I am a grown-ass adult, and I need my digital pacifier.

I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be bored. To do nothing. To stare into the void and daydream.

Instead, I reach for my pacifier. It’s always got something to distract me.

  • News (always outrageous, always apocalyptic).
  • Notifications (someone’s thinking of me, someone likes me — they really do, even after eight months of isolation).
  • Emails (make feel important because I get emails at all hours and check these work emails at all hours for I am an important boss who works hard - aka has no boundaries or work/life balance)
  • Social media (the rabbit hole of entertainment is endless, the algorithm knows me better than my off switch, I keep scrolling…and scrolling…and scrolling until my eyes see red).

It’s all input-input-input to stop my brain from stopping and settling and having to feel the uneasy, human-crushing terror I’ve bottled up since the coronavirus bottled me up in March — inside my loneliness, my uncertainty, my hopelessness.

So I pick up my pacifier, and I order Seamless.

I eat my food too quickly while scrolling another article on Politico.com about all the ways the election could be contested. I don’t taste a thing. Somewhere, dopamine receptors are firing in my brain, but all I sense is a sort of white noise; a fifteen-minute respite from wondering what I’m supposed to do with myself.

When I get to work, I work like a man possessed. Like I’ve got five minutes left to live. A task to do! A creative project come my way! Even balancing my Quickbooks! I complete the task, fire off the email, and stare at my inbox waiting for a reply. Lord help me now that I have Streak installed in my Gmail — watching to see when my email has been opened by the recipient — another layer of input to serve whatever digital attention-deficit demon I’m trying to appease. I keep at this grindstone until I’m at inbox zero and then…I wait…and start to worry…and check my devices for anything new.

My Weekly Screen Time pops up with alarming statistics. It’s one of the only notifications I have turned on these days. Turning off notifications didn't stop me automatically bouncing through my apps every thirty minutes or so just to see if there was a chance there might be a notification waiting for me. I still check my apps even if they no longer check me.

There’s a word for all this. I think about it as I unwrap a Nicorette.

What am I going to do with myself (let alone what are we all going to do as an entire generation hooked on our devices like this)? I remember the sweet days of the 2000s when the worst distraction my cell phone offered was a game of Snake (length of entertainment: five minutes max). I fantasize about living in the different eras I read or watch on television not because I could stand those backwards times but simply because people then did not have the Internet or Social Media. I feel my generation was the last to even remember what it was like to grow up without them.

That didn’t stop me from becoming absolutely addicted. I watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix the other day and wanted to throw up. These tech companies got me. They hooked me good.

None of what I am writing is original or hasn’t already been said by smarter people. Everyone knows this is bad for us and is happening on a wide-scale level of addiction never seen in human history —rewiring our neurology faster than anything human brains have ever encountered.

So, why aren’t we all terrified that we are losing our grip on our attention spans?

I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I just went to the bathroom in peace, without swiping on dating profiles while performing bodily functions. No wonder I’m single.

I tattooed the words “Go” and “Slow” on each foot after my third year at Burning Man in 2010. I remember the commitment I felt to that phrase when I made it. Though, I should add I was tipsy when I got the tattoo and insisted it be inscribed from the perspective of someone looking at my feet — so the viewer would read it as “Go Slow.” From my perspective, it reads, “Slow Go.” Maybe that’s why it never stuck in my psyche.

I can’t keep living each moment reaching for my pacifier.

I’ve given in to various form of abstinence as solutions to problems over quarantine. First it was booze: when I realized that drinking whenever I felt like it (as if we were on 24/7 “airport time”) wasn’t going to help with my sanity or the Corona-19 pounds I was putting on, I decided to make my apartment dry. If I wanted a beer or a bottle of wine, I’d go out buy one — and one only. Otherwise, no booze in the house. Temptation out of sight — out of mind.

I tried to make a rule when it came to sharing things on social media: I wouldn’t check how many likes a post got for 24 hours after sharing it. No matter how desperately I wanted to gage the engagement, I would try to hold off. How sick is it that I’ve tied my self-worth to how much an AI shows my thoughts to other distracted friends who squeeze a button to say they approve. How quaint.

I set my phone out of reach of my bed at night so I wouldn’t be tempted once the weighted blanket locked me in for slumber. This has done wonders for the limited number of hours I can manage to sleep when I’m not waking from nightmares of democracy crumbling or my business collapsing or civil war or just my standard dream of shitting my pants on an airplane.

I’ve gone on walks without my cell phone, just my dog leading the way. I’ve tried to notice things about my neighborhood that escaped my attention before — hidden graffiti and unique brick layering and crown molding or whatever it’s called. I slip into an awestruck state of mind until I get home and see Trump called again for Obama to be locked up and that there’s three new Fleetwood Mac “Dreams” montages on Tik Tok.

The only silver lining is that I don’t engage in these behaviors as much when I’m around friends or on dates or enjoying the company of others. My parents taught me was it rude. Maybe manners will save me at the end of the day.

But, when I’m alone, short of pulling the plug on my ISP or turning off all my devices or deleting my apps, I don’t know what will help.

In a way, Burning Man used to offer me a digital reset around this time of year. Because there used to be no internet connectivity (4G unfortunately even made its way to Burning Man last time I was there), it was a place to escape this digital hell. But the philosophy of Burning Man was also temporal — it was about using the escape to commit to new values you could bring back to the real world. Not like tattooing “Slow Go” on your feet and then never following that ‘mantra.’

I have tried meditation, of course. It’s very hard for me, and I’m always glad I did it — for 10 minutes before my brain revs back up to Operation Distraction.

We are what we practice. I have practiced inordinate amounts of daily, distracted thinking and hyperactive behavior. Twenty years of this has weakened my ability to stand still and just be. I probably have less attention span now than when I was ten-years-old. That terrifies me.

I have a memory of my mom multi-tasking when we watched family movies. As a ten-year-old kid, I remember getting very angry one night when we were watching Home Alone 2. “Mom!” I said, “This is movie time! It is not laundry time. We are watching Kevin and the Bird Lady!” My mom just sighed and kept folding the laundry.

Now, I can’t even sit through streaming a movie in my apartment alone. I pause it every forty-five minutes or so because I sense inevitably there is something to check, some potential notification out there in the ether, even when I find out there was nothing to check. It’s like an Instagram Pomodoro timer goes off inside me.

My only solace is that literally everyone I know is struggling with these problems. That the people who created these systems designed to addict us and keep us coming back for more are just as entrapped as we are.

I want to regain control over myself so I can enjoy the connection and fun that Social Media provides while keeping that beast in its cage. I want my sanity and self-respect and ability to do nothing back. I want to feel like my world isn’t going to cave in if I don’t refresh every 15 minutes.

And, I’m scared — because the hallmark of being an addict is when the addiction is stronger than you.

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Written by

Performer, storyteller, teacher - living in NYC and traveling worldwide (www.philipmarkle.com). Artistic Director of The Brooklyn Comedy Collective.

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