Take the decision out: social media

I’ve been working on self-care based around the idea of making fewer decisions or making better-quality decisions or setting boundaries to avoid the conundrum of having to make decisions because I really have a hard time making decisions. First up, I tackle my overly intense relationship with my phone.

My phone

At the beginning of this year I was asked, in a somewhat serious situation, if I had any addictions, to which I answered (in all seriousness): “my phone.” “Fortunately,” I went on, “it died the other day and I don’t have my charger, so I’ve been forced to keep my New Year’s resolution of not checking it first thing in the morning on the very day I’d decided I wasn’t going to check it first thing in the morning anymore.” “And?,” the other person asked. “And,” I said.

This resolution coincided with the one where we cut out Boone’s morning telly watching. I was really dreading that one but we had to do something. The telly watching, which had seemed so convenient, was turning into a problem and a very inconvenient one at that, one where Boone kicks and screams and launches into a never ending chorus of I DON’T WANNA.

My phone, on the other hand, wasn’t a problem. I was just reading. Sure, Joseph would complain about it every once in a while and I knew that time tended to disappear because of it but that was about it. I guffawed at all those posts on social media about “unplugging” because was the irony not lost on anyone in the whole wide Internet that people were using social media to talk about unplugging from it while I was there reading it all and very much plugged into it? Also, since I was just reading, I didn’t see how it was so different from reading, say, a book, and no one has ever said reading a book was bad, have they? At the same time, those tips to not check your phone first thing or to avoid social media until lunchtime sounded like good, even innocuous, ideas, somewhere in the vein of good-for-you notions like drinking eight glasses of water a day or getting eight hours of sleep a night. In other words, totally doable. Besides, my phone checking wasn’t really a problem so it wasn’t going to be difficult to give it up, was it?

So no phone/no telly day rolled around—a Monday, no less. Boone complained a little but then went about eating his cereal peaceably enough. I found that I still wanted to read something so I took down a Joan Didion essay I’d printed out ages ago and read it and enjoyed it and wanted to live in it, in all its New York-ness and its words like “rancidity.” Isn’t this quiet, I said, isn’t this peaceful?

That was Monday, which was before Wednesday happened. It all started with me wanting to go to the toilet by myself (I know, I’m so unreasonable) and devolved into very high-pitched requests from Boone to MAKE THE RAISINS BE CRANBERRIES! MAKE IT STOP RAINING!! MAKE IT BE CHRISTMAS AGAIN!!! My head started pounding and I wanted to do nothing more than turn the telly on, switch Boone off, reach for my phone and scroll through images of other people’s (better) lives.

I completely understand what it’s like to fall in love with your phone.

That was the first thought I had after watching Her last year. My phone and Scarlett Johansson may not have much in common and I definitely can’t have simulated sex with it but it is an escape, a tuning out, my primary numbing activity.

It started when Boone was a baby, when I got my first smartphone. I had already really been into the Internet but now I had it in my hands and could get into it even more. It didn’t take long for the habit to form, what with all the sitting down, breastfeeding. The pretty pictures, the blogs, the endless stream of it all made everything so much more bearable.

I honed the checking-my-phone habit over the next couple of years. When Boone was two, that first smartphone died and I nearly cried. The guy in the phone shop referred to it as “old,” which offended me. It’s only as old as Boone, I wanted to say. He opened it up and in a very straightforward, non-judgemental tone of voice said that there was some “liquid” inside it. This liquid was some brown matter of an unspeakably disgusting nature. I was ashamed. How could I have been so careless with my love? I bought a replacement and it’s the crappest thing I’ve ever owned. I tell it to die, you piece of shit, die, but it refuses, of course, because it’s that crap. However, its inherent crapness is not enough to stop me from checking it very, very frequently.

On that Wednesday, the one where Boone wanted me to make it be Christmas again, I stuck it out. It was tough but we got through it intact, more or less. I’m fairly sure that it was harder for me to not check my phone than it was for Boone, who’s three and not great with the old emotion regulation, not to watch telly. The realisation of this gave me pause for thought.

I ask Joseph what it’s like for him when I check my phone. He says it’s like I’ve invited a whole party of other people into the room.

I don’t need to ask Boone what it’s like for him because he’s already shown me in various ways, the most memorable being the time he poured a cup of water over the gas fire. The fire wasn’t on at the time but the smell of gas seeped out from under our door, out into the hallway, and down the stairs of our apartment block. “I’ll just go through the emergency procedures with you,” are not words you want to hear of a Tuesday afternoon or any afternoon, for that matter.

“But I was just checking my phone,” I want to say.

And then I thought about what it’s like for me when I check my phone and find that I’ve never thought about it before. Then I get defensive and I feel bitter and deprived and accuse Joseph of wanting me to give my phone up for his own selfish reasons. Oh! Hi there some ugly and true signs of addiction.

In O magazine (aka the best magazine ever and also the least suited to my current socioeconomic status), I read that it’s a good idea to think about your bad habits in terms of what problems they are solving. I decide that the problem I was trying to solve was the morning, that is, the very morning-ness of morning. What had started as a comfort, a way to ease myself into the day, had really become the very opposite. As it turns out, avoiding discomfort leads to more discomfort and ultimately, chaos, as there’s nothing like the pain of not attending to your own needs.

The Internet is not the problem—the drug never is—in fact, I think the Internet is great, but it can wait. When I wake in the mornings now, I sit. Literally, I sit. I do nothing. I try to accept the fact that I’m having a hard time, that I’m dealing with a lot, that I’m tired, that I need some quiet. I rarely get quiet, of course, as I live with other people, one of whom wakes up in full conversation/messing mode, but I sit anyway. It’s really, really hard. Later, when I’m up, I sometimes sit with Boone, too, and he rocks his big bone-y bum on my lap and it’s hilarious.

As for my Internet curtailing, I’ve managed to curtail it a lot. The perfectionist in me wants to be able to say that I’ve quit everything, no problem whatsoever, that I’ve filled my life up with soul-satisfying things like yoga and meditation and calm pictures of nature, that mornings are serene. But that’s not how it goes. All the yoga in the world wouldn’t stop Boone from weeing on Joseph’s slippers, for instance, because and I quote, we never got him the brown furry boots (yes, those would be Uggs) he wanted. (Argh! Get us out of southside Dublin now!)

Not reaching for my phone automatically has been a difficult habit to undo but here are is what I’ve managed so far:

Facebook, I’ve finally quit you! But we’re still friends, sort of. I’ve been considering giving up Facebook for years but I always came up against the excuse that it’s so “handy” (the group emails, the links to useful information, all the baaaaaabies). I even thought that it would be mean of me not to be there, “keeping in touch” with people by liking their links and statuses. On top of that, there were the usual fears of FOMO and YOLO and the fact that I could be LMAO but honestly, I haven’t really enjoyed it since 2008. And there are other ways to keep in touch with people. I deleted the app off my phone a few weeks ago and haven’t missed it at all. Well, maybe just a tiny bit. (Can you send me pictures of your babies, please?) I’m still too chicken to break it off entirely, so I’ve told Facebook to email me if there’s anything important I’ve missed. Naturally, Facebook and I differ on what we consider “important” but it’s better than me checking it all the time.

I’ve also deleted Pinterest. Instead, I take pretty-picture breaks when I’m doing computer work. I may or may not be moving the distraction/procrastination around a bit but it’s a lot less convenient to check something on the computer than it is my phone. I consider it a win.

Instagram is still my favourite (because, Humans of New York), so I’m keeping that one. I try to only check it and my newly edited list of blogs during Boone telly time in the afternoon. We also have free-for-all Saturday mornings when all the electronic devices are on. It feels nice and indulgent, like a treat.

DSC06679

I slip up on these rules all the time. I get sneaky. But one of the other resolutions I made this year was to be a friend to me. A lot of the time, I’m left swinging on a perch with all of this. When you give up a habit, even if it’s bad for you, there’s a time when you miss it because all your usual ways of coping are gone and you have to develop new, better habits, which take time, or else you have to do the really hard thing, the only thing you can do, which is to sit. And so, I sit.

A few things that have helped:

Some mindful internet reading here

I borrowed the term numbing activity from Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly

 An appropriate song for the morning

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California reminiscin’

California

“Scrappy Cali” by Daniel Patrick Simmons via A Well Traveled Woman

I debated whether it was really a good idea for me to read a memoir in which the author’s mother is diagnosed with lung cancer and then dies seven weeks later. Curiosity got the better of me, though; I wanted to read about someone else’s grief and to see how they got through it. So, this is how I came to read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a book about a young woman who, at a very low point in her life, takes off on an 1,100 mile hike through the wilderness.

I say I read it but really I inhaled it. Of course, there were parts where I had to pinch my nose and hold my breath, like the part where she described her mother’s illness and death, or the part where she described killing her mother’s horse, but overall, I really enjoyed it, not least because I got to live out the fantasy of getting away from it all and doing the work of life some place—any place—but here. That some place being California.

Since I had set out to read the book to see how someone goes about healing, I was completely taken by surprise when I was hit by a wave of nostalgia for California and the one and only time I’ve ever been camping. That’s right, the one and only time I’ve ever been camping was in California. On top of that, I was with a tour group, in a well-appointed campsite that had toilets and showers and electricity and only the faint possibility of bears roaming around at night. It was classified as camping, but only because we slept on warm, dry ground in tents, tents which I’m fairly sure that had been pitched for us.

Before going on this camping trip, I hadn’t fully realised that I was in California. Cocooned in fog and cool temperatures in San Francisco all summer, it didn’t feel that different from Ireland, but once we were outside the city limits the landscape changed to a thin line of reddish-brown ground and a very big sky filled with blue and heat. During the day, we were bussed around to places that were famous in the American psyche, but not in ours. I remember Alice being completely nonplussed by the scenery—all jutting grey rock towering above us—because “meh, we have better at home.”

On one of our days out to Yosemite, I saw backpackers, thin, miserable-looking backpackers, carrying enormous backpacks. It occurred to me that they were on some sort of trail, like the one I’ve just read about, hiking from place to place and setting up camp at each stop. I wanted to ask them why but thought better of it. I think I know better now.

We were a raggle-taggle group, if ever there was one. There was the three of us, young Irish girls on our J1 visas, a handful of hostel types including “there’s always one” guy who never got back to the bus the same time as everyone else, a couple where the man seemed intent on ticking sights off on the list in his head, even sights like Sequoia trees, and then there was another older couple where the man insisted on calling his wife, even when we were in the close quarters of the well-appointed campsite, by imitating the whistle of some bird or other. And there was the tour guide (I think I’ll call him Greg), who in my mind’s eye resembles the boy with blonde dreadlocks that Lisa Simspon was mad about one time. He was definitely very blonde and very tanned and did terribly romantic things like squeeze lime juice on chicken before adding it to curry. Lime juice! What finesse. How exotic, how gourmet.

The last night of the trip was going to be the night, or so I thought, but for some reason, Greg had to go back to San Francisco. In his place, a female tour guide materialised, along with a blender, because we were going to have margaritas, whoo! We all got too drunk, too fast. At least one person puked and I got cranky and told someone to shut up because I think they were trying to get me to speak French, which was a sore point as I was about to go to France for a year and couldn’t really speak French. Everything went a bit sour and then it was the end of the summer, time to go home, which I didn’t want to do, time to go onto France, which I didn’t want to do, time to leave San Francisco, which I didn’t want to do but I didn’t want to stay, either.

A while back, Joseph and I were knocking around the idea of moving back to America. “California,” I said, “wouldn’t that be nice?” I said this, knowing I should be more careful because that summer in San Francisco, I started thinking that it would be really cool to go to New Orleans. A year later, I celebrated my twenty-first birthday in New Orleans. I remember getting a hurricane and asking Alex what was in it and him saying “I dunno, but it’ll fuck you up!” It must have because I can’t remember too much else of my twenty-first birthday, my memories as hazy as the New Orleans streets.

Sometimes I wish I were 21 again, so that I could do all the things I feel like doing right now: getting away, getting off my face, getting out of here. None of those things are really an option, so I have to stay here, in real life, putting one foot in front of the other anyhow.

“I lay down in the mother ash dirt among the crocuses and told her it was okay. That I’d surrendered. That since she died, everything had changed. Things she couldn’t have imagined and wouldn’t have guessed. My words came out low and steadfast. I was so sad it felt as if someone were choking me, and yet it seemed my whole life depended on my getting those words out. She would always be my mother, I told her, but I had to go. She wasn’t there for me in that flowerbed anymore anyway, I explained. I’d put her somewhere else. The only place I could reach her. In me.”—Cheryl Strayed, Wild

And because I can’t resist, a little Joni