Q&A: addicted to the internet

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"Jane" writes:

"I think I'm addicted to the internet.  That's my problem, in a nutshell.

I'vealways kind of gone overboard with the internet.  When I worked outside the home, I would get my work done quickly every day (my employers always thought well of me and promoted me) but it was like...my motivation was really just a desire to get the darn work out of the way so that I could hang out online.  Read and write blogs and email, visit social networking sites, etc.

Now that I stay at home with my 2 year old son, I find that things aren't much different.  I pretty much strive to spend as much of my day in front of the computer, doing stuff on the internet, as possible.  I log in as soon as I get up in the morning and often stay up far too late in order to maximize my internet time, even if it means being sleep-deprived.  This is starting to worry me, because being a good mom feels *so important,* but I'm approaching it by just going through the motions, you know?  I am an adequate mom, sure - I feed my child, get him dressed, take him to playgroups, change his diaper, tend to his immediate needs.  Nobody worries that my son is neglected or anything.  And my son is very well-attached, we actually have a really close relationship, so apparently I've done something right.  

But, I don't really play with my child at all.  Every now and then I'll get on the floor with some blocks or some Play-Doh, but I'll be bored after about 20 seconds.  The sad truth is, I kind of hate doing that kid stuff.  I love it when he plays independently, so that I can plonk my butt down in front of the computer again.

Like a lot of moms, part of this is exacerbated by my lack of social life.  I am slowly building a network of local mommy friends (I just moved here in September), but all my oldest and dearest friends live far away, and we only "meet" online.  And I spend a lot of time on various parenting websites connecting with moms there, too, many of whom I feel more free to be "myself" around than my local mommy friends.  Part of this is exacerbated by the weather - when it is warm, I do take my son to the park where the internet is not a option, but it's not warm today.  Part of this is exacerbated by our living situation, too - we're apartment-dwellers and everyone else in this complex seems to be childless 23 year olds, so it's not like I have a neighbor with a toddler to socialize with just over the back fence, you know?

All those excuses aside, though, in reality it seems that I simply don't like doing the nitty-gritty of SAHM work (interacting with my child,  playing with my child).  It was easier when he was an infant and I could nurse him while reading a book, you know?  But thinking back to how it was hardly any better in the workplace, maybe this is just a ME thing rather than a SAHM thing?  Maybe I'm just too excited about the internet?  And I just don't know how to fix it.  Every now and then I try to limit my internet time (just when he's napping!  just one hour!) but it never lasts.  I even bought an egg timer, but the timer broke and I quickly convinced myself that was a sign I should go online as often as I want.  Besides, when I do make myself get off the internet I'm so bored so quickly that I end up tossing the child in the car and just driving around, sometimes for hours, because even aimless driving feels like more fun than playing toddler games.

Meanwhile, my son has a pretty severe speech delay.  I can't help blaming myself a little bit.  If I was the kind of mom who did crafts or sang songs or made alphabet charts or *taught* my son anything at all, maybe he would know more words.  Maybe if I didn't waste so much time in front of the computer, he would know more words.  So every now and then I say, "I'm going to do better, I'm going to teach my child!"  Only to find my willpower totally crumbles.  Then I see so many of my mommy friends casually and cheerfully *doing* stuff with their kids all the time, and I feel so inadequate.  Sometimes I think my son needs to be in daycare just to get some darn stimulation.  But I'm pregnant with #2, so going back to work is not really an option right now.

I guess I figured I'd write to you, because if I was going to find any other moms who have been there, it would be here..."

Oh, Jane. I'm so sorry.

It sounds to me like there are two things going on, one worse than the other. Let's start with the big kahuna: internet addiction. You obviously have a history of being addicted to the internet, and it sounds like you've figured out that you really can't control it anymore. (Your story of convincing yourself that the timer breaking was a sign would be funny if it wasn't so out-of-control.)

Some people would make this about the internet. The internet's so evil and compelling, blah blah blah. But this isn't about the specific properties of the internet--it's about addiction. This is the same as if you were watching endless episodes of "Law & Order" all day, or playing poker online, or eating sugar constantly, or smoking pot all the time. It's about the way you're trying to find something to connect with because you're not able to connect with your real life, and the way you're trying to make yourself feel satisfied and normal and OK, but it's only with this one activity that you feel good.

Addiction is sometimes a form of self-medication. I wonder if you have a mood disorder or something else that you're using the internet to medicate against. The affect of your email, and the way you describe the rest of your world--parenting, friendships, etc.--sounds so flat and you sound so disengaged from it, that it makes me think of the times I've been in depression. I wonder if you've got mild depression, anxiety, or some other mood disorder that you're treating the feelings of by going for the internet rush. (Skipping sleep to be on the internet is another big sign to me that you're treating something else going on in your brain.)

If you've got something going on with your brain chemistry, then you're not going to be able to go cold turkey off the internet, or even back off very successfully. You need to treat the cause of your addiction so you can get a foothold in stopping it. (Note: I'm suggesting the following plan because Jane's addiction is ruining her quality of life, but isn't physically dangerous for her to continue for a couple of weeks while she works on it from the other end. If she was addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex, or anything else that was physically dangerous I would NOT advocate trying to stabilize her brain chemistry before she started weaning off the addictive object.)

I want you to do a couple of things, and then report back in to us in two weeks:

1) Tell someone in your real life that you're addicted to the internet and are going to need emotional support to get off the addiction. Yeah, this conversation could be tough, depending on who your choices are of people to tell. But, look, you told me. And you're telling all the readers. And you're not lying to yourself. If there's no one in your real life that you can trust with this or who will take you seriously, then just skip to step 2 and come back and look at it again in two weeks.

2) Support your brain nutritionally. Every day you should take all three of the following supplements:
* 2,000-3,000 mg of fish oil or flax seed oil (as oil or capsules),
* two droppers full of B-complex vitamins (you can get sublingual drops from any drugstore or big box store) spread out at different times of day,
* magnesium, either by itself or as a combo calcium-magnesium supplement about 20 minutes before you go to bed.

3) Go outside first thing every morning with your son, and walk around briskly for 20 minutes. If it's raining, dance or do something else that will raise your pulse rate for 20 minutes. Do this in the morning to set your internal clock and to get some sunshine into you (if there is sunshine where you live).

4) Make an appointment and go see your doctor, and tell her/him that you're not taking joy in normal daily activities. Mention that you're upping your nutritional supplementation and exercise, but ask about screening for depression, anxiety, ADD, and other mood disorders, as well as a thyroid level check.

5) Realistically look at your diet and find any culprits that may be making your brain chemistry cycle worse. There's a reason people who go to AA meetings get addicted to the coffee and pastries at the meetings--it all hits the brain in the same place and soothes the same burn. But, ultimately, the caffeine and sugar can get you into a cycle of needing even more of those things and of your addictive substance (the internet, in your case). I'm not saying stop right now, but I am saying take a look and see if you're making your addiction worse by feeding it carbs and caffeine. (Obviously, if you're using alcohol and/or drugs that's making it way worse, too, but I think it's easier to be in denial about sugar and caffeine.) If you need to stop using carbs or caffeine you can do that when you're a little more stable.

I am betting that if you can do these things you'll start to restore your brain chemistry a little. Two weeks of supplements and sunshine and exercise could give you a little toehold, and getting checked out by your doctor could yield some other interesting information to help you move away from your dependence on the internet. Once you've got a little breathing room, it's time to address the second factor at play: the boredom of being a SAHM to a toddler.

Being a SAH parent to a toddler can be brutally boring. Toddlers are delightful and sweet, but their games and interests are repetitive (understatement). If you're the kind of person who is into this stage you can deal with it, but there are tons of us who just are not down-on-the-floor, building-towers-with-blocks-all-day kinds of parents. There's nothing wrong with that.

So please, if you're thinking "I don't like to play with my 2-year-old all the time," that doesn't mean you're unusual in any way. In past generations NO ONE WAS EXPECTED TO BE STIMULATING THEIR CHILDREN ALL THE TIME. Sorry to shout, but let's be real here: Expectations have changed, and they're not always realistic. One adult alone in a house or apartment with a small child all day is ridiculous enough without the added expectation that we be specifically teaching our kids stuff all the time. The whole flash card culture seems designed to make parents feel guilty and kids feel pressured, and doesn't seem to be resulting in more productive, connected, interesting people than we had back when it was enough just to be present with your children when they needed you and to interact with them throughout the day.

I could rant about this all day, but I'm going to bring it back to apply directly to Jane's problem of internet addiction: It's hard to kick an addiction to something when the alternative is something you don't find compelling. If there's no real payoff (in satisfaction or endorphins) to the official activity, then you'll rush through it to be able to get to your addiction.

That worked when you were rushing through your work at your job to get to the internet. But now, taking care of your child, it seems like you're misunderstanding the basic requirements and therefore missing the mark.

Let me explain: You've got the physical tasks down, and are able to rush through them to get to the internet. And you're doing an awesome job beating yourself up for not doing flash cards and getting down on the floor to play with toys or "teaching" your son to talk. But those aren't the central tasks of parenting. The central task of parenting is being there for your child. And by checking out by being either on the internet or wishing you were on the internet, you're not fulfilling that requirement very well.

The penalty for not fulfilling the requirement isn't that your son has speech delays, or that he's going to be behind, or even that you two don't have a bond. It's that you know that you're not the parent you can be. And that you're basically checking out of your son's life. This is about you, and who you could be, and what this addiction is robbing you of. It's robbing you of being present. It's robbing you of making connections with other SAH parents so you have support and camaraderie for the journey. It's robbing you of discovering who you are, and figuring out what your parenting strengths are if you don't like to play on the floor.

We do what we have to do. There are mothers who work three jobs to keep their kids in a safe living space and clothes and food, and they miss out on a lot of their children's childhoods. But they're doing what they have to do, and they're there to the maximum that they can be for their kids. Living with an addiction that separates you from your child, and you from yourself, is not something you have to do. You took the f irst step by emailing me. Take the next few steps by telling someone else, supporting your brain chemistry, and talking to your doctor. You deserve better and you can have better.

Readers, I'm looking for support for Jane. Tales of getting healthy? Figuring out what you're good at if  you're not a playing kind of parent? How to find friends to pass the day with? Healing from a mood disorder so you can interface with the world again?