My first book, titled Seeing Through the Cracks, was written to help parents through the transition between parenting your child and parenting your adult child. I found this period of time challenging. From ages zero to eighteen our children fit into our lives. And then at eighteen, as they become adults, we then have to take a step back and try to figure out how we fit into their lives. It’s a tricky time and I was never quite sure what my role was. Was I still mom? Was I a friend? Could I ask questions about their lives without seeming to be too involved and invasive? I found this time to feel awkward and, many times, uncomfortable and tense.
As part of this journey with my two newly adult sons, my youngest son became severely addicted to video games and needed an intervention and years of help to overcome this compulsion and dependency. Naturally, some of this journey was included to my book, as I had the added challenge of having an adult child in crisis.
Now, some years later, I am in the process of writing book two. This book will include my son’s entire addiction and recovery story, along with references from some of the many mental health professionals I have met along the way. In addition to the story, I discuss the nine signs of video from the American Psychiatric Association gaming addiction, as well as the five stages of addiction and recovery as per Dr Carlo DiClemente’s work.
My son has been kind enough to allow me to interview him for this book and has shared his own very candid insights. I am grateful for his generosity and honesty and hope that having a glimpse inside his mind will help parents to understand their own child’s struggle with this addiction.
It’s still a work in progress, but I’d like to share an excerpt from chapter fifteen of my next book.
“Okay, so the eighth sign is that the gamer uses video games to escape or relieve negative mood, like feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety. What percentage of your gaming was to relieve emotional pain versus just playing for fun”?
“It depended on my period of time I was playing. Essentially video gaming was a leisure sport that I very much enjoyed. And to this day, I love playing board games and card games. That’s a fun, leisure time activity. But whenever things were going bad, gaming became my escape. And the worst things were, the more it became the escape. So, in my worst moments, gaming was purely coping to try to drive away the negativity and find some sense of happiness. And I was finding happiness, I was finding pleasure and joy in playing those games. But, the motivation behind the need to find that pleasure was because everything was closing in around me. In the early years, the transition from leisure play to more full-blown addiction, was a slower entry, as my life started to become unstable and less fulfilling. Increased gaming was a direct correlation from leisure to a coping mechanism”.
“What was your predominant low feeling that you were running from”? I asked.
Jake responded with certainty, “That was entirely fear and anxiety; the fear of change, my low self-esteem and that reflection. A lot of that fear of not being good enough, of not being able to succeed, of being a failure, and what it means to be a failure, the world ending around me if I can’t do the things I expect myself to accomplish, or what I believe other people expect me to do, those components, that fear and that feeling of being overwhelmed, that’s always what I was running from”.
He cries, “Something, just something that would tell me that the world is not so dark. It’s very, very hard to stop gaming because you want nothing more than to feel like things are going to be okay. And gaming is all you know to make it okay. It took me several months to find anything else that could really resolve and make things go away. It took me years to find normalcy again. And that process was long. I know I sent you several texts, telling you how much it hurt, I cried in the car on our many drives together while having to face those fears and those anxieties. I cried for hours, on my own, just realizing that I had to deal with the pain and I couldn’t get away from it. I had the willpower, I had that strength in knowing that I had your support, I had Nick’s support, I had that understanding that I could move my body, even if my mind didn’t want to, because my mind didn’t want to anymore’. “So, when you were forced to detox, describe the experience and process of now having to face these raw emotional issues and not have the gaming to cope”, I pressed.
There was a long pause before Jake was able to respond, “It was very hard. I’m not going to butter it up and say, ‘Oh yeah, I got through it, thanks to the power of my family and the love and support’. IT HURT! It hurt so much to try and just stop because of that whole fear of change, and telling myself, ‘there’s no happiness left’. Because if you think the idea of being told you can’t eat anymore is bad, stop eating. And then just rely on taking a leap of faith, hoping that it gets better, and keep waiting on that leap of faith for months”.
Jake begins to crack and becomes emotional as he relives this painful part of his journey, “It was so hard, it is so painful to just stop and not do gaming anymore when it is your world. It was the worst, and everyday, I would think, ‘If I could just play that game one more time, I’ll get that happiness for just a moment. I’ll be able to have joy again”.
“Or just make the pain go away”. I responded. Jake’s account was painful for me to hear. My heart broke seeing him break down.
Jake could barely hold it together through this question. He cried in anguish, “My mind just wanted to stop”.
And then he fell apart and began to sob, uncontrollably. Of course, I cried with him. All the guilt I felt when I was perceived as the “bad guy” for removing gaming from Jake, back then, came washing back over me. I felt guilty for even asking him to relive this awful time in order for me to help others. And, like any parent, I hurt to see my child in pain. But, I also felt absolute reverence for Jake, for his willingness to be so forthcoming and be so vulnerable in sharing.
There was no questioning just how deeply agonizing that forced detox had been for my son. I had taken away the only thing that he believed, at that time, was providing him happiness – playing hours and hours of video games. I had ripped off the bandage solution for his pain, and his unhealed, internal wounds had been completely exposed. All he was left with was his fear and anxiety, and an enormous sense of loss. Although it was the right decision to remove gaming from Jake, and a decision that was necessary, it was not a painless experience for either one of us.
I wanted his pain to stop as soon as possible.
But, at first there was really nothing that could replace the high altitude of that feel-good hormone that playing a video game could. And that’s what makes detox so difficult for an addict. They need that immense kind of high to cover up and erase the incredible low they are feeling, and they need it for hours at a time. There was no way that I could make the withdrawal journey an easy one. I could reduce some of the discomfort for some of the time. I could support Jake’s physical body with food, fitness, and remedies. I could show him how much I loved and supported him. I could show compassion, listen, hold his hand, and hug him. I could drive him to his therapy appointments. I could even drive him to school and walk him to classes. But I couldn’t take his emotional pain away. I couldn’t convince him that he was good enough. I couldn’t fill up that emptiness with the kind of stimulus that gaming had fulfilled. I couldn’t make him see that, over time, he’d find a way to feel joy again, and that he’d personally grow and mature in ways he’d never imagined he could. That part of the process was on Jake. He’d have to work through his emotional discomfort and self-dejection with his therapist, and with time. And because Jake had refused to take an antidepressant to take off the edge, he was fully experiencing all of the pain.
There is no easy way to get through video gaming addiction or any other addiction’s abrupt withdrawal. It takes a lot of time, patience, Herculean strength, and enormous support from others, including family, friends, and a professional therapist. But it is possible to detox from this compulsion. It is possible to reach the stage of recovery. And it is worth moving through the pain to arrive at the other side, more fully alive.
As Jake allowed his discomfort to come in a wave of tears, I waited. I expressed my gratitude for his forthcoming, and then gently told him to let me know when he felt ready again to talk and record. I didn’t want to push things in the interview when he was so clearly distraught.
He eventually let out an enormous sigh, took a long gulp of water, and said, “So yeah, it was hard”.
I wanted to know how he was able to start sorting out his fear and anxiety, with some success, following his first big relapse,
“So, when you were seeing the university-assigned counselor, at the university, did those sessions help you more in coping with your emotional issues, and how”?
“What I worked on most with the counselor at university, was not video gaming addiction, because I didn’t get any real support in terms of addiction counseling or addiction therapy. And I was still in denial of my addictive dependency. It wasn’t until the end of my tenure with that therapist that I hit that breaking point where I finally accepted that I had an addiction to video games, and not just an issue that gaming was causing. What I worked on with that therapist was self-esteem and anxiety. It was those two big driving fears and pains in my life. And that’s where I built a lot of tools. In that time period, what I was trying to work through was my anxiety disorder, itself. And I was given both mindfulness exercises again, as I had with my first social worker, but with the context of how it can help and what you can focus on while being mindful to adjust and analyze. One of the best tools I was given was, when feeling afraid of something, when feeling so anxious, take four steps to measure it. Because I’m a logical thinker, I solve and think about problems in a very STEM way (Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics is an academic discipline and way of thinking that Jake relates closest to). So, I like to put numbers to things, and I can be realistic when I try. So, what I was told was, ask the following questions, ‘Is this within my control? Does this affect me? To what degree does it affect me? And how likely is that, realistically’? And after those questions are taken into account, re-think about it, look at it again. So, if there was a problem, like ‘I’m going to fail an assignment’, is it within my control? At this point, no, it’s too late. I can’t actually work on it in time to get it done. I can get most of it done, though. Is it going to affect me? It’s worth ten percent of my mark. If I get 50, that’s a five percent and that’s not actually the worst. How likely is it? At this point, it’s 100 percent, but that’s because of the time position. And then, what’s the worst case scenario? I get a zero grade on it, or, more realistically I speak with my professor and get a time extension because this has become a problem. Doing those questions, help me re-define my world around me, because if I let things grow and fester, they become these way-out-of-proportion fears that make no real sense to anyone else as to why I’m so fixated and scared, when really, it’s a tiny problem in the grand scheme of things. And today, I look at a lot, in the grand theme of things and go, ‘Pfff, whatever, that’s not a big deal. Like, there’s still tomorrow’. And really, that point of ‘there’s still tomorrow’ is a strong mantra for me today. The other thing I worked on was self-esteem. And self-esteem was something I really struggled with. I didn’t really find books online or resources online for free with how-to instructions on how one improves and builds their self-esteem, that gave actual, actionable steps. Everything was always, ‘Oh, we need to improve self-esteem and self-esteem and self-love is good. Love yourself’. How? How do you love yourself? Doing what? I don’t. I don’t know how! I don’t have the tools to love myself. And being the thinker I was at the time, I went, ‘I’m going to try and be radical because clearly nothing else is working. I’m just going to radicalize this. Let’s discard self-esteem. Let’s try and think of something else. Like what’s the problem, to me, with self-esteem? Self-esteem is ranked. Because esteem is ranked. It’s a military term. It determines respect and position. But you only have rank, you only have position or respect in relationship to other people above and below you. So, esteem is very much a measurement based on your position around others. It’s still yourself, so you’re esteem or position around others, and that doesn’t work. You measure yourself against others, it results badly. My sense of self was driven entirely by external factors, which meant if I saw someone smarter than me, I was dumber than them. If I saw someone that was dumber than me, I was smarter than them. And so I’d try to rank myself based on other people. What I had to do was throw that concept away and find something else. I had to find a point of measurement that was incompatible with anything or anyone else. I had to find something that didn’t have equivalency that I could point to. And what I found was going deeper into my own internals, my instinct. If no one else can understand how I feel fully, you can have an idea of what it’s like, but you don’t actually know the emotions going on in my head, then let’s find an emotion to measure by. Let’s find a primal instinct that I don’t even think about, that I can’t drive with my brain but is just internally instinctive’. And I found joy, that sensation of happiness and pleasure at doing something, at experiencing something. That pleasure was what I ended up focusing on as a measurement. And then I started applying that, asking myself what causes that feeling? Snowboarding creates that feeling. I love snowboarding. Okay, that’s a step forward, but that’s still not loving myself. That’s loving something I do. So, I took a step above and just moved to a meta-analysis and went to I love that I love snowboarding. I love the fact that I can enjoy this sport, this activity. I love that I can do this thing, that I am capable of doing this thing that brings me such happiness, that brings me so much joy. And by doing that, I found something that I could love myself for. And I continue doing that. I love my face. I love my hair. I love my smile. And then I can say I love the way that I smile. I love the way that I think. I love these things about myself that are integral to me. I love the perspectives I generate and consider. I love how I approach the world, even if it’s been hurting me. I love the concept that I’m going to look at a whole bunch of other people’s perspective and build a view out of it. I’m not going to use it to judge myself anymore, but I can still appreciate having that level of understanding of other people’s positions. Because that matters a lot, that empathy in conversations. I call that concept self-love because I’ve thrown away self-esteem, and I got there by doing a lot of talking with that therapist, by going over a lot of these problems and trying to figure out these things. He never gave me the answer. He just kept pushing me towards them. And, eventually I discovered that concept of self-love myself, which I now refer to as self-esteem. But, I at least know that it’s a way that I can look at myself and feel love for myself, and not have to feel the pressure of measuring and judging myself to other people. When I look at computer programming, I don’t look at who’s better or better than me at programming. I look at the joy I generate, myself, when I solve a problem, when I get given something and I build a cool piece of software. That’s what drives my love of myself and my joy to continue programming”.
It was true that Jake never formally worked on his video gaming addiction with any therapist. He never received that kind of addiction and recovery treatment. He never talked with his counselor in university about his struggles and temptations around gaming because he was still in denial that he had an addiction. He only spoke with me about it, because I required constant checking in and monitoring. And until Jake gave up playing video games for good, his conversations around this subject were him denying the problem existed.
I shared my concern and looked for support around me. I spoke about Jake’s addiction, but no one in my circle knew anything about it. It was difficult for some to understand how playing these virtual games could create such severe symptoms for Jake. While he lived with Iris, in year three, I began to write about our addiction journey, from a parent’s perspective. I think that finally became my therapy. It was also the time that I finally found others who understood my struggles, and realized I was not alone.
Jake focused on the underlying emotional issues that were manifesting as an addiction. Perhaps, if I had been able to place him in a harm reduction or addiction treatment program, he may have moved through the painful times of withdrawal and relapse sooner. Maybe, with the right kind of addiction counseling support, he would have come to more understanding of his lack of impulse control much quicker; he may have stopped denying the addiction earlier. I will never know. But I do recommend it to others. On my own, muddling through, with little knowledge, just a mother’s instinct and determination, it was a long and painful process for us both. It’s vital for family members of those who are addicted to video games, to find as much outside guidance and help as possible.
What I learned was there wasn’t an easy way to disengage Jake from this gaming activity that was seemingly giving him a temporary sense of happiness and numbing his pain. I imagine there would be an equal level of difficulty if it had been a substance, like drugs or alcohol that Jake was using, seeking the same outcome – release of pain. Even if the person with the addiction wants to stop using, the temptation may still not be easy to give up. There will be difficulty in grieving for the loss, fully experiencing and sitting with the emotional and physical distress, and then searching for that place of healing and self-control.
I also learned, from Jake’s experience, that when someone is committed to feel good inside again, and they are willing to sit down and explore their feelings, week after week, with a professional, they can eventually find their way. And when this is coupled with enormous support from family and friends, the chances for success are greater. For Jake, that process was long and hard, but it was the best spent time in self-reflection, and it brought him to a place of self-love. It is in this place of loving esteem of himself, and of course, it’s a work in constant progress and upkeep, that will continue to keep him from the temptation of gaming again.
Back to my writing now. I’m starting chapter twenty-three with many more chapters to go. Although this process of reliving my son’s journey is cathartic for me, my hope is that it will help many other families through their own addiction journeys.