Imagine living your life completely unplugged. No cell phone, internet, social media—completely off the grid. Not easy to picture, right? How can we live a modern life without technology? Few people today even seem to own an alarm clock, instead using the alarm function on their phones. Many of us can’t even remember our friends’ birthdays without Facebook to remind us. Take away Uber, and some people would find themselves without transportation. Eliminate search engines like Google from the picture, and some of us wouldn’t even know where to find the closest library to look up the information to which we no longer have immediate access.
Addicts and alcoholics feel the need for technology as much as anybody else. Thriving on instant gratification, we relish the ability to escape from our immediate surroundings with the click of a button. So many of us naturally feel a bit of shock when we enter treatment and they immediately take our phones. How will we text our friends to let them know how we’re doing? Or how will we check the weather each morning so we know what to wear? Heck, how will we even know what time it is?
Going through treatment unplugged sounds difficult at first, but not if we redefine the issue. In Unplug: A Simple Guide to Meditation for Busy Skeptics and Modern Soul Seekers, author Suze Yalof Schwartz gives us another meaning for the term. She defines unplugging not by technology, but by how we train our mind:
“To unplug means to consciously unhook…reset, and restart from a neutral, empowered place. You consciously disconnect from the crazy current for a few minutes and recharge in a focused way to get where you want to go.”
We need this type of present-time awareness in treatment. To accomplish this, we must stay unplugged. But this isn’t the only reason that treatment centers take phones and computers away from clients during the initial phases of treatment.
Why We Don’t Allow Electronics
Naturally, easy internet access presents problems when clients first enter treatment. We allow monitored phone calls to family members after the client fills out a release of information. Aside from this, we try to minimize the risk of contact with individuals who might try to bring our clients any sort of contraband, such as alcohol or narcotics.
We also try to ensure that our clients stay focused on their recovery. When we can take our phone out of our pocket every few seconds, we run the risk of developing what Schwartz calls “Google Brain.” This is when we find ourselves constantly distracted by running thoughts. Even when we stay unplugged, many of us struggle with this issue. Schwartz describes the science behind this problem, and why we must try to deal with it.
“According to the National Science Foundation, the average person has approximately fifty thousand thoughts a day. The thoughts just keep coming, all day long, stealing our attention away from the present moment. The problem is, the present moment is kind of important, because it’s where your life is actually happening. Not five minutes ago, not five minutes from now—right here, right now. That’s all there is. We can ruminate on what happened yesterday or worry about what we need to do tomorrow—none of which is actually happening in this moment.”
If clients don’t stay unplugged—if they can just browse their phones during 12-step meetings or text each other during group therapy—it takes them out of right now. Even when we try to keep our phones in our pockets, the constant vibrations from text alerts, Facebook messages and various push notifications keep us distracted. In this way, Schwartz notes that our minds and our cell phones share much in common.
“Meditation teacher Davidji has an analogy for this that I love. He compares our brains to cell phones with texts, e-mails, and other alerts streaming in all the time. When we train our brain through meditation, the thoughts still flow in, but we’re not disturbed by them. We can see the thoughts that are spam and drag them to the Delete folder, or, even better, put them on silent.”
With or without meditation, staying unplugged allows us to stay present. Thus, while we certainly recommend meditation as a way of enhancing the benefits we wish to discuss below, our primary focus remains on the benefits of unplugging our devices. Not only will staying unplugged in treatment benefit our focus on recovery, but it might even benefit our overall health.
Health Benefits of Unplugging
Some believe that getting ourselves unplugged might help prevent certain mental problems. This belief stems from various research, such as a 2012 study suggesting that high rates of computer use might correspond to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Many experts, however, remain unconvinced. According to Dr. John Swartzberg, plugging in might simply reflect problems that already exist.
“It’s become part of our culture to think that being ‘too plugged in’ and too dependent on our devices is the root of our problems, rather than a manifestation of other problems. Is constantly checking your phone during dinner with your family causing you to be less close to them? Or are you constantly checking your phone because it’s a convenient way to avoid conversations? Are you anxious and having trouble sleeping because you’re spending too much time online? Or are you spending lots of time online to try to tune out your anxiety?”
While Swartzberg makes a valid point, keeping ourselves unplugged still allows us to handle other underlying problems with greater ease. Without the ability to hide behind a screen, we must face our problems head-on. Furthermore, sleep disturbances tend to exacerbate our mental and emotional issues. And while no study is completely beyond doubt, much research does suggest that the blue light of our phones and computers might lead to sleep disruptions. For this reason, Arianna Huffington suggests in The Sleep Revolution that we stay unplugged for at least a couple of hours before our heads hit the pillow.
Even our memory suffers due to over-reliance on technology. Through what some call the “Google effect,” we feel no need to build up our capacity for cognitive recall when we know we can find anything online. Those who grew up prior to the advent of the internet age might feel they remembered phone numbers more easily before they got their first cell phone. Many of us remembered birthdays more often before Facebook sent us notifications for each one. This impacts our recovery, as many treatment centers incorporate addiction education into our programs. We want our clients to remember what they learn here. If we allow them to keep their phones, all we teach them is a few neat facts for them to Google again at a later date.
Personal Benefits of Unplugging
We keep driving home the point of present-moment awareness. This is not without good reason. When we keep our minds focused on the present, we enable ourselves to make better decisions. More importantly, we enable ourselves to feel happy with who we are and what we have right now. During active addiction, we constantly seek to change our frame of mind. When we dive into our phone, computer or other technological media, we do very much the same thing. Staying unplugged in treatment allows us to put these behaviors by the wayside. According to Unplug:
“With your mind quieted and directed, you can tap into the amazingly clear and peaceful present moment. That’s where the bliss is! The present moment is the ticket to everything you’re looking for: happiness, love, stability, confidence, wisdom, focus, and deep calm. Once you feel it, you’ll want more and more. It’s better than vacation. Better than therapy. Better than shopping, or golf, or chocolate. Oh, and it’s free!”
Think of the last time you found yourself trying to remember a bit of trivia. The name of an actor, the lyrics to a song, or any other little factoid. Under normal circumstances, you might pull out your phone and look it up. Without this resource, you must ask others if they know the answer to your query. This can sometimes lead to spirited conversation. In fact, two of our clients once engaged in a week-long debate over the proper method of pickling eggs.
This may sound like a pretty low-key form of entertainment, but that’s precisely the point. When we live in the present, we don’t need much in the way of distractions. The simple pleasures, such as a friendly and amusing argument over something trivial, are more than enough to keep us happy.
In Unplug, Schwartz equates this to high-definition living. She explains:
“Whatever I’m doing or whoever I’m with, I am actually present—not off in my head thinking about what happened yesterday or what I need to do later. When I take a brain hike, I notice it quicker and bring myself back. I look people in the eye and really hear and see them. Food tastes better, colors look brighter. The best way I can describe it is that I feel like I’m experiencing my life in high def.”
High-definition living means that our relationships, our thoughts and our momentary experiences carry greater weight. They take on greater meaning, because we fully dedicate ourselves to each and every moment. Sobriety requires us to live one day at a time. When we keep ourselves unplugged, we narrow this down further. We live one moment at a time, enjoying each moment of sobriety as its own experiential paradise. Because at the end of the day, the present moment is the only one in which we are ever able to truly live.
When we leave treatment, we regain access to our electronics. Naturally, most clients immediately check their texts, social media accounts and other communication outlets. We do not frown upon this, as we have been down the same road ourselves. That said, while we don’t expect anyone to stay unplugged for good, we do recommend going device-free at least a few hours each day. It not only enriches your sobriety, but other areas of your life as well.
Continuing Sobriety Unplugged
All of the benefits discussed above will continue to play a role in your continuing sobriety. In addition, as you try to build a career and get your life on track, living in the present will benefit you more than ever. It sometimes feels difficult to balance our jobs and our relationships with our recovery efforts. We start taking service work commitments and going to meetings, adding more to an already hectic schedule. But even just spending a few hours unplugged every day, we enable ourselves to make time for all of it.
Schwartz dealt with similar issues following a career change. When she started taking just a little time out of her day to live in the present, it relieved her stress immensely. She elaborates in Unplug:
“I used to do a lot; the difference is that now I do it in a more focused way, so I get more done in less time. I’m doing ten times more but I do it consciously, so everything is better. I used to avoid things that made me feel uncomfortable, but now I can handle any discomfort. Even when things aren’t going right, I’m able to go with the flow rather than feel frustrated. In almost every situation, I can step back from my knee-jerk reactions and respond mindfully, which makes me a better mom, wife, and boss.”
Things will occasionally go wrong in our recovery. A fellow addict relapses and overdoses. Someone refuses to accept our amends. Perhaps we struggle to gain somebody’s trust, or to get the job we need to pay off our debts. During these times, we often try to escape. We might start by diving into a Netflix series, or getting lost in YouTube videos and other online sources of entertainment. As this fails to alleviate our stress, we seek more substantial forms of escape. Before you know it, what started as an escapist weekend of binge-watching turns into a full-blown relapse. It doesn’t always go this way, but you’d be surprised how often we see people go down precisely this road.
Don’t just spend time unplugged to avoid relapse, however. To make our recovery worth something, we must do something besides looking for reasons not to use. We must instead focus on finding reasons to stay sober. When you unplug from your devices, you tap into the world around you. Doing yourself this one simple favor to improve your relationships, your job and your overall sensory experience will increase the value of your sobriety tenfold.
You don’t need to go off the grid entirely. A rich life in sobriety does not necessitate that you spend the rest of your days unplugged. But just for a couple of hours before bed each night, start giving it a try. At first, you’ll feel uncomfortable without the ability to check your phone whenever the urge hits you. Over time, however, you’ll find that you come to appreciate your time unplugged. Don’t think of it as spending time away from your devices. Think of it as truly living your life to the fullest.