Happy Unrez Day to Me!

November 28, 2013

So it’s been a year to the day since I finally laid Dylan to rest. Time to send a friendly wave to my old friends inside and outside the snowglobe. It’s been great getting to know you, and I am really grateful that some of you have kept in touch through other channels.

Most of all though, I am grateful for being out of there. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned during the past 12 months:

  1. There is a life after account cancellation.
  2. RL is actually quite a cool game. Sure, it takes some practice, but it is virtually lag-free and has killer graphics. Plus, you get to touch things and people instead of just your mouse. And don’t get me started on smells and tastes!
  3. An Epiphone is not a Gibson, but it is infinitely better than the best prim guitar in SL (even if that has the name Gibson on its head).
  4. Your relationships with people get better and better when you actually spend time with them instead of sitting in front of your computer almost all day (and pining to get back there the rest of the day).
  5. RL work pays better than SL work.
  6. Trudeau makes great sailboats, but you’ll never feel any wind or spray on your face sailing Blake Sea. (Sure, you don’t get any borked sim crossings sailing the Baltic either, but hilarious as they were, I think I can live with that loss.)
  7. The beauty of avatars fades once you get out of SL. The longer you’re gone, the more you realise how run-off-the-mill they all were. Real people look way better than avatars.
  8. You can read about 60 times more books when you’re out of SL than when you’re immersed in it. And don’t get me started on how many good movies you can watch.
  9. There are people out there who love you.
  10. Clarence the angel was right: It does make a difference whether you’re actually present in your own life or not.

The SLunkie Factor – Part V: Bringing the Story up to Date… and to a Close

May 28, 2013

(Continued from here. Or start right at the beginning.)

If you have ever wondered how I’ve been doing with my quantum of freedom, I owe you an apology. The fact that I left my story hanging where it hung four years ago must have given you the impression that all this time I’ve been really stable and on top of things, having my SL addiction under control and sailing along serenely, enjoying my real life to the fullest while allowing myself a little spot of innocent virtual entertainment in SL now and then. Right? Wrong.

It’s true though that things seemed to be running quite smoothly for a while, for almost two years after I posted Part IV in fact. I was doing my work, things were just fine between my wife and me, and I had a blast during the times I did spend in SL.

I shared a beautiful piece of land with two lovely ladies who were my best friends in SL. From the cabana on the shore of our island we had a splendid view of the magnificent surfing wave that took up the entire next sim. We had loads of fun shaping the land, trying out different types of houses, planting stuff, building, having guests over, dancing, swimming, surfing, boating… it was a kind of Paradise.

And yet, in the very back of my mind, there was always a nagging thought that all this couldn’t or shouldn’t last forever. I still spent quite a lot of time in SL – not as much anymore as I used to during the height of my addiction, but enough to severely limit my activities outside of SL. I had enough time to maintain my status quo in RL, but no time at all for new things, no time for deepening and growing. There were things I wanted to do and and experience and achieve before my RL account was canceled. Over a couple of years, I gradually realized that none of them were going to happen unless I cleared out the still considerable room SL was taking up in my life.

As none of this posed any immediate threat, however, these feelings and thoughts stayed on the back burner. I was too comfortable and enjoying myself too much to do anything about them. Most likely I would never have, but then, in the late spring of 2011, some strange things began to happen. I don’t know whether you believe in God, and if you do, whether you believe he sometimes talks to people, but that’s what it felt like to me at the time. Little things that happened, things that I read, snippets of conversations with friends, suddenly seemed to take on a definitive direction, as if someone was orchestrating them in order to get a message through to me. That message was, “It’s time to go.” At first I shut my ears, telling myself I was imagining it all. But the persistent tapping on my shoulder wouldn’t stop. I resisted as long as I could.

Then came Friday, June 24, 2011, the day the shoulder-tapper got tired of tapping. It was early evening, and I was in SL, sitting on the balcony of our tiki-style mansion on the island, minding my own business. Suddenly I noticed two green dots on the map – there were people on the island whose names I didn’t know. Usually I didn’t mind visitors – to be honest, I found it kind of flattering when people were enjoying the spaces I’d created in SL. This time though, when I focussed my camera on them, I found them having sex on my beach towel. Bad manners, I thought, and decided to give them the boot. I still had my camera on them and was just calling up the dialog to send them on their way when the door opened and my wife came in. I tried to minimize the SL screen, but I was so flustered that I kept hitting the wrong buttons. It was one of the most excruciatingly embarrassing moments of my life and would have played really well in a sitcom.

Only what came afterwards wasn’t funny at all. My wife was devastated and deeply disappointed. I managed to explain to her what had happened and what it meant, but even though she believed me after a while, it didn’t matter. She was angry with me, yes, but that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that the thing that had been a vague, nagging thought in the back of my mind, the thing that tapper had been trying to draw my attention to with his insistent tapping, was felt by her in that moment as an unbearable, acute pain: I was wasting away my life in SL. And seeing her pain broke my resistance. I suddenly saw my life from her perspective and confessed to myself what a terrible waste it was. That night, I promised her and myself to leave SL for good.

And I fully intended to do that. I logged on one last time to take care of some business and write a few farewell notes to my friends, then logged off, went to the account page and cancelled my account.

Trouble was, SL didn’t let me off so easily. First of all, I had this piece of land I shared with my friends, and in my farewell note I told them that as long as they wanted to stay there, I’d continue to pay my share. My plan was to transfer the money to one of them via PayPal. But then came the second obstacle: When I fetched my email the next day, I found a message from the Lindens saying my account cancellation was “pending” and would be carried out on my next billing day – which, as I was paying yearly, was still nearly five months away.

So, even though in my farewell notes I had pompously announced that “the SL avatar known as Dylan Rickenbacker” had “ceased to exist”, it now turned out that he still existed after all and would continue to do so for quite some time.

And of course the messages he got still got through to me. Lots of people told me not to burn my boats. Why not just downgrade to a basic account and leave it there? Even if I didn’t want to spend time in SL anymore, there was no need to throw Dylan and all his inventory in the bin. Made sense. After a while, I gave in, contacted customer support, revoked my cancellation and downgraded instead.

Plus, although I wasn’t logging on anymore, I still read all of the SL-related blogs I was subscribing to. So while Dylan wasn’t present in SL anymore, SL continued to be very much present in my head.

As my account still existed after all, there was no need to go through PayPal with the rent thing either. I had passed the rest of my L$ to one of my friends when I left, but after maybe a couple of months that was used up, and the rent was due again. Money was still coming in from my marketplace sales, so the easiest thing was for me to log on for a minute and transfer my share to my friend’s account. Of course, we used the opportunity for a little chat. Was nice to see the island again too. Oh well. I logged off again.

A month later, the rent was due again, so time for another little visit. This time I stayed a bit longer. Then before the next month was over, an issue came up with some of my objects on the island, so I went in to take care of that. And why not stay around for half an hour and catch a couple of waves on my surfboard? No harm in that.

You already guess it – the intervals between my visits became shorter and shorter, until I was back in SL every few days. Then another thing happened. I’d been reading about mesh on and off, and now mesh was officially online, and the blogs started to be full of the great things that could be done with it, not least in the fashion department. I got curious and decided to create an alt, for the express purpose of sending him on the Menstuff hunt to check out this mesh thing. I didn’t want to use Dylan, because if he suddenly showed up every day again, everyone would think I was back, which I wasn’t, right? I just wanted to go on this hunt for a few days to satisfy my curiosity, then I’d delete the alt again.

So that’s what I set out to do. Only after Carth, my alt, had completed the hunt (which incidentally turned up precious little good mesh stuff, but some nice other things), he wanted to show off his finds, so I thought I’d stay for a couple of days more to visit some of the familiar haunts like the Shelter, Frank’s, etc. Inevitably, he met some nice people. Inevitably, the skin from the hunt wasn’t quite right after all, so I decided to spring a few Lindens to buy him a proper one. And inevitably, one day at Frank’s he ran into my one remaining friend who by now lived alone on the island Dylan still officially shared with her (the other one, who had been my partner for years, had decided to move on and left). Something Carth said made my friend perk up her ears, and after they’d met a couple more times, she asked him point-blank whether he was me. Of course, Carth confessed on the spot, and that was the moment when there was no way to hide anymore from the fact that I was back. No sense in fooling around with an alt anymore. Carth went into oblivion, and Dylan moved back in with my friend.

What followed now was, from an SL perspective, the best year I ever had there. Within a couple of months, my friend and I developed a very close, wonderful relationship of love and trust that was immensely enriching for both of us. Together we went for another round of enjoying all the great things SL has to offer – surfing, sailing, music, art, all the wonderful creations of landscaping and building, and above all talking. And together we discovered and explored new worlds inside of us we hadn’t known before. We still had other friends we loved dearly, but it became increasingly clear to both of us that each was to the other the main reason to stay in SL.

Then, toward the end of 2012, the shoulder-tapper started tapping again. It began when this blog, which had been basically lying dormant for ages with hardly anyone looking at it, suddenly drew comments from people again. Two of those called my bluff about the “quantum of freedom” I had described in Part IV of this series. They didn’t even know how right they were. By that time, it had become clear to me that I was as addicted to SL again as I ever was, even though I had learned to maintain enough balance to avoid capsizing my RL boat. In a way, though, the situation was even more dangerous now because it had the potential of going on forever. But again, those comments on the blog and other things I read, talks I had with my friend, and other signals I got came together as if orchestrated to send me a message I couldn’t pretend to be deaf to.

Only this time my friend and I both felt the tapping on our shoulders. In fact, this time it was she who got into a situation not unlike my unforgettable embarrassing moment back in 2011. The next day, she told me about it, and I could tell that it had rattled her up thoroughly.

I knew then that we had come to a crossroads. We both had had plenty of these moments of clarity when we knew we needed to leave. Now we both had one of these moments together, at the same time. “There are three things that could happen now”, I said to my friend. “One is, we could stop right here. The second is, we let this moment pass, and there will be another, and another, and another. And the third is the one that scares me most: we let this moment pass, and there won’t be another.”

So we did the only thing that made sense – we decided to stop. We picked a day a few days later when we both were going to delete our accounts. We used the time until then to say our goodbyes and wrap up whatever there was to wrap up. Then the day came: November 28, 2012, exactly half a year ago today. We went for a last outing on our sailboat, got shipwrecked on a last sim crossing, and then, floating in the water sans hair, unable to move and close to crashing, we both deleted our accounts and logged off. I haven’t looked back once.

This time, I have not only left SL, I stopped reading about it too. I’m still in contact with a few of my best friends there, but through other channels and using our real names. Dylan doesn’t live there anymore, and neither do I. This blog entry, which I’ve been procrastinating on for ages, is the first, last and only  SL-related thing I’ve been doing in the last six months. And I’m doing this only because I feel a responsibility to leave no-one under the false impression that I am happy in SL and RL and have it all sorted.

There remain a few thanks to be said.

To Nell, for your biting sarcasm. It hurt and did me no end of good. You might not have intended to do me a service, but you did.

To Ron, for sharing your story so passionately. I may never talk about SL quite the way you do, but you helped rattle me awake.

To the Great Shoulder-Tapper: Thank you for your patience, persistence and grace.


The SLunkie Factor – Part IV: A Quantum of Freedom

July 6, 2009

(Continued from here. Or start right at the beginning.)

The day I posted Part III of this series last week, some time later in the afternoon, I was in SL, dancing at the Shelter, when suddenly my internet connection died. After I’d rounded up the usual suspects – reset the router, restarted the computer – it became clear that the problem was not on my end but my provider’s. I briefly considered calling the hotline, but then just shrugged, grabbed my guitar, played a bit, then went upstairs and took my dog for a walk. By the time I got back it was time for dinner. After the meal, my daughter wanted to watch a movie on tv, so I flopped beside her on the couch and watched “You’ve Got Mail” with her. After the movie, I came downstairs again to check whether my internet was back. It was, and had been for quite some time obviously, as my email program had been diligently downloading my mail every 15 minutes for a couple of hours or so. I went through my mail quickly, then switched the computer off and went to bed.

Why am I telling you this humdrum stuff? Well, as I lay there dozing off, it occurred to me that it wasn’t humdrum at all. It was really quite extraordinary, compared to what I would have done if such a thing had happened to me, say, one and a half years ago. Back then, I would have been on the phone right away, telling some poor guy or girl at my provider’s hotline how absolutely essential it was that they got their servers up and functional again this very minute. Then, I would have just sat there and checked every 30 seconds or so whether my connection was back up. As I would have been biting my nails all that time, playing my guitar wouldn’t have been an option. The second I would have been able to log on again, I would have been back in SL and stayed there until they called me to dinner, and afterwards my daughter would have been alone with Meg and Tom. I wouldn’t have gone to bed at such a reasonable hour either.

I think I’m becoming addicted again – addicted to pleasurable moments like that when I realize that there’s a quantum of freedom in my life now. Moments when I realize that I like being me again. Moments when SL is one of several options for using my time and I decide to do something else, not because I think I should, but because I just feel like it.

I wish I could give you some recipe, some fail-safe method for getting there, but I can’t. In my case, it looks as if this storm I went through just had to run its course. It’s true that I took certain measures to get my life back on track, but I honestly don’t know whether it would have been possible for me to do so much earlier, as much as I wish I would have. Still, maybe you’ll find a clue or two for yourself in my story.

Around the end of 2007, I was at the absolute low point in every area of my life. Everything looked hopeless. I knew we would have to negotiate a new mortgage for our house in the first half of 2008, and given the shape our finances were in, the prospect of losing the house loomed large. I knew that my wife, though she didn’t talk much about it, was inwardly thinking about how she would rearrange her life after our marriage was over, which she expected to happen within a year. My professional standing was nearly destroyed – several publishing dates had had to be postponed because I hadn’t delivered the copy on schedule. The publishers weren’t happy with me, and their patience was running out.

Killing that life insurance took a bit of pressure off the cooker I was in. The money didn’t take us all the way back into the black, but at least we were operational again for the time being. The threat of losing the house was pushed back, and we were able to make tentative plans for going on vacation that coming summer.

That vacation was my deadline. Things had to change by then. If I didn’t catch up on my work backlog by then, not only the vacation wouldn’t be happening, but my professional life would be over. If I couldn’t give my wife some reason to put new faith in our marriage by then, it would be over, too. Of course, I would have to find some new faith in our marriage myself first.

Believe it or not, even then going cold turkey on SL entirely wasn’t an option I could seriously think about. I just couldn’t face it. I saw a therapist a couple of times in early 2008, and his way of summing up our talks was to say that I didn’t know anything about where I wanted my life to go, except that I wanted to hold on to SL.

Honestly, if cold turkey had been my only chance, I don’t think I would have made it through. I admire people who, at the height of their addiction, are able to pull the plug and leave SL totally. I think it’s a truly heroic deed. I wouldn’t have been up to it.

Interestingly, in the aforementioned Handbook of Psychotherapy, I had read that, contrary to other addictions like alcohol for example, going cold turkey isn’t necessarily the recommended course of action in the case of an internet-related addiction. One of the reasons was, if I remember correctly, that you can’t effectively put the “drug” out of your reach if living without a computer or internet access entirely isn’t an option. That was certainly true in my case. I spend my whole day at the computer, and I need the internet for my work. Had I gone cold turkey, relapse would have been only a mouse-click away every single second of my working day. The odds against that going well for very long would have been just too high. So I didn’t make any heroic decisions. I thought I’d be much safer if I could find a way to live with SL without it sucking up all my RL.

The Handbook had other practical bits of advice for internet addicts, though, such as not upgrading your computer to accommodate your on-line games, setting alarm clocks etc. It was too late for me not to upgrade, and I had tried the alarm clock thing with unimpressive results. In my experience, an alarm clock can be a good aid, but it won’t help much if you just set arbitrary times. You need specific objectives that give you a purpose for which you set your clock.

For me, in a nutshell, it came down to focusing on the positive instead of the negative. In other words, focusing positively on doing things, such as completing a specific amount of work, helped me more than focusing negatively on not being in SL. So when you set an alarm, do it not to stop being in SL, but to start doing some specific other thing. That other thing very often was work in my case of course, but it was just as important for me to deliberately make room for things I used to like doing in my spare time, such as reading, watching movies, playing the guitar etc.

From about March to mid-July 2008, I had one specific goal to focus on. I had to get out from under those deadlines. I had to complete these long overdue projects by July 11 – the day before we were planning to leave for the island – or I would have lost the game. There was no room for negotiation anymore, not with my publishers, not with my wife. So it was sheer pressure that forced me to get down and tackle the work. It cost me enormous energy because I hadn’t really found a livable way to fit SL into my life yet, so I just slaved away while RL and SL dragged me in opposite directions. Nothing had really changed yet. I just did the work because finally I really had no other choice left.

But something did change while I was at it. When I buckled down and started to do the work, my confidence that I would be able to do it was zero. Then, page by page, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, it slowly dawned on me that I could. It nearly killed me, but I was making progress. After a while, reaching the goal didn’t look like a wild wishful fantasy anymore. It began to look as if I might just make it. Gradually, slowly, I began to believe it.

Some time in April, an old friend took me to see James Taylor on stage in Frankfurt. The concert was great, but our talk during the one hour drive from his place to Frankfurt, over the meal we had afterwards and during the drive back was even better, though it didn’t quite seem so at the time. It was basically me letting off steam and him listening. I was playing my own devil’s advocate and told him all the things that I found frustrating in my marriage and all the reasons why I thought I wanted out of it. The poor fellow must have found it all terribly depressing. After we’d said goodbye in front of his house, it was another one and a half hours’ drive home for me. Alone in my car, a calm came over me after the rage. I can’t really explain it. Somehow all the negative things I’d been saying to him about my marriage suddenly seemed strangely inconsequential to me. By the time I crawled into bed in the dark early hours next to my wife who had been my companion for more than 25 years now, I had stopped doubting. This was something worth saving. It was worth making an effort. She deserved giving our marriage my best shot, even if my best shot right now might turn out to be a dud. I knew now that I was going to try.

July 11 came, and I had made my deadline by the skin of my teeth. I cannot describe the relief I felt while we were rolling north toward the coast. Three weeks on the beach lay ahead of me, the pressure that had become my constant companion was finally off. My wife seemed to have noticed that the wheel had begun to turn. She’d started to believe in us again. Of course, there would be no SL for 3 weeks either. I was amazed when I realized that this didn’t bother me at all. I still didn’t want to give SL up, but staying away from it for a while was not such a scary prospect anymore. SL wouldn’t be going away while I was gone, after all. And afterwards, when we got back, I would be able to make a new start with a clean slate.

During the vacation, I made two small but important decisions regarding the way I would re-order my daily routine after my return. They sound ridiculously simple, and maybe they are. The first had to do with my realization that one of the things that had caused me to want to escape from RL had been exhaustion. So I decided to lower the bar a bit. I reduced my daily quota a little. Not much, just a notch. But that notch made the difference between just a bit too much every day, which translated into a burnout over the long haul, and a very manageable amount of work. The other decision was that I would no longer log on to SL first thing in the morning. I set myself a rule: no SL or other distractions until I had done at least half of my quota. This sounds like a no-brainer, and indeed the idea wasn’t new, but now I saw a chance to actually stick to it.

I can’t claim a perfect score, but on the whole, I kept the rule. My work got done every day, and within weeks, it even got done in such good time that I had plenty of time left for other things. Boy, did that feel good! Being in charge of my life again after feeling powerless for so long was one of the best experiences I ever had. And it’s still a great feeling, even after I got used to it. Within months, our bank account showed distinct signs of recovery, too. And the depressing cloud that had lain over our marriage for so long gradually dissolved. After a year, it now seems like a bad dream.

I still don’t want to leave SL, although the thought of leaving isn’t really scary anymore. What keeps me there is my friends, especially my best friend Renn and all the wonderful, crazy people at the Shelter, my beautiful home at Kingfisher Island, and the playful creativity. But it no longer feels as if my identity is bound up with it. Dylan is here with me now, so I can be whole without SL.

I don’t make jokes about RL anymore though.

I’d like to end this posting by sharing a song lyric that sums up how I approach every day nowadays and which I hope will be an encouragement for you. I’m not sure who wrote the song; there are several versions of it around, but I first encountered it in Tommy Emmanuel’s beautiful a cappella version. It’s called “Today Is Mine”.

When the sun came up this morning I took the time to watch it rise.
As its beauty struck the darkness from the skies.
I thought how small and unimportant all my troubles seem to be,
and how lucky another day belongs to me.

And as the sleepy world around me woke up to greet the day,
and all its silent beauty seemed to say:
So what, my friend, if all your dreams you haven’t realized.
Look around, you got a whole new day to try.

Today is mine, today is mine, to do with what I will.
Today is mine. My own special cup to fill.
To die a little that I might learn to live.
And take from life that I might learn to give.
Today is mine.

With all men I curse the present that seems void of peace of mind,
and race my thoughts beyond tomorrow, envision there more peace of mind.
But when I view the day around me I can see the fool I’ve been.
For today is the only garden we can tend.

Today is mine, today is mine, to do with what I will.
Today is mine. My own special cup to fill.
To die a little that I might learn to live.
And take from life that I might learn to give.
Today is mine.

(This is as far as my recovery had gotten by the summer of 2009, when the first four parts of this series were written. I don’t want you to stop reading here though, as it turned out this was not the end of the story at all, and if you stop here, you will leave with a very false picture. So please continue and read also Part V: Bringing the Story up to Date… and to a Close.)


The SLunkie Factor – Part III: Losses and Gains

July 2, 2009

(Continued from here. Or start right at the beginning.)

So it was time to take stock. What had my Second Life cost me? What had I received in return? Had it been worth it?

The most obvious loss was the financial one. 2007 was the year in which I felt the full impact of my addiction from beginning to end. When I tally up how much money I lost in that year alone by not working properly, the bottom line is a five-digit sum in Euros, and I’m afraid the first digit is not a one. Add to that the last three months of 2006 and about the first two or three of 2008, and I’m getting close to 30,000 € before taxes. Maybe more.

If someone had shown me that number in early October 2006 and told me that was what I was going to pay for that “free account” I was about to open, I would have thought only a madman could do something like that.

And that’s only a number. Hidden behind that number are some of the most humiliating and devastating moments of my life, starting with the moment I had to confess to my wife that there was no money coming in because I had been slacking for months. The moment I had to tell the people at the tax office that I couldn’t pay my taxes after their regular direct debit had been returned by my bank because of insufficient funds. The moment I had to explain to my children that we weren’t going to go on vacation in the summer of 2007. The moment I sat in my bank manager’s office telling him I had been going through some difficult times, but things were going to get better now. The moment things hadn’t gotten better after all and the tax office finally lost their patience with me and blocked my bank account. The moment I shook the hand of the bailiff on my doorstep. Then, in December 2007, came that final humiliating phone conversation with an insurance employee in which I had to insist that I really, really had no choice but to cancel my life insurance which was the centerpiece of my old age pension scheme while he was trying to be helpful and made all sorts of alternative suggestions which couldn’t work for me for reasons I didn’t want to explain to him.

It wasn’t just that I didn’t work, you see. I also didn’t open any letters if they looked like they might contain some official business or a bill or something. All my affairs were in a state of total chaos. And the worse it got, the more apathetic I became and the more I escaped to SL where I didn’t seem to have to feel all those negative emotions.

The second big loss was a little more than one year of my marriage. I was lucky enough not to lose it permanently in the end, but for about fourteen months or so, it wasn’t really a marriage. One side of it was that my wife was despairing over my lack of responsibility and the financial mess we were in and on the brink of giving up on me. For a time, she had given up, I think. And of course she couldn’t help noticing that my whole emotional life was happening elsewhere. She never knew any details of what I was doing in SL, but the outcome of it all was that I had withdrawn from her, and she knew that all too well. Sometimes she had hope that all this would change, other times she didn’t. What kept our marriage together during those times when she didn’t was just the thin thread of the circumstances. Had we been living in a rented flat without kids, I’m sure I would have found my suitcase on the landing one day outside the door equipped with a new lock.

The other side was that for a while, I didn’t feel any motivation to save my marriage. There were moments when I was secretly hoping she would throw me out. I mentioned earlier that I had buried inside myself a feeling of being trapped, and one of the things I felt trapped by, as grossly unfair as that sounds, was my marriage. That feeling broke loose from its hidden depth with the fury of a volcano when I came to SL. In her comment on Part II, my friend Riall hinted she was going through something similar and said SL was just an “accomplice” in that, which certainly was true in my case. I tended to use the word catalyst when I thought about it. Those destructive forces didn’t come from SL, they came from deep inside myself, and SL was just the tremor that shook the rock cover from the hidden magma chamber.

I say destructive. I had a friend in SL who tried her best to convince me that those forces were really liberating, not destructive. For a while I was really torn between those two ways of looking at it. From where I was, there seemed to be two roads into the future in terms of my marriage, breaking out or hanging in there and trying to make it work, and for a while I really couldn’t tell which would be the better one. Each one seemed to involve throwing away a whole world of possibilities. Today I think it probably was both – liberating and destructive. It was a good thing that these feelings broke loose, because otherwise I might never have been forced to face them and deal with them. But I’m really glad that their fury was contained. My choice in the end was not so much about which road seemed to promise more satisfaction for me as about what sort of person I wanted to be. Ironically, taking that road is proving to be a very satisfying thing.

That brings me to the third big loss – the way I felt about myself. The way things were, I couldn’t be good at anything in RL anymore. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t provide for my family, I couldn’t take care of my affairs, I couldn’t be a good husband, I couldn’t be a good father. I was a total failure. I felt dirty, powerless, worthless. I don’t think I was really suicidal, but I was thinking a lot about suicide in those days – I didn’t talk about it or make plans or even seriously wish for it or anything, but I thought about it. I saw possible scenarios in my mind. Meanwhile, old Dylan in SL was successful, charming, popular. True to my propensity to pursue good feelings and avoid negative ones, these feelings drove me more and more to prefer SL to RL. And so the spiral kept turning…

There were other losses, too. That summer vacation in 2007 that we had to cancel. I wasn’t reading books anymore. I wasn’t playing the guitar anymore. I wasn’t going to the movies anymore. I’d given up the volunteer work in my church, which I had been very committed to before I came to SL. My whole spiritual life took a major hit which it still hasn’t recovered from. As I wasn’t even doing my work, any thought of pursuing my own writing seemed ridiculously out of reach. It seemed as if my life was reduced to feeding this body, keeping it reasonably clean and grudgingly granting it a minimum of sleep, all in order to drop it in front of the computer again as soon as possible so I could let my soul be sucked into the colourful pixel world.

In view of this huge price I paid for my SL, you may be wondering why I would even ask the question whether it was worth it. How could anything be worth paying such a price? But it won’t do to act as if SL had given me nothing in return. After all, there are people who are paying a similar price for nothing but drunken stupor. Compared to that, I certainly got a better deal.

First of all I met a lot of wonderful people in SL, and with some of them I feel I have formed lasting friendships. You can’t put a price tag on that. Then, SL gave me opportunities to playfully pursue creative activities – like making animations, working with textures and pictures, building, scripting, writing this blog – that I would probably never have thought of without SL. And above all, SL taught me a lot about myself that I didn’t know. As I’ve said before, becoming Dylan brought things about myself to the surface that I never thought were in me. The impact of it could easily have been my undoing, but nevertheless, I couldn’t ever wish these things would have stayed buried inside me.

Maybe asking in hindsight whether it was worth it is the wrong question after all. It’s not as if I ever made a choice to pay that price, knowing what I would get in return. This is just how it played out. A lot of it was my doing, some of it wasn’t. Many things I do regret, some things I don’t. I had to grieve these losses like you grieve the loss of a loved one. Then my next task was to translate the question into the present moment: Is what I’m doing right now in SL worth “losing” what I could or should be doing in RL right now? And the task was to bring Dylan back into my RL. All the things about me he had brought to the surface – they weren’t going to be any use to me if they stayed sealed off in SL. In a nutshell, I had to find a way to make SL work for me instead of against me.

(Continuing in Part IV: A Quantum of Freedom.)


The SLunkie Factor – Part II: Staying Hooked

June 27, 2009

(Continued from here.)

So I sat down and wrote some goodbye notes to my closest friends in SL. I imagine writing a suicide note must feel a bit like that. I’d met some people during those few months who had become really good pals, and in some cases I became aware just how dear they had become to me only while I was writing those notes. It was a harrowing experience.

At that time, I was in a very close relationship with a lady. The particular nature of that relationship added greatly to my feeling that I wasn’t in control of things anymore (as if I had ever been!) and that I needed to break free.

She was living in Northern Europe, so we were both in the same time zone. She worked for a big IT company, but she called in sick quite frequently, often spending weeks off work, because she was suffering from severe stress symptoms at the time. So she was both going through a very vulnerable time in her life and often had plenty of time on her hands during the day. She also had some RL contact information, so she could reach me even when I wasn’t in SL for a change.

The result was that even on those days when I made some effort to stay out of SL and do my work instead, most of the time I would receive a message from her sooner or later, letting me know that she was feeling awful and needed my company. Usually I ended up logging on and spending time with her – way more time than I could afford of course. I didn’t feel like I had any choice in the matter.

When I told her I had decided to take a break from SL and didn’t know when I would be back, she was dissolving in a pool of tears. I felt awful for having to do that to her. I didn’t want to hurt her, but again, I felt as if I had no choice.

When I logged off to enter my hiatus, I did hope I would be able to come back one day, but I thought it was highly doubtful. I saw myself at the beginning of a long uphill hike to get my work habits back on track, to catch up on my deadlines and to regain some lost ground financially. Furthermore, I knew I shouldn’t go back unless I established some firm ground rules for keeping a better balance and could trust myself to stick to them. With all these provisos, I thought my return to SL was a long way off, if it ever happened at all.

Then a funny thing happened. On Yahoo, I still talked every day to my lady friend who had been so heartbroken over my departure. She stayed heartbroken for about three days. On the fourth day, I heard nothing from her. On the fifth day, she sent me a message to tell me she had found a new boyfriend.

I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t been in SL long enough yet to know that the lightning speed with which she had recuperated from her bottomless misery was nothing out of the ordinary in the virtual world. I thought it was just amazing.

The immediate effect the news had on me was that I thought I could go back without danger. I know now that I was kidding myself, but at the time I was all too ready to believe in the convenient fiction that all my troubles had been solely due to the nature of my relationship with that lady. Now that problem had taken care of itself, so I thought I was safe.

So I was back barely a week after I had pompously announced my departure. I’m not sure, but it may be that I even managed to work regularly for a few weeks or so, just long enough to lull me into believing I had the thing under control.

By February, though, the old pattern had taken over again. SL spread out more and more in my life, filling not only my days, but my head and my heart, too. I paid a perfunctory tribute of attention to my wife, my kids and, to a lesser degree, my work, but my thoughts and my passions were elsewhere. I had lost my taste for RL.

I’ve often wondered how this could happen to me. How was it possible that a virtual world could get such a hold on me? I wasn’t aware that my RL was so miserable that I had no choice but escaping from it. But why then had it lost all colour for me, so that I fled to the visual candy world of SL whenever I thought no one was watching me?

By and by, I found a few answers to these questions. One important clue was that a similar thing had happened to me a few years ago. At that time, my son, who was then nine years old, became very ill and had to have the sort of surgery that is covered in long articles in international medical journals afterwards. He spent several months in hospital.

That summer, I did hardly any work. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the time; usually my wife visited my son during the day, leaving the evenings to me, so I didn’t really have an excuse. But I didn’t work. SL wasn’t around yet at the time, but I found all sorts of other things to do; I don’t even remember what I did. Play Tetris, most likely, and a variety of other mindless things. Afterwards, I told myself I was going through some sort of depression. Whatever it was, I couldn’t muster up the energy to do my work, and I basically anaesthetized myself every way I could, both against the fear for my son and the pangs of my conscience.

But that had been years ago. My son was fine now, and so was everyone else in my family. In fact, I thought I was a reasonably happy man when I first logged on to SL. So what was it that made the virtual world – and my own self in the virtual world – so much more attractive to me than my real everyday life?

When I thought about this, I came up with some clues. I don’t want to go into too many details lest this blog entry become even more interminable than it already is, but they have to do with exhaustion, with professional goals I had failed to achieve, and with a general feeling of being trapped, of not being the one who was in charge of the direction of my life. Maybe it all comes down to the fact that I was fourty-six years old when I first came to SL – just the right time for a nice little midlife crisis. Although I think you can feel exhausted and frustrated with things at any time of your life.

The point is, though, that by becoming Dylan, I felt as if I could get away from all that; literally slip into a new skin and a new life and be free to find out who I really was and what I really wanted to do. And that was, at that time in my life, an overwhelmingly attractive prospect.

Another clue I found was in the fall of 2007 when I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair. While I made my rounds there, I spotted a book called Handbook of Psychotherapy at one of the exhibition stands. When I browsed through it, I found a chapter on internet addiction. Naturally, I pulled up a chair and started to read.

It was a bit of an eye-opener. I had long suspected that my SL addiction had a chemical aspect because being in SL felt like a permanent high to me. Of course, it’s common knowledge that whenever you find pleasure in something, there’s a neurochemical correlation that makes the „pleasure center“ in your brain „light up“. Obviously, there’s also the sexual arousal aspect with its increased hormone levels that could conceivably lead to a chemical dependency. (Conventional wisdom has it that men are more prone to react in that way to visual stimuli than women, but judging from my experiences in SL, I have my doubts about that.)

The new thing Iearned from the Handbook of Psychotherapy was the conditioning that takes place in connection with these chemical processes. Conditioning basically means that the brain loves to associate things. So when you regularly do things with your computer that give you sexual pleasure, for example, such as logging on to SL and being surrounded by beautiful, scantily clad avatars, your brain sort of groups your computer in the same category as the sexual pleasure. The result is that even the sound of your computer booting up might be enough to kick your glands into gear and get the juices flowing, as it were.

That explained to me why SL always seemed to give me a kick, even when I was alone on my sky platform building things or scripting. That low-level arousal I felt all the time I spent in SL certainly produced a sort of substance addiction that was one of the factors that kept me hooked.

The good news is that this effect does wear off a bit when you become conscious of it. Some brain scientists try to tell us that our brain chemistry is all that we are, but ironically, it is precisely when we become aware of the chemical nature of a certain reaction we feel that we can rise above it, as it were, and discover that beyond our brain chemistry, there is such a thing as „I“ that can make itself master of that reaction. „I“ may not be able to turn it off, but I can decide what to do with it, and that makes the compulsion I feel suddenly much less compelling.

But let’s not rush ahead. For the time being, I was still a miserable SLunkie, and would remain so for a while. Still, it may be that it was this discovery that created in me that tiny space of self-determination that allowed me in the following months to take an honest look at what SL had done to me.

(Continuing in Part III: Losses and Gains.)


The SLunkie Factor – Part I: Getting Hooked

June 22, 2009

In case you found your way here more or less by accident: This is a story about Second Life addiction. Second Life (TM) is a virtual world created by Linden Lab in which people from all over the world interact as avatars. (I won’t link to it here, but you will have no difficulty finding it if you want to.) If you’re still interested, please bear with me for a moment while I share some choice bits from my Second Life chat log (“RL” in these quotes refers to “real life”):

DS: I need to get some rl back.

***

DS: just bored…thinking about doing RL today!
LE gasps in horror
DS: how about you?
RW1: Miss D, RL is severely over rated ;)
RW1: And you run the Risk of a Blue Screen if you try to do to much in RL :)

***

CP: I’ve taken to pointing at doors in RL… nothing happens, though.

***

DR: so … you’ll be first in line when they finally find a way to upload yourself?
DP: yep……waiting to delete my RL…..lol
DR: keep a backup
EG: I already have D lol

***

RG: entering a building in rl ..takes off sunglasses and says ..’ Give me a minute to let things rez” …sighs.. I might be a addict

***

ER: RL? What’s that? ;)
DR: some game I used to play.

***

RW2: I still think we’ll meet a TRON like person here
MH: what is TRON?
DR: great movie
RW2: 80s classic
RW2: the RL user gets sucked into the computer
MH: oooh…..pick me pick me!

***

AN: RL is a nice game, still got some bugs and isn’t fair sometimes but the graphics are cool xD

***

CN: I quit RL I stay here

And lastly, one of my favourites:

DR: RL isn’t running anymore on my machine… I must have borked the installation somehow.

***

Incidentally, to find these quotes, I imported my first chat log file, which ran for about 9 months, into Word. The resulting Word doc has more than 7500 pages, single-spaced. These quotes are collected from about the first 250 of those.

The point? Well, evidently jokes about RL and how we as SLers tend to lose touch with it are very much part of our conversational currency. I’m sure you’ve heard this kind of jokes before. SL is addictive, much more so than RL, it appears. Contrary to other kinds of addictions, though, SL addicts don’t live in denial. We freely admit that we’re addicts. We even joke about it. Or could it be that the joking itself is some strange form of denial? You be the judge.

Some of us at least know that behind all this banter, being addicted to SL is anything but a joke. Take the guy whose name I have abbreviated as “RW1″ in one of the above dialogues, for example. He has long since left SL after basically living in it for a year or so. He spent lots of time here, got deeply involved with a woman who was as addicted as he was and had lots of other problems of her own, suffered more than his fair share of drama and was, by the time he left, within a hair’s breadth of leaving RL too while he was at it. Thank God he decided to renew his RL subscription after all.

I don’t know a lot about his personal life outside of SL, so I have no idea how everything he experienced here affected him there. I do know, though, that in my own life, those moments when I was closer to being suicidal than at any other time in my life were connected with my SL addiction; so I can’t blame him.

It’s time to tell the story. I’ve procrastinated on this long enough. So here’s how I became a SLunkie.

We had some friends over on a Sunday in the fall of 2006, and one of them happened to mention a magazine article about Second Life he’d been reading. He said only a few words about it, but I knew instantly that I would have to check it out. What he said sounded like something I’d been waiting for since I didn’t know when.

I’m working from home as a freelancer. Many of my friends envy me that, and it sure has its perks; but there are some drawbacks, too. One of the major perks is that there is no boss around and you can work whenever you like. One of the major drawbacks is that there is no boss around and you can work whenever you like. It’s nice to be able to pace yourself, but it’s not always easy to do. Sometimes, when you don’t feel like working or when some other fancy strikes you, it’s dangerously easy to tell yourself, heck, one day off can’t hurt you, right?

I was tempted to do exactly that on that Monday after my friends’ visit. First thing in the morning, I found the SL web site and created an account. I was prevented from squandering the whole day though by a downtime. In those days, whenever there was a server update or anything to be fixed by the grid monkeys, all of SL was taken offline. They used to announce a six hour downtime, but usually they had to extend it a couple of times until things were running smoothly again (which of course they never did). For SL to be offline for eight hours or so was not uncommon.

That’s what happened on that Monday. I created my account in the morning, but SL gave me plenty of time to do my day’s work before I finally was able to log on for the first time in the late afternoon. That was the last day I did any work for quite a while.

Not that very much happened on that first evening. I found out how to move, how to dress, how to change my appearance, all the basic stuff that you need to master in the beginning. Still, it took me a few hours until I stopped bumping into walls and falling off cliffs and until my avatar looked sufficiently individualized to my untrained eye. It was way past midnight when I tiptoed into the dark bedroom.

The next morning, as soon as my wife and the kids were out of the house, I was back in SL. This new virtual world was far too fascinating to give it a rest yet. And I couldn’t wait to get back in, because there was some little detail about how to make a shirt look right or whatever that had been puzzling me while I was falling asleep, and I just had to figure it out before I did anything else. Why not dabble with it a bit while I sipped my last hot mug of tea? So I did that. Before I had finished my tea, however, I found a tutorial display on Help Island that walked you through the different kinds of prims there are and some of the stuff you could do with them. I didn’t even think about whether I wanted to take the day off or not. I just started reading those displays and fiddling with prims, and before I knew it, the rest of my tea was cold and the morning was gone.

Now I know from experience that when I don’t manage to do the bulk of my day’s work in the morning, it’s too late to try and save the day; so my conscience gave barely a twitch when I went back to SL right after lunch. Heck, it’s only a day, right? What’s a day in the great scheme of things? I made my first couple of friends during that afternoon on Help Island, one of them a very resourceful fellow who had already figured out how to make himself a huge pair of wings. I learned a thing or two about building and attachments from him. Again, the light in my room was the last to go out that night.

The next day I wasn’t even pretending to myself anymore that I was going to do any work. So many things to see, to learn, to explore! That was the day I crossed over from Help Island to the main grid. I couldn’t wait to finally see those cities, those landscapes I’d seen on the pictures. I landed at the Isabel Info Hub, made some friends there and went exploring with them. I discovered the Shelter, which quickly became my favourite haunt in SL. And I discovered that SL is a very sexy place. Something deeply biological was going on inside me when I looked at all those beautiful lady avatars in their low-cut tops and short skirts; something that kept me on a permanent high while I was in SL and made the prospect of taking the deep plunge back into RL increasingly unsavoury for me.

And indeed that plunge became deeper and deeper with every day that went by. I think I went for two weeks straight without doing any work at all. Now one day may not be much in the great scheme of things, but two weeks do make a notch. By now the end of October was near, and with it the deadline for the project I was supposed to be working on. I was in trouble, and I didn’t like the feeling. So I called my publishers and explained I couldn’t meet the deadline. They were very nice about it. Sweet relief! It was a Thursday evening.

Right! Friday morning! Now back to work. Two months to go until the end of the year; if you keep at it and discipline yourself, there’s still a good chance you’ll get all the projects done that have to be finished before the Christmas break. Just a quick look who’s around in the Shelter while I sip my last tea… well, unfortunately I’m in Germany, PST+9, and when I come downstairs to my office in the morning, the Shelter is brimming with cool people from California partying the night away. Ah well, I won’t turn the ship around on the last day of the week anyway, so let’s get a fresh start on Monday. One more day won’t make a difference after all, right?

Well, if you know anything about procrastination, you know that Mondays are the best days for it. Monday is the day to start on a diet, says Garfield. There’s this glorious feeling that you have the entire week ahead of you, so it won’t matter that much if you cut yourself some slack today, will it?

I’m staring at the truth of what I did during those weeks and months and feel like abandoning this whole blog thing, both because it’s so damn hard to face it myself and because it’s even harder to imagine what you all will be thinking of me when you read it. I did do some work in November and December, but not nearly enough to get myself out of the mess I was in. I would start working, but after half an hour or so I would start fidgeting and fighting the temptation to log on. A couple of times I fought it off by reading a few forum posts instead or taking a look at someone’s Flickr stream. But inevitably sooner or later I would log on, and once I did that, it would be hours before I even made an attempt to get back to work.

During those weeks, when I met half of my usual daily quota of pages, it was an exceptionally good day. Most days I managed less. Some days – at least once a week I think – I got no work done at all.

By December, things had gotten desperate. I had long since been obliged to ask for an extension of the extension of the extended deadline, and for extensions on the deadlines for the next projects which should have been finished by now and I couldn’t even tell when I would be starting on them. Of course, hardly any money was coming in. My wife was understandably alarmed when she noticed the strange depletion of our bank account, which was all the more inexplicable as I spent endless hours each day locked away in my office.

What made me despair was the knowledge that I didn’t have any control over what was happening. So many mornings, I had gotten out of bed with a firm resolution to turn things around that day; so many nights, I’d crawled back in, much too late, beating myself up inwardly for having failed again. With every one of those days, my belief that it was in my power to get this habit under control crumbled a little more.

Shortly before Christmas, the last remnant of that belief died. I had enough. I was ready to quit.

(Continuing in Part II: Staying Hooked)


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