(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.)