We're all searching for it. Some search with running shoes. Some with wine glasses. Some fire up online sites and mobile apps hunting "the one." I found mine in a Waffle House in Wytheville, Virginia.
Am I being facetious? A little. You see, I've been struggling with recovering from a digital addiction for the past 10 months. My struggle is compounded by the fact that the psychology community does not officially recognize this issue as an addiction yet every newscaster seems to be talking about it. This necessitates that I create my own recovery strategy and educate my own therapist on my symptoms and tactics. There is no Alcoholics Anonymous for digital addicts. Most of the time, when I speak about what I'm going thru, I can sense the discomfort on the other side of the table.
Let me be clear. While some of you may struggle with cell phone overload from time to time, an addiction is far greater than a mild compulsion to check Facebook. It must be treated. My addiction nearly ended me. In December, I gave a Tedx talk on digital overload and its effect on creativity. I discovered that I couldn't remember even one minute of the talk without an index card. What the fuck?! How did this happen?
It was as if my brain had broken down on the side of the road, smoke emanating from the engine in plumes of blackness. I had always been that irritating smart kid growing up, priding herself on her grammar awards and math league wins. I went to an Ivy League institution and killed it on the SATs. Here I was, about to go on stage at one of the conferences I respected most with goddamn INDEX CARDS. How could I go out there in front of all those people with my weakness laid bare under a spotlight?
I almost didn't get 'er done. I met with my executive life coach who advised me that instead of hiding my weakness from the audience, I should instead invite them into my skeleton closet and explain why I needed them. This, was terrifying.
My name is Caroline, and I am a digital addict.
The first time I said this I had acid reflux and imagined this is what a Zebra feels like when a Lion is pulling him limb from limb. Being vulnerable in front of a group of strangers is not something I do well. In fact, I would rather be submerged in icy cold waters at the North Pole or have my fingernails peeled off than stand in front of a group of people and admit my vulnerabilities.
In addition to being vulnerable in front of strangers, I also feared that the digital marketing community I had worked in for 14 years would call me a hypocrite or ostracize me leading to the destruction of my entire business. So you know, no pressure.
I would not have taken that stage without the incredible support of the organizers of TedxAustinWomen: Sara Bordo and Alexis Jones. From their perspective, you must realize, this situation of dealing with a sniffling tearing mess the day before their Tedx debut must have been alarming. Yet, they were graceful even if they were freaking out behind the scenes. I couldn't have appreciated this treatment more.
I stood by the side of the stage before I was meant to walk on, fire alarms ringing internally. The only way I mustered the courage to walk up there was continuously repeating the idea that my darkest moment could help bring some love and happiness to someone else. Shiiiiiiiit, all that bad couldn't be for nothing. I don't remember much of my time on stage and I haven't been able to review the video. I ran down the stairs afterwards and bee lined to the green room, throwing my jacket over my face and crying for 30 minutes. It was the emotional volcano that I had been building up for ten years and releasing it felt so damn good.
I thought that completed the hard work portion of our flight but it turns out that the ten months since have been the hardest work of all.
- Step one: Realization that there is an issue.
- Step two: This is the motherfucker... RECOVERY. Now that I knew that I had significant brain function loss, the big question was:
Could I get what I lost back?
This question haunted me and caused me to spiral into the darkest depression I have ever experienced. I could not get out of bed and hardly left my house. As an extrovert who spent five years as a radio and club DJ, this was highly unusual behavior.
"The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why." -- Mark Twain
I thought I knew the why but it turns out I didn't have a fucking clue. Do I continue to work in a business which contributed to the destruction of my cognitive abilities? It's analogous to a bartender who realizes she's an alcoholic. Should she continue to work in the bar? Yeah, no. So what the fuck was I supposed to do now? I wanted to give up. Here I was reduced to idiocy, incapable of reading, blacking out on 10 minutes of conversation, and experiencing brain loss which had best been described to me by stroke victims.
Luckily, I have a mother who is not only a caring and generous spirit, she also happens to be a therapist. She spent hours with me on the phone, me in Los Angeles, and she in Rhode Island every single day. She advised me on which anti-depressants to consider when my doctors were hard-pressed to answer my questions. When I had a bad reaction to Wellbutrin that temporarily blinded me in my left eye while I drove on a traffic-ridden Los Angeles freeway, she eased me off my panic attack. I also have a very supportive group of friends, who stayed with me when I couldn't be alone, shared with me their own stories of depression, and gave me the love necessary to carry me through. Without friends' very honest depictions of their own ups and downs, I would never have made it. I mean, have you been to Facebook lately? It's all babies being born, triathlons being finished, marriages, vacations -- nothing about the challenges of life not that I would expect as much from the La La land network.
Back to the Waffle House.
I've been searching for love and happiness for the past 10 months. My search has been in brain science and human psychology to formulate a recovery strategy which to wake me up from the Matrix.
The Waffle House in Wytheville Virginia had a jukebox. The restaurant was populated with older stern-looking gentlemen at the counter readying themselves for a tough day and the kind of waitresses who could throw down in an arm wrestling competition. I peered shyly over at the jukebox near the door begging for some attention. I looked back at the stern faces. I gathered my courage and slowly sauntered over to the blinking machine. I hand selected three tracks meticulously so as not to unease the Waffle House patrons. 1) Al Green "Love and Happiness," a comfortable starter to a playlist with its melodic charity. 2) Marvin Gaye "Got to Give it Up (Part 1)," a transition from the first track and more upbeat to hopefully elicit some smiles. 3) Allman Brothers "Midnight Rambler," something I thought the cook would enjoy.
Al Green starts playing through the speakers in the Waffle House wafting his soul in the air sticking to the syrupy bits of the menus. I sit down back in front of my Cheese n' Eggs, an internal smile lighting up my heart. In the depths of my depression, I could not put on any pants outside yoga pants let alone broach a jukebox alone. I had come so far down the road that I was expressing myself again through one of the most enjoyable tools in my arsenal: music. I was attempting to Care Bear stare this Waffle House into Love and Happiness with the help of Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and those Allman Brothers.
I'm not gonna let them catch me no. Not gonna let them catch the Midnight Rider...
Marvin Gaye fires up on the glowing jukebox, and the waitresses begin to buzz about with a little bounce in their step, now chatting more loudly to project over the music. This Waffle House is waking up and the patrons, while some concerned by the clang of this musical introduction, seem to be possibly enjoying it? I am definitely enjoying it.
"Comparison is the death of joy." -- Mark Twain
Closing it out with the Allman Brothers. By this time, the audience expects more soul but NO, right turn with a song that I imagine many in this restaurant grew up listening to. My father used to blast this song in the car while inching forward to the beat at red lights. That's the thing about music. It immediately extracts a memory, hopefully a fond one, of where you were when you heard the song. Where were you? Where are you?
This is how I found my love and happiness. It wasn't in a new pair of shoes, a new face cream, or a new love. It was in a Waffle House facing my fear, deciding to be myself, and walking to that jukebox. I've been walking to that jukebox every day since. The best part is that while vastly challenging to get to this point, the catharsis was that while I was waiting for one moment that would flip my switch back to normal, it turned out, it was a process. When I was ready and had walked through months of progress, I walked over to the switch... and turned it back on.
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