Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dear friends,

I know I haven’t blogged here for more than a month. I’ve been taking a break, in an interior state, living privately instead of publicly, purifying myself as a precursor to marriage. (And now, today, we find out that odious, discriminatory Prop 8 has been upheld by the California Supreme Court. I don't know what to say about it. I expected this, actually, but I'm still heartsick. And I still think we'll win in 2010. Or 2012. But I hope it's 2010.)

Yesterday we went for a bike ride along the Marina. Gorgeous, bright, cool, breezy weather. Plenty of joggers and roller-bladers and bikers and walkers--whole families out picnicking and flying kites.

I was, frankly, terrified. I’ve barely been up on a bicycle these last thirty years or so. C bought me a great bike for Chanukah—sturdy and easy, only three speeds, not too high. But still.

I was doing fine until we got to the intersection and then I got spooked by a waiting line of traffic and tried to push off too fast with my feet in the wrong position. Crash, I went down, and skinned my knee. I haven’t had a skinned knee since elementary school. I was more embarrassed and shocked than anything. There was a big audience for my mishap, from people at the little sandwich shop on the corner to the line of cars that had scared me in the first place.

C daubed at my bloody knee with a wet napkin, and we took off again. We cycled all around the Marina, scene of our first date, and then the marriage proposal last year. Now we were circling it as almost husband and wife. My hair kept escaping my helmet and blowing in my eyes and getting on and off the bike was hard because I didn’t trust myself to put all my weight on one foot and hoist my butt in the air, but it was still big fun. And I felt proud of myself for even being out there, considering how balance-challenged I can be.

These days I think about what kind of old lady do I want to grow into. I was the kind of kid who always had my nose in a book, who walked around in a trance of reading, who shrank from sports and was picked last in gym class.

I want to grow old like one of my idols, the writer Colette, who married her third husband at the age of sixty (he was 18 years younger than she was) and broke her leg skiing at a time in life when many people are sitting in rocking chairs. I could do without the broken leg, but I hope I’m still taking risks as I move through menopause and beyond.

Which brings me to the real reason for my silence this last month: I’ve been in the grips of an embarrassing compulsion. My nephew introduced me to Sudoku a couple of years ago. It seemed like harmless fun, and my father gave me a few puzzles to work on during the flight back to California. When I was home I discovered a web site that allows me to play—and time myself—game after game after game. What started out as something to do on a long plane ride, morphed over the last three years into a compulsion that preoccupied me as soon as I sat down at the computer to write.

In the last year or so I was completely out of control. Every day I would tell myself the exact same thing: I was only going to play a few games. Hours later I would be late and/or unprepared for work, or I would have simply have wasted the morning/afternoon/evening. More importantly I would be wasted, my brain filled with numbers and spaces, whirring along on a stream completely opposite to poetry, playwriting, and meaning-making. And I couldn’t stop.

Writing is hard. Creating meaning from the chaos of daily life, fragments of conversation, emotions, fleeting sensations, ideas—all the stuff of art, which I love so much, and have tried to do for so long, is HARD. And playing Sudoku is easy. You just line up your numbers and spaces and look for what’s missing. Your choice is either right or wrong. It’s satisfying in an unambiguous, primal way.

I put off reading or returning work-related emails. I didn’t revise my essays, I didn’t finish the play. I didn’t get up from the computer and water the plants, call a friend or go to the gym. I played Sudoku, game after game, hour after hour. I got faster at the games, and competed with myself with the little timer they had conveniently located on the site. I could see how good my time was compared to all the other users who played, and compared to myself. I could shave seconds off my best time and have the illusion of mastery. I was not getting anything done, except disassociating from my own mind and my own feelings. That I was doing very well.

My mother had been disassociated through much of my childhood. She could get upset over small things, but when major calamities struck, she was eerily detached. Her responses confused and frightened me. I remember wondering how she did it, how she achieved that detached weird smile. In contrast, I wanted Presence with a capital P from myself and everyone else. Not wanted, demanded. How ironic. In the last year I have conducted important emotional phone conversations while playing online Sudoku. I have allowed—no sought out—the fracturing and splintering of my attention, arguably one of the most precious gifts I possess.

Why? I’ll go to therapy to really explore the ins and outs of this but meanwhile I can make some educated guesses: change, stress, hormones, grief, insecurity, blah blah blah. But there’s the thing: I live in the Bay Area. There’s yoga. There’s Interplay. There’s music. I have a ton of art supplies. There are much better, more alive ways to handle stress, and I’m supposed to know them and use them.

The truth is I I finally found my perfect drug, the one that was made just for my brain, like a lock and key. I know—most grown-ups go for booze, or weed, or porn, or shopping. Those are all fine, time-honored ways of escapism. The first three never did anything for me. Shopping is okay, but too humiliating. WebSudoku stimulated exactly the right place in my brain that gave me both pleasure and numbness. It didn’t harm my liver or make me run up my credit cards. All it did was block my work, give me eyestrain and backaches, and threaten my relationship.

C said Sudoku made me into a zombie—glassy-eyed and distant. He could always tell when I’d been playing, even though I would lie about it. He’d be puttering around the house, doing things, and I’d be up in my little study, hunched over the computer, “working.” He’d catch me lying to him, and it would tear him up. It was like being married to an alcoholic or a pothead.

I went out with an alcoholic pothead in high school. I could always tell when Tim had been smoking even though he’d try to hide it. His eyes would be a bit red but mostly it was the quality of his presence—or lack of presence—that tipped me off. He’d have a big goofy smile on his face and he just wasn’t all there. And I was. And it was lonely.

I could see I was making C feel lonely in our relationship. Also, frustrated, powerless and confused. He couldn’t make me stop playing the game and get back to being the creative woman he fell in love with. He didn’t want to be my baby-sitter, and I didn’t want him to be. But I was checking out—big-time—and he could tell, and what was he supposed to do? Ignore it? Hope that I’d come around and check back in again sometime?

I tried a couple of times to get the game taken off my computer, to install parental controls. I even physically brought my computer to a few places to ask for help. Hey all said they couldn’t do anything; it wasn’t on the level of hardware, it was in the network. And calls to AOL didn’t go anywhere; I couldn’t get a human being to talk to.

Meanwhile the compulsion just grew as if it had a life of its own. Things came to a head between C and me last week. He let me see how badly the compulsion was hurting him. I couldn’t bear that. I can hurt myself—it’s my life, after all. I’ve accumulated some regret over the years. But I can’t live with hurting him. So I made phone calls to a list of computer gurus he’d found on the Internet. We found this guy Rob Gross, who seems like the perfect fit for what we need. He understands—he has a degree in Organizational Psychology as well as being a techie. “I think I’m getting a dopamine hit from playing this game over and over,” I said cautiously. I’m really interested in brain chemistry since mine is fairly sensitive and easily unbalanced. I know about serotonin of course, and beta-endorphins. I think dopamine is related to new experiences and excitement, something I often don’t get enough of when I’m working on a writing project.

“Dopamine undoubtedly,” he affirmed. “Plus you’re probably getting a release of powerful opiates as well.” He suggested I find a psychologist or a group to work with on the emotional side of breaking the compulsion. Meanwhile, we gave him access to our computers and he’s already managed to remotely install software that blocks WebSudoku from my box.

It’s been hard to do. He joked that it would be easier if I were addicted to porn—there’s lots of porn-blocking software. It’s harder to block a “mild” web site like mine. In the little bit of brain research I’ve done, I’ve seen Sudoku touted as a good brain exercise. Well yes, and red wine is good for your heart—unless you happen to be an alcoholic, in which case it ruins your life. Funny how one woman’s meat can be another’s poison.

So when I say I’m in process I mean I’m in process. As in right now. Rob’s coming over tomorrow to complete his work on our computers. I’m only a day or two into not having Sudoku on my computer. So far so good. At least I’m blogging again. C and I are in a good place, honest and loving, able to laugh at ourselves. And wedding plans and house cleaning and personal purification and all the rest of it continues. .


Christy said...

Thank you for this, Alison. I have a similar compulsion of pointless web surfing that I engage in while procrastinating housework, mundane tasks at work, and creative pursuits like writing and crafts. If you're up for sharing, I'd enjoy hearing more as you muddle through this issue.

Anonymous said...

glad you are back
thanks for sharing
look forward to you.

Jennie Brown Hakim said...

Dear Alison,
I wish you strength and courage in your battle against WebSudoku -- which is, in the end, a face-off with the Shadow.

I also run away from life in various web pursuits -- usually looking at news sites, or researching one subject and then impulsively following another, only slightly related, research thread. I know I have other, better things to do, but they fall out of my consciousness as if they're in a poorly-secured basket on my head.

P.S. I read the essay in More this weekend, and thought it was so true!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! I just read your engaging story, A Perfect Match, in More magazine. As I was reading, I thought I recognized the tone of your writing. Great story, love your insight to middle-ageism, I can relate and it is wonderful. Congratulations for the upcoming nuptials and finding the love of your life!

Anonymous said...

Will get More--so glad to find out it is out.

I hope you will turn this entry into an essay for the NYTimes. It's so important. And the commenters here, so important.

Thank you for this.

Alison said...

Thanks everyone, for your comments. Yes, I plan to turn this experience into an essay--after I've gone a little deeper into the recovery part of it...it's good to know I'm not alone--and not surprising. There is something inherently addictive in the very nature of the Internet, especially for those of us whose brains are wired up in a vulnerable way.

So thank you for your thoughtful comments and insights, your compassion, and your companionship.


Anonymous said...

Alison, a friend sent me a link to your post when I told her (confessed to her) that I was just trying to break another round of online game compulsion/addiction. I agree with the conclusion that my poor brain is getting some kind of drug hit from this behavior. And I know that state of being numb and buzzed at the same time. I've had baby-proofing software installed on my computer in the past. What I'm doing now is telling the truth to a few friends and cold turkeying my way through. I'm very glad that this is getting talked about publically, most people just laugh it off. Good luck to both of us!

Anonymous said...

p.s. It's pertinent that I posted anonymously, probably the first time I've done so on Blogspot. I am a middle aged woman in recovery from drugs and alcohol for three decades, and the shame around this behavior is huge.