After years of spending 50 to 60 hours a week playing video games, Charlie Bracke, 28, decided to seek help at a treatment facility for technology addicts. This is his story.
I’m a technology addict. I might as well just own that.
I’ve always been an avid video gamer. Looking back, I was probably addicted by the time I was 9 years old, when I was playing games online 4 to 5 hours a day during the week and closer to 10 or 11 hours a day on the weekend. I used video games as a way to escape. My older brother bullied me when we were younger, and he fought with my parents a lot. Subconsciously, I must have noticed that if I went off to the computer room, he would leave me alone. I could zone out with my games, and I wouldn’t have to deal with him or my parents at all.
My addiction waxed and waned over the years. When I reached middle school, I had a lot of friends I would hang out with all the time, so I wasn’t gaming as much. But freshman year of high school, after a couple of girlfriends cheated on me, I started to withdraw socially. I felt hurt and betrayed, and again technology was an escape. In college, I really started to binge. I didn’t have as much structure in my life, so I would stay up late gaming and skip classes. Early in the first semester of my junior year, my grandmother died. I fell into a depression that made me play games constantly—50 to 60 hours a week—using it as my way to cope. I had never learned actual coping skills to handle stress in real life.
I had been seeing a counselor because of my depression, and she supported the idea of leavi college for a while and return when I felt more stable. I dropped out of school, moved back home, and returned to my high school job, which helped me find some balance.
My brother, who I had a good relationship with by that point, offered me an opportunity to work in real estate across the country. I moved from Indiana to live with him in Virginia. My girlfriend told me she never saw herself leaving Indiana, so we broke up, which re-engaged my depression. Like when I was in college, I had the mind-set that nobody would know if all I did that day was game. I would wake up in the morning and get on the computer, telling myself I’d just play one game and then go to work. Next thing I knew, it’d be 3:00 in the afternoon, and I still hadn’t showered or gotten ready for the day. I’d convince myself I didn’t need to go to the office at that point. That would happen almost every day. An addict friend of mine likened it to being blackout drunk; you don’t have any memory of that behavior until after the fact. I didn’t remember gaming during that time.
By January 2015, my parents were starting to wonder why I wasn’t having more success in real estate. Deep down, they knew it was the gaming, but I wasn’t ready to admit my addiction. They convinced me to put my computer away in storage and see what happened. I lasted about a month before I made a big sale at work and decided to celebrate with a night of gaming. The next morning, I thought to myself, It’s not fair to only get one night to celebrate such a big sale. I should give myself a week of gaming to celebrate. The week turned into indefinitely. A few months later, I was kicked off my real estate team for not producing results. My parents confronted me, and I admitted I was gaming again. I gave my computer to my brother to sell. I knew if it wasn’t around, I wouldn’t have any excuses.
But after 2½ months without gaming, my brother left for a vacation and asked me to housesit. He was going to be gone for 10 days. Entering his home, I realized how much I wanted his life: a nice house, a wife, kids. I felt like I didn’t have any of what he had and wasn’t making progress toward it, either. I started giving up, and I began gaming on my work laptop. I left his house exactly three times during those 10 days, only to get food so I could go back and keep playing games.
I couldn’t figure out how to break the cycle. I put forth a concerted effort to quit, but I always found a way to talk myself back into gaming. That’s a big sign of addiction—trying to set boundaries and not adhering to them. I felt hopeless. I felt like I was not a worthy human being. I stopped taking my antidepressants, and I started planning suicide. Luckily, my parents came to visit and could tell something was seriously wrong. They saw I wasn’t taking care of myself or my apartment and that I had gotten back into gaming, and we started researching treatment facilities right away. I knew that with a really serious problem, I needed a really serious solution.
I moved to rural Washington to enter a rehab facility called ReSTART Life. I stayed for about 48 days, starting in October 2015. There were a range of technology addicts there—most people were video game addicts, but there were pornography addicts, chat room addicts, social media addicts, and even Internet addicts who can’t get enough of browsing the web. Together we were in charge of managing the house. We spent most of our days trying to build a healthy routine, including waking up and going to sleep on time, exercising, cooking our meals, cleaning, and attending group therapy and support meetings. A lot of our time was focused on creating a life balance plan—a plan for handling technology when you leave the treatment facility—because ReSTART realizes that living without technology today is impossible.
My plan was to ease myself into everything. When I left ReSTART, I only had a flip phone. I have a smartphone now, but I have monitoring software that strictly regulates how much time I can spend in potentially dangerous apps, like Netflix. I have nothing gaming-related on my phone, not even Sudoku or crossword puzzles. I stay away from anywhere gaming could happen, even stores that might sell video games or the computer section in libraries. I have to be very conscious of my surroundings at all times.
I had to unfollow a lot of people and pages on Facebook that continuously post about gaming. I check my e-mail only every couple of days. When I get impulses or urges to game, I sit down and think about whether it seems like a healthy thing to do. If the answer is no, I do the opposite. For example, I got into a fight with a friend on the phone a few months back and wanted to be alone in my room, angry. Instead, I called my therapist. I rely on my social support, my sponsor, other people I went through the ReSTART program with. I always need that social safety net around me. I’ve had to remove some friends from my life who are a threat to my sobriety, which is ultimately a threat to my life.
Every Tuesday, I meet with my sponsor and my therapist. Between those appointments, I’ll usually hang out with other people in recovery. I used to attend multiple recovery groups and at least one 12-step meeting, too. That’s why I call Tuesdays “recovery days.” When I got my job at Costco, I told them I needed Tuesdays off. My boss gave me a weird look, but I told him I’m a recovering addict and I can’t work because I meet with my sponsor those days. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how supportive most people are. Some people ask, “Video games? Why can’t you just stop?!” But most people are willing to accept that if I consider it a problem, it is.
And that’s an important thing to understand about technology addiction. Just because a behavior is common and everyone does it, like playing video games or living completely attached to our computers or phones, it doesn’t mean it’s good for us. I worry about young people who would love to make a career out of playing video games. Video games themselves aren’t necessarily evil, but there has to be balance. Play sports, hang out with friends, have a social life. If you want to play video games every now and then in addition to those other activities, that’s totally fine.
I’m happy to be where I am today. I’m back on my meds, and I haven’t gamed in just shy of a year. My life has gotten substantially better. I’m happy to share my story to hopefully help others avoid the path I went down.