Saturday, January 7, 2017

Clean Slate

Aaaannnnd we’re back. I took a few weeks off mostly out of laziness. It’s not so easy coming up with new topics week after week. I don’t know how newspaper columnists do it. Oh, right, they get a paycheck.

I’ve decided to kick off the new year with a confession. In fact, the topic is why it took me all week to write and post this, when I’d intended to post on Monday. Deep breath and here we go:

I am an addict. I’m addicted to video games.

This is not a joke. It’s not the start of a rant. For me, it’s a serious problem. Moreso in recent months, because it’s started to interfere with the paying work. I almost missed a couple of deadlines because I got playing games when I should have been doing the freelance stuff that pays my bills. I did miss a couple of postings on this and my other blog last year, because I played games instead of writing. It’s one of the reasons I don’t get stories out faster. Again, that’s money I need that I’m missing out on because I’m playing computer solitaire. Not exactly the best use of my time.

How bad has it gotten? Well, ever heard those stories about people playing games well into the early morning hours? Or around the clock? They’re true. I’ve averaged eight to twelve hour marathons just on one game alone. I think the longest I ever went was over sixteen hours. I’ve started playing during the morning and gone on to two or three a.m. Then sleep for maybe three-four hours and get up. And sometimes start over.

During those hours I don’t eat or move around or go to the bathroom. For some reason I don’t feel tired. I get the feeling the game activity is messing with my brain chemistry. It’s certainly messing with my physical well-being. I haven’t gained weight, but I’ve definitely lost endurance. I can tell that just by walking around the house.

I once followed this pattern for roughly a week. Little food, less sleep, no exercise. Then I woke from a nap light-headed and unable to focus my eyes. I didn’t know if it was me or a gas leak (I have no sense of smell). I ended up calling the local volunteer fire department and had them come out to check my furnace and propane tanks and scan for carbon monoxide. Turns out everything was fine, except for me. The firemen checked my blood pressure and asked if I wanted them to call an ambulance. I turned them down because I knew what the problem was. I’d done it to myself. After some food and a decent night’s sleep I was okay.

That should have been my rock bottom, my turning point. It wasn’t. I think I quit for a while after that, but pretty soon I was back at it. Not continuously, but days here and there, for longer and longer stretches. The kind that interfere with life and the paying work, as noted above.

I’m not talking about World of Warcraft or any of the other games found on the Internet. These are the simple games that came with my laptop: Freecell, Solitaire, Spider Solitaire, Mah Jong. Those are the dangerous ones. I found others on the Net, before Yahoo discontinued their Games program. I once played Jewel Quest in the library lobby for nine hours. That was well after the incident with the fire department.

I’ve known for years I have a problem with OCDish behavior. I learned decades ago I don’t dare keep a deck of cards in the house. I used to buy those Sudoku magazines and compulsively work the puzzles until I ended up ripping up the magazine and throwing it out. That was the only way I could stop.

I don’t know what to do about these games. I don’t have home Internet, so in that respect I’m restricted by the library’s hours. The ones I’m having trouble with are on the laptop’s hard drive. I can’t block them (I tried). I can’t delete them. I asked the guys at the computer repair place to do that and they said they couldn’t without wrecking the hard drive. I can’t get rid of the laptop because I need it for writing and work. It’s not like keeping booze or drugs or junk food out of the house. As far as removing temptation goes, I’m pretty much up the creek.

Even worse, I don’t think this addiction is itself the real problem. I suspect it’s a symptom of some deeper problem, namely procrastination/work avoidance. I’ve stopped in the past. I was “clean” for nearly all of 2016. During my gameless phase I noticed I tended to watch mindless stuff on TV or read excessively or even do housework. Anything rather than write. I’d also just started the freelance job back then, so I was motivated by bills and a paycheck to stay productive.

Then one day I clicked on the Games program and decided to play “just one game.” That was my downfall. That was when I started getting into the longer-than-eight-hour sessions, usually when I was supposed to be working on paid stuff.

That’s the part that finally scared me. I don’t have a regular job, and at my age in this economy I’m not likely to find one that pays a living wage. If I screw up this freelance gig, I’ll be down to just my savings for financial resources, and that won’t last forever. At this rate, that won’t even last two years.

So I need to work, and I need to be more productive. Instead I turn to the games, then beat myself up afterward. And downward the spiral goes.

Before anyone asks, I haven’t worked a “traditional” job for about five years now, so I’m not doing this in the workplace. There’s no family involved, so no one else is affected by my slacker ways. That means there’s no support system, either. Most of the time I’m pretty isolated, which may be part of the problem. Does FaceBook have a page for gaming addicts? Is it helpful? Because I haven’t been doing so well on my own.

I was going to call it quits at Christmas. Go cold turkey. Didn’t work. I stopped “for good this time, I mean it” New Year’s Eve. I fell back into the habit three days later. I was playing as recently as last night. I put off paid work because the urge to play games was just that strong.

And yet … this morning I woke up with no compulsion at all. That’s happened to me before. I’ll go through a phase where I can’t stay away from the games, and then it just … goes away. It’s like a switch gets thrown in my head. The switch must have clicked overnight because I’m okay now. I’ve been working on the laptop all morning with no inclinations to play at all. This could last for today, or a week, or maybe a couple of months. I’m taking advantage of the break to confess to the world in this blog.

What I should be doing is using this time to root around in my head and figure out what the real problem is, why I play in the first place. Dr. Phil says, “People do what works,” but how is repetitively playing the same game for twelve or more hours giving me a positive payoff? I’m sure it has to do with self-sabotage. This is the point where a normal person would seek professional help, but video game addiction isn’t considered a real problem by the medical community so my health insurance won’t pay for it. Fair enough. If I don’t work because I’m playing games all the time, soon I won’t have money to pay for the health insurance. That’ll teach ‘em.

So instead of playing games, or working, or writing, I can lie down somewhere and stare into space and examine my motivations, or lack thereof. People who do this call it “meditation.” Sounds like a prime time-waster to me, marginally healthier than what I’ve been doing. Maybe I’ll give it a go.

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