It’s January, 2009. I’m sitting at the desk in my older son’s bedroom, putting finishing touches on a memoir about the fleeting beauty of ordinary life — a book I began in an attempt to hold on, just a little longer, to my two children as I want to remember them in these years right before they grow up and leave home: tousle-haired, always hungry, generally happy, busy, and still (blessedly) around.
I’ve been writing The Gift of an Ordinary Day while living it for a while now, living it with a bittersweet awareness of just how good life is when we are fully present to its small mysteries and miracles. Despite the inevitable complexities of parenting adolescents, for the most part our family life seems rich and satisfying. And this winter, the end of the writing is in sight at last. I have only to complete a brief, upbeat afterword — a glimpse of Henry midway through his freshman year of college and a trip I’ve just taken to visit him — and the book will be done.
However, even as I’m revising these final pages, the plot of our family story is taking a new, darker turn. The irony is not lost on me. I’ve just spent the better part of a year celebrating and honoring our family’s life together and now, it seems, our family is falling apart. And I have no idea what to do about it.
One gray winter afternoon, I email my editor that I’ve finished, attach the final pages of my manuscript, and hit the “send” button. I bundle up and go outside for a walk, to clear my head.
And then I return to my computer and Google the words “video game addiction.” There isn’t much to be found. I read an article about video games and ADHD, which states the obvious: excessive video game playing, it suggests, is directly related to increased hyperactivity and inability to focus in school.
I also read about a study on brain-imaging and video games in which PET scans are taken while a group of people play video games. The researchers note that the basal ganglia (where dopamine is produced in the brain) are much more active when the video games are being played than at rest. (Both cocaine and Ritalin work in this part of the brain as well.) Cocaine has a powerful, immediate effect that stimulates an enormous release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. The pleasure this brings rapidly fades, leaving the addict wanting more. Similarly, video games bring immediate pleasure and focus by increasing dopamine release. The problem, according to the researchers, is that the more dopamine is released, the less neurotransmitter is available later on to do schoolwork, homework, chores, and so on.
The study concludes, “Adolescents who play more than one hour of video games a day have more, and more intense, symptoms of ADHD or inattention than those who do not. Given the possible negative effects these conditions may have on scholastic performance, the added consequences of more time spent on video games may also place these individuals at increased risk for problems in school, college, and future work environments.”
Nothing here surprises me. But my search for help doesn’t turn up much more. And I’m still at a loss. A year ago our son Jack was an engaged, active high school student. He was writing papers, playing guitar, creating a movie-review blog with a friend, running track in the fall, playing basketball all winter and tennis in the spring. He was happy and busy and growing. He was doing well. But along the way his fascination with video games has been slowly but steadily turning into something else.
If there’s one thing I do know at this moment, Jack is not only at risk, he’s already in trouble. What’s more, nothing my husband and I have done over these last few months to try to help him control or moderate his gaming has made one bit of difference.
There are no more sports for him; he could care less. No extracurricular activities. No interest in anything except the figures on the screen and the controller in his hand. When asked about homework, he lies. When asked to stop playing, he gets furious, belligerent. He won’t stop, he insists, and nothing we do or say can make him. When we take his Xbox away, he falls apart, trashes his room, shouts, threatens us, and then, worse, threatens himself.
Meanwhile his grades go from A’s and B’s to D’s. Despite our attempts to reach our son and to reclaim some semblance of our old family life, he will have nothing to do with us. The real world, he insists, no longer holds any attraction for him. School doesn’t matter. Nothing matters, except getting better at Halo. He stays up till three, sleeps till noon, rarely goes outside unless forced to. The funny, sensitive, ambitious teenaged boy who used to inhabit this familiar, beloved 6-foot-tall body is gone. In his place, there’s a person I no longer recognize. While I’m upstairs reading about the effects of video games on my sixteen-year-old son’s brain, he is behind a closed door in the basement, gaming his young life away. For the first time, I feel at once scared of him and scared for him.
One day he admits to me, “I can’t even read one page of a book anymore. My mind just won’t do it, even if I try.”
Another afternoon, after an argument that has shaken us all, he comes to find me. “Why don’t you help me?” he asks, tears pouring down his face. “How can you see me this way and not be trying to help me?”
This was a long time ago now. But, even today, the memories are painful to revisit. They all came rushing back, however, as I read an op-ed piece in last Sunday’s New York Times entitled, as if the matter has been settled once and for all, “Video Games Are Not Addictive.”
Well, Christopher Ferguson and Patrick Markey, I beg to differ. I can assure you, my son Jack would differ, too.
“Is video game addiction a real thing?” the two of you ask at the outset.
Yes, guys, it most definitely is.
Before we go further though, it might help for us to agree on a useful definition of addiction.
I made quite a few calls to therapists as our son slipped further into his online world. Most weren’t taking new patients. Others dismissed my concerns. One asked Jack some questions from a book, diagnosed ADHD, and wrote him a prescription. The first day he took the medication, he came home from school and sat at the kitchen table with his calculus textbook open before him for a couple of hours, carefully, happily working his way through complicated math problems, certain that all of his own problems had been resolved by this miraculous new drug. The next day, back in the basement, he discovered that amphetamines enhanced his gaming prowess. Two weeks later, several pounds thinner, gaunt from lack of sleep and still gaming, he had to acknowledge that Vivance wasn’t the answer after all.
Eventually, on the advice of a friend, I found my way to Victor. He wasn’t taking new patients, he explained over the phone. He was kind, though, and I think he could tell I was desperate. He didn’t hang up. Instead, Victor asked me to tell him what was going on. I poured out the whole story. Finally I asked: Do you think my son is addicted to video games? “I do,” he said quietly. “And I think you are right to be very concerned.”
Victor made room for us. And in our first meeting with him he offered his own definition of addiction: Any compulsive behavior that is creating mounting negative consequences in a person’s life, but which the person continues to indulge in, even despite those increasingly painful and destructive consequences.
That was it. So simple, and yet so profoundly workable. Before we left his office, Victor gave my husband and me something else to ponder.
“It might be helpful,” he suggested, “if you can think of the addiction as being separate from your son. It’s an entity; it’s not him. This entity has entered his body and is fighting viciously for control. It’s extremely powerful, and it will stop at nothing to win. But it is not Jack. Jack is still in there, even though you can’t see him right now. Try to remember that.”
And then he offered a warning, which he delivered without an ounce of judgment. “It sounds to me,” he said, “as if your son has what I call the ‘hot wire,’ which is another way of saying he’s predisposed to addiction. This may well be just the beginning of a very long battle, for all of you, but especially for Jack. And you should know, video games probably aren’t going to be satisfying to him on their own for very long. He’s going to want a more powerful drug.”
Difficult as all this was to take in, it also made perfect sense. My husband and I weren’t crazy. Our son was in the grip of something that, for the moment, was far more powerful than he was. We couldn’t fix it, but we could learn more about what he was up against. We could make sure he knew we were on his side. We could get help, for him and for us.
Victor’s words that day proved prophetic. Jack’s path to adulthood has not been easy. But I can write this part of his story, with his permission, because today he is a sober young man of 24 who believes that an important part of recovery is a willingness to share one’s own story in service to others who are on the path.
I think what disturbed me most about that article in the Times last week was how dismissive the two authors are of the very real struggles of those who have what Victor calls the “hot wire” for addiction. At this moment there are thousands of families who are living out some variation of our son’s high school story. These families are not helped by pronouncements such as, “Playing video games is not addictive in any meaningful sense. It is normal behavior that, while perhaps in many cases a waste of time, is not damaging or disruptive of lives in the way drug or alcohol use can be.”
One might as well say the same of sex, gambling, dieting, using pornography, shopping, or eating – all of which fall under the rubric of “normal” behaviors that, when they become addictive, do indeed disrupt and damage lives, sometimes irreparably. Just the way video games do.
The other day, I asked Jack for his thoughts on the matter. As a veteran now of many twelve-step meetings and as a mentor to troubled adolescents, he’s heard a wide range of stories of addiction and recovery. While it may be tempting to label “real” addiction as chemical in nature, and to make less of addictions for which withdrawal doesn’t involve some kind of intense physical symptoms, he feels this is a huge mistake. It disregards the intense mental and emotional struggle endured by every person in recovery – whether from drugs and alcohol or from behaviors that are out of control and that are indeed ruining lives.
What’s more helpful is to acknowledge that there are individuals who can abuse both drugs and alcohol without becoming addicted. There are plenty of young people who can play video games at the expense of their school work and social lives, and yet still decide one day to just get up off the couch and go do something different with their time. There are those who manage to put in hours in front of a screen while still maintaining good grades and friendships and extracurricular interests. And there are those who are simply wired differently.
Jack has been sober from drugs and alcohol for a year and a half. And yet, around Christmas time, I sensed that something in his life was amiss. A few weeks later, late one night, I saw that his green light was on on Facebook, and I sent him a message, “How are things?”
“I’m trying to get my life under control,” he typed back. When I asked him what he meant, he replied that he’d just removed all his video games from his computer and his phone, having finally decided that even now, after years of attempting “moderation,” he had to face the hard truth.
Much as he loves playing video games, much as he’d hoped he could allow them to always occupy one small part of his otherwise rich and full life, the power they have over his mind is simply too intense to fight against. He could keep kidding himself, and keep playing DOTA, or he could, once again, take a good honest look at reality.
Jack told me he’d Googled “How to Quit Playing Video Games.” The first things that came up, he said, were pretty lame: articles about playing in moderation, with clueless tips such as “limit your screen time” and then “call a friend to hang out.” No help there. But things have changed a bit since 2009. Further down, he found what he was looking for: some tough talk by someone who had been there, a former gaming addict willing to say the words no passionate, competitive gamer really wants to hear:
You can’t limit your time; you can’t use it as a reward. You must quit cold turkey, 110%. You must make that decision. You must make the decision not to touch them at all ever again. I’m not talking about making this decision like you make other decisions, which you aren’t really serious about. I mean, you seriously have to mean it.”
They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Cam Adair’s story of addiction and recovery from video games was the impetus Jack needed to make this change in his own life. It was not lost on him that his first addiction, video games, has also proven to be the most complicated and persistent, and for that reason the most difficult of all to finally confront.
Fortunately, he discovered that he is far from alone. Cam Adair’s GameQuitter’s site is full of stories like Jack’s and Cam’s. Equally important, this online forum provides both the support and guidance every recovering addict needs to begin to shape a life of both abstinence and freedom, a life built around new routines and healthy habits.
It’s been three months. So far so good.
Is video game addiction a real thing? Here’s where the authors of the New York Times article went wrong: They went to a couple of researchers for their answer. What they failed to do was ask an addict.