It was the election that started it. I was starting to feel physically ill from clicking on every article that appeared in my Facebook newsfeed, from my pre-post-during debate night anxiety, from the virtual arguments I saw cropping up in comment threads, and from my own fear for our country. I couldn’t look away, and felt compelled to saturate myself in news due to a combination of social responsibility, anxiety, and morbid curiosity. I was insatiable in the face of the political stories. Until I was full. Over full, actually.
A friend of a friend commented on Facebook that she was giving herself a break, her nerves couldn’t handle it anymore. I explained my own polarizing conundrum of being drawn to the coverage, commentary, and yes, even drawn to my own rage response when presented with some offensive meme that was circulating, balanced against my need to cocoon myself from all of it. But her words got me thinking.
I told my husband a week ago Friday, “I’m thinking of taking a social media break this weekend. I need to detox. Maybe I won’t check my email either. I just can’t take it. The election and my stress response is making me literally ill (I use the term correctly; I have the sinus infection to prove it).”
He said, “You should. Do it.” I think he may have been challenging me a bit; it’s possible that I’ve been accused of being overly distracted by my iPhone in the past. I plead the 5th.
And I did it. I admit that while I was reading a novel in bed, my fingers twitched reflexively to check my email, which was up to 65, and my Facebook notifications, approaching 30. But I didn’t check them. In fact, I felt nothing by overwhelming relief as I whispered to myself, “You don’t have to check it. You’re off the hook. It can wait.”
It was Such. A. Relief. I knew if anybody desperately needed to get ahold of me, they could text and I would see it, or they could go really old school and actually call me. But I didn’t have to be accountable to every email (which, 75% of the time was junk. Note to self: Take half an hour and unsubscribe to EVERYTHING.) and I certainly didn’t need to be slave to the ping of another notification that an acquaintance I’ve never actually met just posted in one of my dozens of Facebook groups.
The most noteworthy observation that struck me during the weekend was my mindless compulsion to “check in”: it struck me sometimes every few hours, but if my phone was in sight, sometimes every few minutes. And why?
It’s the same habitual programming that drives us to believe that a stoplight is the perfect opportunity to glance at our phones, to see what we’ve missed, to take an opportunity to accomplish something. It’s ridiculous. It’s unhealthy, and sometimes unsafe. And I do it All. The. Time.
What am I missing? my mind chirps automatically. It can wait, I reply patiently. After the second day, and even more so by the second weekend, I look at my phone and feel only a sense of relief, knowing that I’m not obligated to check it. Not even if an actual person sent me an email of relative importance. Not even if I’m missing out on people liking my Facebook post from Friday morning. Not even, perhaps most importantly, if there’s been another bombshell of Donald Trump’s horrifying behavior. It can wait. It can wait. It can wait.
I enjoyed my kids more, it’s true. (Except when they were acting like asshats.) I have never and will never judge the mom at the playground on her iPhone, because we all need that permission to zone out and not nod and respond and clap and cheer on our children’s every freaking movement, story, joke, acrobatic feat. But because we, or at least I, have become so addicted to being plugged in, permission to do the opposite has become the ultimate gift to myself. Plugging in to escape parenting is its own sweet reward, but unplugging to escape digital saturation brings a different sense of decadence. Being present has become the exception, not the rule. And that isn’t okay with me. I don’t want to do it anymore.
We are too accountable, too accessible. We think it is our duty to respond to an inquiry rightthisfuckingsecond, lest we make someone wait ten minutes, an hour, two days, for our ever-important reply or reaction. Or maybe not everyone is like this, perhaps not everyone has succumbed, or perhaps others cope in a healthier way. As a highly sensitive person, I live in an extra-permeable membrane, and it takes work and mindfulness to keep my living space (my head) clear and healthy. The reality of my constant divided attention is concerning, and the mind-numbing compulsion to check my notifications, to restore them all to a calming, tidy baseline of ZERO is powerful and all-consuming. For two days a week, it can wait.
I would like to think I will never go back to plugged-in weekends. That the weekend detox is my new and forever gift to myself. That for two days a week, I don’t know or care where my phone is, I haven’t read the latest election commentary by my favorite online publication, and I’m not on the hook to answer anybody’s questions. (Maybe I can even try a 2-hour weekday evening detox!) I’m not feeding my FOMO beast. I am just being. I can breathe more fully, more slowly. It takes longer to drink my coffee, and when I have nothing to do, I pick up a book, listen to music, or talk to my husband. I look into my children’s eyes. I come back to my body from the hyper-charged, always activated place in my brain where I am so busy thinking that I forget how to love people. It’s so nice to be back.