"I think I will always be more susceptible to addictions, which is why part of my recovery is constant vigilance."

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Episode 38 -- August 24, 2020

Relapse Red Flags: A "Cyber Junkie" Recovers in the Real World

As many workplaces and schools have moved to telework and remote learning due to the coronavirus, many of us are spending hours each day looking at screens, sometimes compulsively scrolling or watching--looking for news or entertainment or distraction or connection. Like food addictions and eating disorders, online and cyber addictions involve inescapable aspects of daily life. Author and recovering addict Kevin Roberts describes the need to carefully and patiently navigate this landscape while staying rooted in the realities of supportive relationships and healthy boundaries. Whether we can relate to a cyber addiction or not, we can probably all use some boundaries placed on our screen time. And, as with all addictions, relapse is often preceded by warning signs. In this excerpt from his book, Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap, Roberts reminds all of us what these red flags can look like.

This excerpt is from Cyber Junkie by Kevin Roberts and has been edited for brevity.

It is significantly easier for alcoholics to avoid bars and liquor stores, or for gambling addicts to avoid casinos, than it is for cyber junkies to avoid the ubiquity of computers and video game systems. The vast majority of jobs, for example, require computer use to some extent, putting cyber addicts in daily temptation with their addictive behavior of choice. I, for example, must use email to keep in touch with clients and other professionals. This is unavoidable. Young people who struggle to get their cyber behaviors under control have to use computers to complete homework or perform research for school projects, and when they spend time with their friends, the latest video game or social developments displayed on Facebook are likely topics of conversation.

Cyber addictions are more akin to food addictions in that both types involve an inescapable facet of life with which we must contend. In the early days of my recovery, I avoided all video games and used to time myself on the computer, allowing just enough time to check email. After the first six months, I began to refine my approach. I experimented and realized that I did not have a problem with most video games. I can play all types of games except real-time strategy games, and I have no interest in online multiplayer fantasy games such as World of Warcraft. So, when I am running a study group for individuals with ADHD, we often take game breaks and play Nintendo games together. I feel no addictive pull. I can play for fifteen minutes and be perfectly content. Each individual, with honesty and integrity, must decide what recovery means for him or her. Ideally, this determination will be made with the wise counsel of trusted friends and family.

As far as social networking and online chatting are concerned, I put myself on a timer (no more than thirty minutes per day). Facebook is incredibly useful for networking with potential clients and other professionals and has helped to get the word out about my book. It has also connected me with many people from my past. Online chatting allows me to keep in touch with three friends around the world free of charge, but I strictly limit chatting beyond them, not permitting myself to add new friends unless there is a compelling need. One such case involved a researcher in Hungary who was doing a study on video gaming addiction. She and I kept in touch and shared information through Yahoo! Messenger.

I have been in recovery for many years and have developed a strong internal sense of when I am on the verge of going into the addictive zone. In my opinion, I have become quite adept at discerning this, but early in recovery, it is important for addicts to have supportive friends and family members with whom we can talk about the potential for certain situations to lead to relapse. If we have to use a computer, it is useful to have a timer so that we can become more conscious about how much time is spent. Commitment to stay o¿ certain sites or away from certain games must be adhered to, and it can be very helpful to have a person to take a weekly inventory with. It is crucial to examine our behavior and the support that we use on a weekly basis as a way of assessing the success of the recovery program and making any needed adjustments. Relapse is best prevented when addicts have a robust network of support.

Even with successful treatment, relapse is a fact of life when dealing with addiction. I relapsed many times during my early attempts to stop gaming. Then, when I had ¿nally found a way to avoid playing video games excessively, addiction reared its head in my life again--I relapsed into online chatting. Although this was a di¿erent behavior and so may not be considered a true relapse by some purists, the addictive component was remarkably similar to that underlying my video gaming compulsion.

I think I will always be more susceptible to addictions, which is why part of my recovery is constant vigilance. I expect that any day could be the one that leads me down that dark path yet again. In spite of impulses to stop my gratitude lists, meditation, and emotional healing work, I know that these practices significantly decrease the likelihood of slipping back.

Addiction gets hardwired into the brain and for that reason can function as somewhat of a default, constantly tempting the addictively prone person to fall. It is crucial that we addicts do not become overconfident in our recovery and recognize that relapse is a very real danger. If we expect it, we can prevent it. Through my own journey and in my work with others, I have found some signs that should raise red flags.

The first sign is Showing less interest in friends and family. Keeping our support system of friends and family close is imperative. Without them, we surely are at risk. Whenever we begin to isolate, the alarm should sound. It is time to get some more support and find a way to draw friends and family closer.

The second sign is Being overconfident. Just like me during my first attempt at stopping my video game habit, many addicts come to a place where they think they can do it alone. This is a very dangerous mindset and often leads to relapse.

The third sign is Major life changes. Divorce, graduation, unemployment, job-switching, breakup, and a variety of other factors put us at risk for falling back into addiction. Our inability to cope with our problems in healthy ways was a major contributor to starting us down the addictive path in the first place, and these negative life events have the potential to take us back. When dealing with any major shift or change in life, it is important for addicts and their loved ones to be on the lookout for signs of relapse.

The fourth sign is Feeling bored with life. Frequent boredom often precedes relapse into addiction. Addicts often find the routines and mundane repetition of life particularly hard to bear. Finding ways to make one's life more stimulating and exciting in healthy ways is crucial to any recovery. Lack of success in this area, however, increases the risk for relapse.

The fifth sign is Avoidance. Lack of conflict resolution at work, at home, and in relationships is a harbinger of relapse. Given that almost all addicts use their addiction to avoid dealing with emotional issues and conflicts, not breaking this tendency puts recovery on a shaky foundation. It is important that every recovering addict do his or her own internal growth work to break the cycle of avoidance. Surrounding oneself with loving and supportive people is also tremendously important. Stimulating and worthwhile pursuits must be found to take the place of the massive amount of time that used to be spent in cyber bliss.

Keep an eye on those signs. If an addict does relapse, the first order of business is to tell someone. An addict must reach out and establish an interpersonal bridge. Of course, the first impulse is to cover it up and hide it. Addicts feel immense shame when they relapse, a feeling that intensifies when other people discover what they have done. But ultimately, trustworthy friends and family help us addicts heal that shame by loving us and supporting us back on the path. If we reach out, over half the battle is won. Addiction ruptures the interpersonal bridge, but being vulnerable and honest with others can quickly repair it.

Learn more from someone who's been there by reading Cyber Junkie by Kevin Roberts.

About the Author:
Kevin Roberts is a recovering video game addict who runs support groups to help cyber addicts who struggle to get their lives back on track. He is a nationally recognized expert on video gaming addiction and a regular conference speaker. His background is in education, and for the last eleven years he has been an academic coach, helping folks dealing with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder succeed in school and life. He is the curriculum developer and a board member of the EmpowerADD Project, which uses a sixteen-module program that is designed to give individuals with ADHD the skills they need to succeed.

Kevin speaks many foreign languages fluently and performs stand-up comedy at conferences and conventions. He is presently putting the finishing touches on a one-man show about his life. He speaks around the country about cyber addiction and ADHD.

© 2010 by Kevin J. Roberts
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