There’s a defining moment in all of our lives when everything changes. When the story arc we envisioned for ourselves gets irrevocably changed, whether for better or for worse. It might not always be obvious as it’s happening, or easy to identify looking back, though it often is. Can you recall when it was for you?
For me, that moment came in April 2000.
Since that date, there have been a lot of significant moments. As well as many highs, I’ve lost a parent I loved deeply; received two autoimmune disease diagnoses; and once went from being a millionaire to being broke and in debt in next to no time. So what unthinkable trauma could have been suffered in 2000 then, for me to consider it to have changed the course of my life above and beyond what any of those events did?
I signed up to the Internet Chess Club (ICC).
I was most fortunate to have a great life as a young kid. Our family home was set on a large block that included a grass tennis court. Before the takeover of mobile devices, I’d spend hours out there every day, running around in bare feet kicking the football (being Australian, I’m of course referring to Australian Rules Football), or playing tennis with my dad. I was absolutely sports mad. In my world there were two Gods: Andrew McLeod and Marat Safin. Although all was not quite right with my health, my lifestyle meant I stayed a vibrant, fit, popular kid... albeit a little cocky to say the least and not every teacher’s perfect cup of tea!
My life was well and truly mapped out: I was going to be a professional tennis player. One day I’d be battling in cauldrons like the Australian Open that mesmerized me as a TV viewer; or at Wimbledon – that spookily serene place that, alongside “The Masters” at Augusta, I viewed as the mecca of sport. How freaking exciting.
I had great fun playing chess at school. One of my favourite teachers, affectionately known as “Miss Then” with a silent ‘h’, would sometimes decide that instead of learning Chinese in our Chinese class, we’d be playing chess for the duration instead. It’s not hard to see why we all loved her.
Yet, what started as a fun hobby at school soon became a full-blown obsession at home. Doing the math, to have had that stat near 30% (what an incredible troll of them to have that stat available in the first place!), that’s some 7 hours per day found around school, sleep and extras. I can’t even.
Looking back, it’s not a big surprise how enraptured I quickly became with online chess – in fact, I already had a bit of a screen obsession. Playing Nintendo 64 with my best mate Rupert was my most fun thing to do in the world. Interestingly though, with a couple of exceptions, I wouldn’t find myself getting into single player games. People tell me “The Legend of Zelda” was the best game ever created – wouldn’t know. Single player mode on “GoldenEye”, or later “Halo” on Xbox? Not interested. At that point I seemed to have healthy priorities: the love for me was in having a shared experience of awesomeness with friends. Not to mention that after a while we’d get tired of playing and go do something active instead, like trampolining or jumping off the roof into the pool!
What got me about online chess was that not only did I already love the game, there was also a community aspect to the ICC. I became friendly with a lot of the guys I’d play against, and it was addictive to battle them for tournament wins, as well as to prove myself better than my friends from school. There was even an account called “BettingBot” – created with the idea to allow users to bet fake chips on the outcomes of every tournament. I’d max-bet on myself in nearly every one I played – quite ironically, I was almost always broke with BettingBot and eagerly awaiting my weekly welfare payment to try to run it up with again!
When you consider the intensity of 1-minute per player chess games, that there was always a challenging game to be found and that tournaments would run constantly... you might compare the experience to taking crack cocaine. Only now you’re taking it Every. Single. Day. To make matters worse, this wasn’t happening at Rupert’s place. It was a sudden dive into full-on physical isolation.
I wouldn’t know, but I imagine relationships would suffer for someone who develops a cocaine addiction. Suddenly I found myself bunkered on my mum’s desktop computer around the clock. Food’s ready? I’ll just be another 10 minutes. We’ve been invited to Chris and Jill’s place for dinner tonight? You go, I’m good here. Whilst my dad was always laid back, my mum was a little more controlling, and her frustration didn’t take long to boil over. Computer time was now our trading currency for punishments and rewards alike. Amusingly, I specifically recall playing an inspired session of chess on a computer at our family friends Chris and Jill’s house – I’d only go if allowed to play before and after eating!
Tennis kept going a little longer after I signed up to the ICC – I was still training in a development squad and having lots of success in tournaments during school holidays. Somewhere around my 12th birthday though, I’d had it. Driving 30 minutes to squad practice after school twice a week had completely lost its luster. My private coaching sessions had begun to frustrate me a lot, too. My coach was excessively technically-focused as well as very mildly abusive. He was from a previous generation and had been at it for decades, with names like Lleyton Hewitt on his resume, so he was pretty set in his ways. Perhaps before the advent of computers it’s a partnership that could have worked, but I was a first edition millennial with millennial issues.
After one session where I got to hit about 10 balls over the course of an hour – wondering all the while why I was being sworn at, and why I couldn’t just be allowed to hit two damned balls in a row – I was done. I had somewhere better to be. My passion was being overwhelmed by my addiction.
Less than a year later, I was getting beaten by multiple guys in my year level at school, as well as one from below. Looking back, my recollection of my tennis between age 12-15, before my health truly fell apart at age 16, had been a bit hazy. Initially I’d put it down to a loss of technique from a vastly diminished volume of play. Yet, at 13 I hooked up with a new coach whom I loved, and with him my backhand turned from a weakness into my biggest strength. Why, then, had so many players with limited games gone past me? I was fairly short and very skinny, so maybe it was that. I certainly wasn’t in the gym getting ripped, and many of these guys were footy players.
There would have been something to that, but fortunately for me, I still have video footage of myself playing in my coach’s tournament from those years. Viewing it now, the explanation sticks out like a sore thumb. As well as acting like a bratty douchebag (even when on best behavior, knowing it was being filmed!) whose ego couldn’t accept being ordinary, I had simply lost all of my athleticism. Where the hell was my verve and explosive movement? For a kid who 2 years prior had run a 12’10 beep test and loved being out in the sun hitting balls, to then look so sluggish and disgruntled that soon after – it was absolutely startling for me to see now.
As an adult my life has continued to revolve around screens. Poker had taken over from chess as my main focus even by age 15; my volume stats for playing online poker would put my chess stats to shame. With this addiction in no small part to thank, much of my life from age 16-24 was spent bed-ridden with chronic fatigue – surrounded by screens. In addition to poker I was consumed by TV sport at all hours (I developed a penchant for betting on Darts for a while there!), as well as a few TV series favourites. Often when I’d find myself out of this habitat it would be in the real-world equivalent – within the confines of the stimulation barrage of a casino.
It’s true that as my eyes finally opened to all of the potentially toxic effects screen usage can have on the body, I’ve been able to mitigate many of the risks. Doing this has allowed my body to heal markedly whilst continuing to use them for much of the day. However, watching my old tennis footage has left an indelible mark on me. It’s time to truly start a new chapter, and for the first time I feel genuinely capable of doing so.
For too long, when pursuing fitness as a priority, my routine had the same theme: work hard, stretch, retire to the computer, and rest. Rinse, repeat, as often as capable.
It’s not even so much that I’d have been immediately more productive were it not for screen addiction (long term, certainly); my ability to recover had been so compromised by my health, that much of the time I’d simply find myself in stupors, incapable of doing much of anything. It’s in these moments of depletion especially, when having dysfunctional dopaminergic pathways that require hyperstimulation to release dopamine, means we immediately plop ourselves in front of screens – with a big bag of chips at the ready. In hindsight training so hard in that state was the wrong way to go.
This difficulty in recovering appears to be governed by an inability to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, remaining in fight-or-flight mode even during times of rest. This was compromising many areas of my life – I was tense around friends for no good reason, my mood swings were inexplicably severe, libido was low, you name it. The specifics of all the ways I’ve been addressing this can be saved for another time, but fortunately that has all started to dramatically change.
Which brings us to now. The link between high volume, low intensity exercise and enhanced parasympathetic function is crystal clear. Previously, I’ve had all kinds of excuses to not adjust my lifestyle toward spending hours chilling out in nature, moving around and ‘having fun in the sun’. The demands of poker, acute financial stress, or simply the state of rampant inflammation in my body – whatever it was, I’d be chronically so hormonally depleted that trying to ‘just be’ and live happily in the present moment... I might have signed up for an opioid addiction (more on this in the documentary) again if given a direct choice! In a twisted kind of irony, what a sick person often needs to be doing the most can be the thing they feel most incapable of.
Now that the dream is in sight and life has become glorious, I’ve no more excuses. It’s never been more obvious to me that I need to overhaul parts of my lifestyle to replicate more of how I operated as a kid. Mitigating the blue light and electromagnetic field (EMF) risks with screens is one thing, but doing that doesn’t save you from the savage effects of hyperstimulation whenever you use one.
The transition won’t instantly be easy; breaking addiction never is. However, with a sensible process put in place that prioritises balance, it will be more than doable – then as the changes help other areas to keep improving, it will only get easier and feel more and more right.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for screens, and I’m going to be continuing to use them going forward. I’m still going to be watching tennis, occasional TV, and clearly, I’m going to be creating online content. It’s just going to be all about using them productively, as opposed to addictively. Life is all about balance, and mine’s been out of whack for far too long.
In case it’s not quite adding up – why am I suddenly starting to create online content while discussing screen addiction... or mentioning “chilling out” when I surely need to be training all throughout the day to get to the highest level of tennis? Well, my body simply isn’t at the point where I’m capable of that much volume just yet. There’s a bit more groundwork to do to build up that capacity, and improving nervous system balance, and therefore sleep and recovery, has to be a critical focus area right now. I’m envisioning that having a creative outlet like this to work on during downtime could end up being particularly helpful as well.
So then, my New Year’s Resolution is simple: to be outside whenever my time wouldn’t be better spent inside!
Some specific things I’ll aim to implement:
- To eat meals mindfully outside whenever possible.
- To use the computer outside whenever possible (using a long Ethernet cable of course, no WiFi!).
- To do at least one productive thing before looking at a screen every time I re-enter the living room.
- To check social media no more than twice per day, using website blockers if necessary.
- To select very infrequent times to come out of Airplane Mode to check my phone for messages.
- To close tabs and be acutely focused on the task at hand when using a screen, to maximise productivity and experience.
- To choose when to listen to music purposefully, making sure to avoid cumulative overstimulation (Spotify indiscriminately playing during computer use has to stop!).
- To be done with dating apps for good. To focus instead on continued social progress – making more connections with strangers, being more present more often, and investing more time into existing valued relationships.
I can’t tell you how worn out I became over the years by being a “thinker” as opposed to a “feeler”. I couldn’t be more excited for the next chapter.
How about for you, might you have lost the balance between screen time and really living?