As those of you who’ve kept up with my writing on this site may be aware, I spent a stint in rehab last year. I’d recommend the experience to anyone who knows they have a problem (and has the health insurance to cover it), and I’d like to think that I picked up a lot of tools and skills for how to manage my life during my month long stay. That said, even after successful treatment every addict still has a hornet’s nest of questions buzzing around in their life. Questions like, “what’ll happen if I relapse again?” Or, “will my friends and family forgive me for everything I’ve put them through?” On down the line we challenge ourselves with these worries and regrets, finally arriving at the ultimate quandary, the lynchpin of our recovery: “will I still have time to play Fallout as much as I want to?”
Not a problem you’ve ever given serious thought to after a major life change? Then you may not be Ben Kuchera, senior editor at Polygon and author of the descriptively titled thinkpiece Ambien Is a Wonder Drug That’s Killing My Gaming Habit: How a Busy Father of Five is Sleeping Better, and Why That Sucks.
In fairness the headline is more grating than the piece itself, but just barely. Kuchera describes how when he was a younger man he was able to get by on less sleep, and thus had more time to consume media and write, but at a cost to his productivity and mental wellbeing. Since going on Ambien he has had better sleep and become a happier, healthier man, but he has also had less time to play video games and watch TV. He describes this tradeoff as, I am not kidding, a “devil’s bargain,” and proceeds to describe the hole in his life that has been created by not getting to read all the comics he wants to.
You may be wondering why I’ve drawn a parallel between recovering from an addiction and complaining that being a functional adult leaves less time for Mario Kart. I do this because I recognize what it looks like when someone is afraid of losing what they believe to be key parts of their lives for childish, nonsense reasons. During my drinking I spent most of my free evenings swigging five dollar vodka and watching clips of Tables+Ladders+Chairs wrestling matches on Youtube. Every drunk thinks the life they live is the best and only option available to them, yet even after I had thoroughly detoxed in rehab and my mind was becoming clearer, I still wondered how I was going to have fun if I couldn’t drink, as though blearily watching Game Grumps while wondering how many benzos it would take to let me sleep for 15 hours was the pinnacle of human ecstasy.
Kuchera’s behavior is not addictive in this exact sense, but it’s similar in that he has hitched his identity to a vacuous pastime simply because it is familiar. Remember, he has admitted that his current lifestyle is superior and that he enjoys it more than what he was doing before, and yet he still thinks of it as a trade-off, not a gain: he describes his lifestyle adjustments as “banking my time as an investment in hopes of getting more of it when I’m older.” I’ve never seen a grown man talk about being more productive in such grudging terms, certainly not when the investment in question is “less Xbox.”
I want to make it clear that I’m not coming out swinging against video games; what I am cautioning against is mistaking enjoyment for identity.
We have this pernicious notion in our culture that having fun is the same thing as being happy. If it’s not making you money, and it’s not something that gives you an immediate serotonin kick, it’s to be avoided as a waste of time. This is how someone like Kuchera can wake up “feeling like a million bucks” as opposed to spending his days bitter and exhausted, and still believe that he has made a compromise. There’s nothing “fun” about sleep, or ease of mind. There’s nothing “fun” about sobriety, for that matter. But only an addict in the thick of their delusion will tell you that the alternative is preferable.
There’s a thing I hear at a lot of my AA meetings that I’ve been trying to become better at internalizing. Often someone will speak up about how lately they’ve been cranky about their obligations, like driving their kids to baseball practice or having to clean up the backyard, n.b. things they didn’t care about doing when they were drunk. Then they say: I must remember that I don’t have to do these things, I get to do these things. I get to be a productive, healthy member of society, I get to follow through on my promises. When I was drinking, I could not. I did not have the choice.
The hard, simple truth is that not everything you like doing is necessary to make your life whole, and not every enjoyable activity you cut off in order to reach your goals amounts to a sacrifice. If you have to lose video game time so you can like your life more, you didn’t actually lose anything in the first place. Your soul will not wither without an abundance of easy comforts; in fact, the more of these comforts you can excise from your life, the more you can look at and say “I like who I am without this,” the happier you will most likely find yourself.
When I was drinking, I wouldn’t have been able to decide if I wanted to write this essay and send it to Nick or if I wanted to watch the video for “We Built This City” for the umpteenth time because I would not have had the energy or focus to do anything that required such effort from me. If you ever find yourself in Kuchera’s shoes, grumbling that your efforts at self-improvement have sliced time away from doing the things you like, please remember that the conscious choice to self-improve is something not everyone is blessed with. Growth is natural, change is good, and every moment you spend a healthy, happy human being is one more of those moments you didn’t have before. Try not to worry so much about whether or not that moment happened to be spent in Skyrim.
Christopher M. Jones once wrote a comic about dogs people liked a bunch. He ostensibly does other things too. You should follow him on Twitter.