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.)