Spontaneous remission from internet addiction
When I was a kid, the internet was brand new. I loved it immediately and quickly found the corners of the internet filled with other ten to thirteen year olds writing their hearts out into the void. There were early services to make your own websites like geocities and expages, and I immediately started making my own websites. Then came diaryland, a service where you could have an ‘online diary’, basically a very early version of the blog, but catered toward the overflowing feelings of pre-teen and teenage girls. I loved this immediately and took to writing my heart out to the internet — something I still do to this day.
At the time, I was a traumatized, secretly gay, very sad, and very lonely child living in a small, conservative town, in a family of emotional neglect and sexual abuse that everyone pretended was normal. I was, already, a writer. I had so many thoughts and feelings, so much to say, and yet nowhere in my ‘real’ life to put my ideas. The internet was this secret other world where I could tell the truth, and where I could find others like me. It was totally anonymous back then, so I lived a secret other life, a life where I was able to say what I really felt and thought, a life where I could be seen and heard for who I really was.
Immediately the internet was addictive. I remember the sound of dial up, the weird screeching that would send my whole body into anticipation. I wanted out. The internet was a way out. And I loved it with my entire being. At that age, I would wait for my family to fall asleep and could barely contain my excitement as I prepared for many unsupervised hours on the family computer, hours where I could design layouts for my online diary, write as much as I wanted, and click through the mysterious world of other writers like me. I felt more real and more alive in front of a screen than I did in most of my ‘real’ life. It was relief. It was pleasure. It was power. It was freedom.
I’m sure it’s not surprising that I turned out to be who I am: a writer with a big online presence who makes my living pouring my heart into the world. Not only is writing my passion and my lifeline, but the internet has been, for most of my life, one of my most beloved drugs of choice. Since I got my first smart phone at the age of 26 (later than most people my age because I was too poor and crazy to have one earlier), I have been a phone addict. I have had the love/hate/need relationship with social media that all addicts know intimately. I loved to lose myself in the blur of scrolling, the highs and lows of the inner drugstore in my brain being activated by the predatory design of social media. I hated the way I lost hours and hours to it, the way it often made me feel like shit, the way I couldn’t slow down or stop despite years in recovery and picking up medallions in AA for my ‘sobriety.’ I certainly didn’t feel sober around social media. I needed it in the visceral way that addicts need to get high: the squirming feeling in the body, the desperate push toward the object of addiction. And, I needed it in another, more practical way too: I built a life as an independent writer that required my posting, that called me toward the object of my addiction in order to make my sales and pay my rent.
I have grappled and struggled with this for years. It’s not an uncommon struggle in this age of surveillance capitalism in which our attention is bought and sold. I have tried everything to moderate, from quitting all social media for a year to tracking and timing my use to using various apps to lock me out to using the 12 steps to trying to understand my addiction using Lance Dodes’ framework. It’s always ended the same way: with me glued to my screen, unable to resist that intense craving that pulled me unstoppably toward total surrender to the screen. It was hard, and especially hard because I didn’t want to quit entirely, couldn’t quit entirely if I wanted to continue to do my job. I have always loved the internet in the way I love zines. The internet let me write and let those words reach so many people. Without the internet I would not have been able to build the career I’ve built, where I get to write whatever I want and need to write, and make a living on it. If only there was a way to beat the addiction and keep doing what I love.
Eventually, I got sick of having the same conversations with everyone I knew about how we were trying to cut back on screen time. I got tired of the futility of it. I accepted that 1) my addiction like all addictions was meeting some underlying need and until that need was met in some other way, I would be an addict and 2) this addiction was particularly hard because social media is intentionally designed to be addictive. I tried to give myself grace — keeping an open mind toward a way out of social media addiction without obsessing over it or banging my head against the wall.
It is too early to say if the change will stick, but since coming back from ayahuasca ceremony this year, something has changed in me. When I turned my phone back on after a week of having it off so I could focus on the work I was doing in ceremony, something was different. I went on Instagram, and instead of feeling that pleasurable and insatiable craving, I felt overstimulated. What struck me the most was that everything was out of context. Information was coming to me in huge waves but also totally at random. Vegan cooking, sex toys, selfies, Palestinian trauma, someone’s cat, new years resolutions, Marxists calling for revolution, something about some kind of plant, mixed in with a bunch of ads for this or that. It was jarring and it wasn’t holding me and it didn’t feel good.
I decided to roll with this inexplicable change, seemingly offered up by my work with the medicine. I closed my dms to the public. Made an announcement that I’d be on there less and that people could find me here on substack. Deleted the app and returned to using the scheduling app I use to post. I’d taken all these actions before, but always with insatiable craving just waiting in the background. This time the craving wasn’t there. I’ve gone back on a couple times to read messages and I’ve had the same feeling. Overwhelm and also a sense of distate. I didn’t like it there.
Something else is different too: I don’t want to post. I don’t feel inspired or interested in writing my popular white text on a black background text boxes. My interest in writing these has waxed and waned over the years but whenever I wasn’t interested it worried me. Those text boxes are essential for me to make zine sales and if I’m not making zine sales, I’m not making money. So in a very real way (that I’ve always had extremely ambivalent feelings about) posting on Instagram is my job. At least it’s a fundamental part of my job, necessary in order to make money on what I consider to be my real work: my long form writing. Having lived in intense poverty my entire twenties, I’ve always had a lot of anxiety about the prospect of no longer being able to make money on my writing. This is my deepest calling, and I also don’t want to be poor. So I posted, even when I didn’t want to post.
The difference this time is that I have been, over the last year, trying to make substack a sustainable source of income for myself. I’m not totally there yet, but I’m getting there. It’s giving me some breathing room. If my zine sales crash from not posting, I’m not totally fucked. So, given this grace, I’m letting myself follow my impulse to stay the fuck away from social media. I’m still promoting my long form writing there, using the scheduling app, but for the last little bit, I haven’t been creating any original short form writing for instagram. I’ve been saving my ideas for long form writing and it actually feels so good.
I’ve been reading voraciously. I’ve been writing more. I’ve decided that I want to open space this year to focus on writing a new book. I feel this spaciousness in my life opening up. And incredibly, I don’t want to be on social media. I don’t know if it will last. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. But I’m choosing to embrace it and follow it into the unknown. Maybe this is what I’ve been looking for and longing for. Maybe I can return to being a writer instead of trying to sneak the time and space and attention my writing needs from the instant gratification, short attention space, frantic energy, information overload of social media. It feels like relief.
It’s also scary because I don’t know what it will mean for my career. Will my career survive if I divest from Instagram? Can I continue to pay myself a living wage, have a nice life, and save for my future which I’m hoping will soon include a new baby? Can I trust the work I’ve been doing and its importance? Can I trust my audience to remember me when I’m not readily available on their ‘feed’? Can I begin to live my principles in the deepest heart of my practice? Will the deepening of my work eventually balance out the loss of income I experience when I don’t post?
All I can say is — I hope so.
Thank you to everyone following me here. Especially to the paid subscribers who are making this transition to deeper, more fulfilling work possible, but also to all of you. There is nothing more important to an independent writer than her audience. I literally couldn’t do it without you. I plan to be writing here more often. If you decide that you’d like less emails you can change your substack settings, opting to receive notifications in the substack app instead of your inbox. You can also change your email settings so that newsletter subscriptions go to a specific folder. If you feel called to share any of this writing, that act is appreciated now more than ever.
I hope you continue to find this work nourishing, challenging, inspiring, or invigorating. I am on the precipice of an entirely new chapter of my creative and intellectual life.
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Announcements and new things
Contemporary Spirituality: Meaning and Mysticism in the Modern Age (Upcoming course I’m teaching in) — Use the code TEACH-CS-MORRIGAN for a discount.
Things I’m reading, listening to, watching or thinking about lately
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Trespasses by Louise Kennedy
What makes a good Canadian? A Muslim 'parental rights' marcher speaks out by Jacques Poitras
Clementine Morrigan is a writer and public intellectual based in Montréal, Canada. She writes popular and controversial essays about culture, politics, ethics, relationships, sexuality, and trauma. A passionate believer in independent media, she’s been making zines since the year 2000 and is the author of several books. She’s known for her iconic white-text-on-a-black-background mini-essays on Instagram. One of the leading voices on the Canadian Left and one half of the Fucking Cancelled podcast, Clementine is an outspoken critic of cancel culture and a proponent of building solidarity across difference. She is a socialist, a feminist, and a vegan for the animals and the earth.