the blinds and got a cup of coffee and sat down to read my blogs. One of the first ones I go to is Daiquiri, who commented here the other day. She's my sister-in-law. Towards the bottom of a post full of beautiful pictures of her beautiful children, I read this:
(Besides, Thomas has developed quite the cough and runny nose...please pray for him. AND Luke's grandma is in the hospital tonight with heart problems. Please REALLY pray for her!)
And I put down my coffee. Luke is Nick's brother. "Honey," I said, "have we told your family that we cancelled our cellphones?"
We had not.
She's okay, their grandma. I'm watching my mailbox for a letter from her as we speak. But the feeling that I had that morning -- before I learned that Luke had also sent us both an email, which I had not immediately received because he sent it to my old email address, and my forwarding has a delay -- was nothing less than Panic.
"What if something had happened? And I didn't know? What if nobody told me?"
My first point is that it isn't fair to treat the internet like it's only made of pixels. It's where our people are. And any discussion of disordered internet use -- which undoubtedly does exist -- needs also to be a discussion of how we hold the people we love.
But my second point is that this Panic, which I depend on the internet to alleviate, is also maintained by the internet. Learning something about the health condition of someone you care about in parentheses near the bottom of a blog post does not inspire confidence. In turns I am grateful that I happened to read that post, because otherwise I wouldn't have known, and very sorry that I happened to read that post, because otherwise I wouldn't have known.
Nick wasn't fazed. While I was experiencing Panic, he was doing his thing with his family in his own way. Although he didn't say this to me at the time, I think he probably noticed that there is a time difference between Idaho and Massachusetts, and making a panic-stricken, predawn phone call isn't really how Nick does things.
"Okay, Mr. Sane, whatever. You obviously don't spend enough time on the internet, thinking you can wait for a piece of information."
But Nick was sure. Whether Daiquiri mentioned it in her blog or didn't affected nobody in this house but me. I went to my Saturday ceramics class -- which comes just in time, every week -- and Nick talked to his brother later that day, and everybody is fine.
But I still find myself feeling nervous. And, sometimes, I find myself feeling scared.
"What if something happens? And nobody tells me? What if nobody cares enough to tell me?"
I didn't have my phone on, when my mother died. There was an illness, but she was previously completely healthy, and the transition from ill to dying wasn't something I was able to see on the approach. It was 7:30-something in the evening, and I was at work, getting ready to run the deck for Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life. The half hour call had just come over the paging system, and I was about to collect valuables, which is an age-old ritual, undoubtedly of great psychological significance, in which an assistant stage manager collects personal belongings from the actors in order to keep them safe during the show. My family called Nick. Nick called Christian, a union stage hand who could be trusted to be carrying a phone, and Christian called me over headset to meet him at the back door. I don't know if Nick had communicated the urgency of the situation or if Christian simply knew. During the half hour -- that designated time during which theatre folk put away the outside world to commit fully to the business of building our own reality -- no insignificant matter would have merited a call. I heard the words "flat-lined, twice." And I handed back the phone, and I went downstairs to the dressing rooms, and I collected valuables.
And I'm telling you that story here because this is the only way that I know how to forgive the Panic. This is how it happens that we worry. Because people are so precious. They're so greatly and undeniably worth worrying about. And love is not the part that is either reduced or expanded by the internet. That isn't the part that any of us stands to lose.
I haven't counted the number of times that I check my email in a day, mostly because I don't really want to know. Especially now that I'm maintaining this blog, I think it's a lot of times. But I recognize that to be a function of being human. We want contact. We check for new contact. When we get the new contact it feels good. So we do it over and over again.
We want contact particularly in moments of weakness. When I'm coming in from the grocery store, and I'm a little overwhelmed by the responsibility of fulfilling half a dozen tiny needs, and I'm facing the likelihood that none of those tasks will provide me with a feeling of accomplishment, that's the time that I most want to know that I'm not alone.
That's why, apparently against my will, I keep finding myself looking at the computer just at the times when I know I really shouldn't. When I'm feeling insecure, I find myself on the websites of people who are more talented than I am. When I'm feeling lonely, I find myself on the websites of people who seem to have an awful lot of friends.
It's possible that I am particularly at risk of this unwanted internet use -- what you might call addiction -- because of the features of my personality. I am a writer and a communicator, and I am passionately involved and aware. I've tried to quit discussing politics on comment threads more times than I ever had to try to quit smoking.
And I am a bit of a hermit. Shy doesn't seem like quite the word for someone as intense as I am, but the end result is similar. I let myself get lonely. The computer screen offers me a safer, gentler way to be friends.
In the past I have kept on top of my internet use by making containers for it. I never get on the computer before breakfast, or in in that rare, precious time that both children are sleeping. And my computer automatically sleeps at 11pm. For one important stretch of time my computer went in the desk drawer whenever Nick was home. And there have been several times -- especially while working, and most especially while writing -- that I have restricted email contact to only once or twice a day.
All these things have worked for me. They've kept my addiction from becoming a problem. They've kept me from getting to a place where I stop brushing my hair, or stop relating to real people, or go an entire month without vacuuming, or -- scariest of all -- stop feeding myself, or my kids. I believe that this sort of reasonable restriction would continue to work for me, as moderation works for people who work in moderation. In the constellation of people, I am not the one who is moderate. That is not my function.
Which statement brings us back to a place we've been before. In my life, at this time, the internet is not where I want to go in search of solace. It is not where I want to go when I feel weak, or when I feel lonely, or when I feel afraid. I don't expect those feelings to go away. And I don't expect my need for other people to diminish. I hope it never does diminish. But I don't choose to believe that the internet is the only way -- or even the best way -- to reach them.