Based on the true story of a friend who asked to remain anonymous.
The Internet stole five years of my life.
Yes, mine is the story, among the hundreds and thousands of similar stories, of how Internet addiction erased several years of a person’s life. That’s exactly what happened to me.
It’s not that it was so horrendously hopeless. It wasn’t that I vanished headfirst deep inside the dark pit of a global net. No, I ate well (even if hastily), kept to my usual sleeping routine, and studied (well, albeit quite carelessly!). I would even venture out on walks from time to time but, during all those five years, my interests were concentrated solely on the Internet and what was going on there: my chats, forum disputes, arguments and squabbles, and the number of “likes” I received. I jumped for joy if I had three new likes, one after the other within an hour, but failed to notice when my mother had a hypertensive emergency. I cried when the enviable role in the forum game was assigned to the forum moderator, and later found out by sheer accident that our kitty had surgery. I would feel ashamed and rush to make fresh juice for my mom, or try to cradle the cat in my arms. But, at the next moment, I’d remember that I haven’t yet answered in a comment section of a clip, and that orange would be left to dry up on the counter, while the cat, after futile attempts at poking into my keyboard, would resign to nap on a windowsill.
I jumped for joy when I received three likes in one hour and failed to notice that my mother had a hypertensive emergency
Year after year went by. But I kept thinking that it’s nothing, an innocent hobby, and it would soon pass—just not right now, not yet, simply not right now. And also, I did continue my studies. I didn’t do too well? Well, but I did learn how to write (fanfics) and edit (clips), and, finally, I sharpened my analytical skills (during the forum squabbles). My family soon sounded the alarm. At first, they cautiously hinted at an emerging addiction. Later on, they tried to drag me away from the computer. I would cheat. I’d sit at the table with them, praising those pies, and go for walks, admiring the views of the Patriarchal Ponds area, or join them on trips to the dacha taking in the air perfumed by blooming bird cherry trees. Or, I’d help pick apples, and laugh while my hands would shake at the thought that another half an hour or an hour, and I will finally be free of all that, and, finally—I am going to be free again. I would be able to run towards my computer. And so I would rush back, jumping over the stairs to my office, my desk, that flickering screen, where I could press the buttons—and everything on the opposite side of the screen would lose its colors, sounds, and reality.
The years went by; the fall would arrive much too soon, as if it came right after the spring, while the snow would cover the ground in July for some reason (or so it seemed). I eventually did enroll in graduate school, but of course, I had no time to write my dissertation. For three years, my relatives believed that I was actually writing it. And then, for another two years, they waited for the date of my defense to be assigned.
Holy Communion was what saved me. During all those years on the Internet, I didn’t come to Communion, I simply couldn’t—so deeply had that passion become entrenched inside me. I knew, I could not but understand that in fact, that “innocent” hobby of mine was called just that—a passion, the thing that pulls you away from life, utterly and completely capturing your mind, heart, and soul. So, I was mortally afraid of unworthy participation in the Eucharist, and at the same time, I was afraid to break free of this passion (it seemed at the time there would be nothing left in return).
At the same time I developed a fear; I was terribly afraid of getting sick, for, if I did get sick, I’d have no time to back down and would have to go to confession and subsequently pledge to quit my addicting “hobby.” Such was the string of thoughts I composed for myself, just like that young girl from an English novel, who when asked what she had to do to avoid hell, answered, “Never get sick.”
Once a year I would come back to senses. It usually happened during Holy Week. I would resurface from the abyss of social media, get myself unglued from my computer desk, and make it to church. I’d listen to the chants of Holy Week and recognize myself in its images. A barren fig tree. A slave who buried his talent deep in the ground. A maiden with an extinguished lamp. I had missed it all, as I slept away and was late for everything. I was standing in the corner crying, yet I wouldn’t leave. I knew that leaving church in Holy Week would be like abandoning Christ Himself. But I also continued to believe that one more day, and I’d lose hold of my “innocent” passion, and then I will have enough time, heart, and soul for everything else.
The words of the holy hierarch Innocent of Kherson from a little book called “How to Celebrate Pascha” sounded encouraging and comforting:
“When, brethren, it is morally as good to fast if not during the days when the bridegroom shall be taken from them (Mathew 9:15), when even He hungered Himself next to a barren fig tree and thirsted on the Cross! When would it be best to receive Communion from the Cup of Life, if not during the forthcoming days, when we, so to speak, receive it from the hands of the Lord Himself!”
And then, there was Communion. I walked home on a spring morning of a Holy Thursday. I walked knowing the simple truth: I am a part of the Church again. That I have returned, I was forgiven and welcomed back. I am a part of life again, and I am alive again. “Life lives,” I felt it with all my being. I smiled softly at my family’s joy and promised: “Lord, I won’t leave You again, and never exchange You for anything” (and then I would whisper silently: “not even for the Internet”). Then, during the service of the reading of the Twelve Gospels, I’d repeat, “Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom!” I’d assure Christ over and over again that I am with Him forever.
Then, Pascha, and the Bright Week, came. St. Thomas Sunday followed next—and then, maybe a day earlier or a couple of days later—I’d sit down by the computer, always smiling cheerfully, confident that I’d spend no more than ten minutes online, and I’d then grab my prayer book and read the evening prayers. And tomorrow we would go to our dacha, and the day after tomorrow I would clean the house as my mother asked me to do, and then I was also invited to attend an exhibition...
A year later, I’d be in line waiting for a confession. Another year of nothingness weighed heavily on my shoulders. Yet another year.
It went on like that for five years. I still went to church every Sunday, never missing it, despite anything. However, every Sunday, I felt an encompassing hunger and emptiness as I watched the lucky others approach the Cup. Even though I would often be two or three steps away from it, when I could practically reach or touch it, we were still separated by a bottomless pit I had dug inside my soul. I agonized over the impossibility of stepping over this handmade chasm, digging it deeper and deeper.
Ultimately, it was that hunger that saved me. Hunger, along with the immense desire to experience joyful bliss again, when you are simply walking back home on a spring morning after liturgy before Pascha, and nothing happens, and you feel slightly tired, but also hungry, and then you also simply feel that... you’re alive again.
My Internet addiction had vanished, leaving behind the immeasurable grief over the years I have laid to waste
One night I simply turned off the computer, stood beside the icon, and literally shouted loudly: “I can’t live without You anymore!” (I don’t quite remember whether I found this phrase in Vladyka Anthony’s writings, or found it elsewhere and it became my prayer). I did partake of Communion after Pascha, well after Lent was over. I did it again a week later. Then, I traveled to our country house sans computer or phone. And I planted the chrysanthemums. I could go on and on about my treatment, or what steps I took, but that is not the point right now. A new life was ushered in. My Internet addiction was gone. Gone, but it left behind the immense grief over all those years I had wasted. How different they could have been! I could have lived them the way my family envisioned it. Like God wanted them to be. The best years of my life and my youth, with its amazing resilience and eagerly learning soul. During all those long years, I lived, truly lived during those ten weeks, or, every Holy Week and every Bright Week of each year.
Then I was displeased with my loved ones, who had chosen the path of tactful waiting and silent suffering behind my back. They did not want to push me, nor did they want to enforce anything on me. I was grateful to them at the time. Sure, they did try to “expropriate” my computer a few times, and I was greatly offended by that, and even cried: Why don’t they understand, it is such an innocent hobby, and I will manage it myself, all by myself... And so, they gave up. So, I did manage on my own, but only after those long five years.
I don’t know what would be better. If they hadn’t given up, could they have saved me from wasting all those years? Or could it be that I’d throw a fit and take flight from them, all the while getting stuck even deeper? I don’t know.
But sometimes I play over the events of that first year. My mother takes my computer away, I am crying for three days, and then I join my brother and we go swimming in Istra. I return and silently (as I still feel offended) eat the cabbage pie my mom has made. I get mad at my dad as we comb out our cat together. In the fall, I attend a lecture for graduate students. I worry about the “Introduction” part of my dissertation, because I can’t seem to write it properly. I don’t know, I have absolutely no understanding of how I could have consciously avoid being with Christ for fifty-one weeks every year.
Could it happen this way? I don’t know now, nor would I ever find out in the future. Never.
Still, I remind myself: I did come back, I am alive again, and the Lord accepted me, and I am one of His. I came out of it before it was too late. Yes, the people of my age already had families, and many of them had children. But I can still start my own family, and I can still be successful in life.
That’s how I comfort myself. And it certainly works.
But then I recall how, at the age of twelve, full of self-confidence and fun, I announced that I can’t bear hearing anymore that we must live in a way that won’t cause us to lament the years we wasted.
I didn’t know at the time that that young girl was talking about me...