Of Screens and Substances: A Reflection On Drug Addiction and What Came Next

“As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves.”

— Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

On ketamine, I left my front door open and had “men” I’d never met before enter my apartment, come up the creaky stairs, and hopefully find my room rather than one of my housemates’. It didn’t matter who I was having sex with because the idiomatic “beast with two backs” felt more like a pair of otherworldly creatures copulating than anything human. 

My fixation on anonymous sex acts and the intrinsic — though paltry — male validation continued through early sobriety, but it pales in comparison to my current addiction: the Internet.

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As of this writing, I am three-and-a-half years “clean and sober.” What I am certainly not free of, however, is the obsessive quest for comparable escape — and recognition — made both viable and tortuous by the omnipresence of social media. 

In very early sobriety, upon being discharged from my secluded, phone-free rehab, I moved back in with my mom, who lives in an exurban town in Westchester, NY. This geographic isolation — plus the sudden existence of seemingly infinite reams of time — prompted me to submerge myself in a handful of solitary pursuits, namely rollerskating (poorly), writing (competently), collaging (decently), suburban Tinder (the horror), and, most of all, social media. Instagram in particular seemed to be the perfect venue to showcase my fledgling artistic sensibilities and freshly-sober musings. As such, I embarked on an isolated journey of persona-furnishing, follower-hunting, and stats-obsessing. During this period, I eased my forlornness through cultivating online friendships and relationships, a fraction of which led to IRL opportunities and rendezvous. 

It took a while for that sustained flurry of immediate gratification to wane significantly enough for me to recognize my own lamentable loneliness. Although I harbor no robust convictions that relationships forged or maintained online are inherently inferior to those generated in the flesh-and-blood realm, I also won’t singlehandedly refute decades of research confirming the human need for face-to-face, see-their-eyes and smell-their-breath connection. 

Both my drug of choice (then) and the Internet (now) serve as handy escape portals to efficiently remove myself from the punctuated equilibrium of everyday life. When the tedium is unbearable, one can either find solutions in the here and now, or — if living in constant fear, like yours truly — find band-aid remedies that transport away, rather than embrace and delve further in. 

To constantly escape is to eventually disintegrate, infinitesimal bits stripped off, surreptitiously. 

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Putting aside, for now, the fact that social media has made us all “lab animals,” since we are “being hypnotized little by little by technicians we can’t see, for purposes we don’t know,” its intrusion in to my life has made me a test subject of a different sort. How long can I avoid human contact in favor of digitized dalliances? Why do I still feel as though no one cares while my eyes graze over the oft-sycophantic comments adorned with hearts? Will I ever be truly present knowing that this comfortable, though rarely satisfying, reality-desertion is an option?

Pliny the Younger wrote, “Suffering has its limits but fears are endless.” My suffering via substance abuse eventually reached its peak (or bottom, or abyss) and I sought help via the only channels I was familiar with. But fear never stopped exerting its dominance and flexing its virile, frightful muscles. The current incarnations of suffering I subject myself to are proving more durable and resistant to hitting their must-exist limits than the former addictions. In a list that should not be considered at all exhaustive, I’m afraid of death, life, a hard day’s work, people, failure, success, never becoming a success, serenity, never achieving serenity, relationships, looking stupid, being ugly, etc. etc. 

Swiping through, posting to, and plundering the depths of the Internet are remarkably effective mechanisms for anesthetizing oneself against the feeling of an eternal sense of accursedness — at least, for a little while. The surge of emptiness that inevitably follows, however, can readily negate whatever the digital anodyne accomplished. After all, “the man in constant fear is everyday condemned,” said Publilius Syrus.

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My solitary pursuits — collaging, writing, and rapping — have become inextricably connected to the act of digitally circulating the assorted outcomes, for an audience of veritable strangers to assess. This has yielded a firmly result-focused approach to creation, rather than one in which the process is properly revered and enjoyed. I feel it’s no coincidence that — back when I was newly sober and these activities themselves were imbued with meaning — my earlier works have a flow and freedom to them that now eludes me. 

“The network is seductive. But if we are always on, we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude,” writes Sherry Turkle. Squabbles about what counts as “solitude” and what is better branded “isolation” aside, this sentiment encapsulates the looming fear that I am negating the benefits of the aforementioned activities by instantly disseminating them.

The false equivalence of creative output with personal worth looms like a specter over everything I do. I fear that I will cease to have any essence to others — but mainly myself —if my well of imagination dries up in perpetuity. Because if such an apocalypse were to befall me, then my individual worth would need to be assessed based on categories I have largely avoided or abandoned, such as “career” and “relationships”. 

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There seems to be a very important something — a membrane of sorts — missing in my psyche, which, ideally, ought to provide a barrier between my self and the flotsam and jetsam of the world around me. Instead, I feel like there exists no such boundary to the people, places, and things I interact with (digitally and otherwise), and so they all seep in to my brain and haunt me, immediately. I experience no distance from them to me; everything I inhale collides directly with my current state and convinces me that whatever I’m doing isn’t good enough.

I first noticed my impressionability when I would instantly get a hankering for KFC after seeing a commercial for the stuff. Nowadays, that saliva-soaked susceptibility has transformed in to my ability to leap from profile to profile, person to person, convincing myself of their superiority, success, and serenity. 

“The problem isn’t to learn to love humanity, but to learn to love those members of it who happen to be at hand.” — Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany