Recently assigned to write on the topic of “self medicating”, I immediately thought of my most obvious go tos: food and booze. As I was pondering this theme in February, otherwise known as mile 22 of the marathon that is the Chicago winter, I was probably actively shovelling potatoes in my face with one hand while guzzling bourbon with the other. But as I generally only use carbs and liquor to cope with my cold weather blues and winter is allegedly over, I decided to discuss some self medicating I do every day of the year. I wake up doing it, I do it throughout the day, I go to sleep doing it. I’m talking about my electronic pacifier, my iPhone 7. My phone is the first thing I look at when I wake up, which I’d say falls under the category of “normal”. I mean, it is an alarm clock, so that’s legit. But even when I don’t have the alarm feature in play, I rarely get out of bed before reviewing my texts, my emails, my virtual communities. I then proceed to consult with the phone ALL DAY LONG...when I’m in line at the grocery store, when I’m at work, when I’m on the train, when I get in bed at night. I sleep with the phone either next to me on a nightstand or sometimes in the bed with me. When I can’t sleep I look to the interwebs to keep me company. When I’ve been in relationships where there are sleepovers, I’ve had to tell myself repeatedly “DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR PHONE” when I wake up in the middle of the night, as I fear not only the light waking the other person up, but the concept that perhaps looking at one’s phone during the sleeping hours is wading dangerously close to deal breakingly weird behavior.
I have no shame in discussing my phone habits as it appears most of us have some degree of addiction as well. I don’t feel like a freak admitting these details, but I recognize I use the phone as an escape all too often. The device offers me a sort of dual citizenship; a loose commitment to the people I’m interacting with electronically combined with being blissfully unaware of what’s happening right in front of me. My brain seems to be most comfortable having one foot in these two worlds, because this straddle prevents from being fully conscious of the boring, irritating and truly awful parts of being alive these days. I’m convinced there’s always a possibility of a dopamine hit if I look at the phone enough times...an amusing text, an email with good news, a compelling post, or being the first to know something particularly juicy. In tandem with bill paying, news alerts, shopping, sexting, selfies, counting steps, mapping directions, and reminders about my obligations, I’m not sure when the phone became the pocket headquarters for my every waking move. What happened to the days when I’d just use it for basic shit like “Hey, I’m almost there” and “Great, I’m on my way”?
I decide to commit to a 100% phone free experience for a limited amount of time. I’d already booked a 35 hour train ride on the Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles and I vow I will not use the phone at all during the ride.
To get an idea of how much I was agreeing to part with, I download Moment, an app that tracks your phone use. I get a blaring “BOOP BOOP BOOP’ in the mid afternoon indicating I’ve been on it for 3 hours that day. More BOOP at 4 hours, and again at 5 hours of use. I stop 3 minutes short of 6 hours, mostly as I can’t handle any more alarm shaming. My usage is above average, with most people falling in the 3 to 5 hours a day range. Moment tells me I’ve checked my phone 50 times that day, which strikes me as a lot, but teens and millennials on average check their phones between 75 and 200 times a day. I suddenly regret I didn’t choose to write this piece about alcohol.
While I wait to board the train in Seattle, I madly look at every website known to man, I pay every bill, I text everyone goodbye, I consume data as if I’m going off to war and I may never communicate with the outside world ever again. I find my sleeper car cabin and dramatically slide the iPhone power screen to OFF. Let the head games begin.
My roommette onboard is 3 and a half feet wide by 6 and a half feet high with two seats that face each other that recline into a bed as well as a bed that folds down from the ceiling. It’s snug but totally serviceable. I settle in as the train pulls away from Seattle and I take in the scenery. There’s a certain gloomy charm to this part of the Pacific Northwest...the landscape mostly comprised of farmland, abandoned trucks, dead trees, cemeteries, bridges, and shabby seaside motels. Although I appreciate the grey quiet of the rural sprawl, I’m still hungry for mental static. I stare until my eyes are tired, maybe 25 minutes, but my brain remains restless. It wants more action. It wants CNN and Instagram and maps and that perfect song on YouTube and texting about what’s up. I fold down the top bunk and crawl in, convinced I maybe just need darkness and a nap. I lay there stressed out that I shouldn’t just cop out and sleep through this experience. I shift to stressing out that I’m not strapped into the safety net they advise while sleeping on this upper bunk, but then I think what a dramatic turn this story would take if I inadvertently rolled off and crashed from a six foot drop. I then get up and frantically rearrange my personal effects to make the tiny space more optimally efficient. I pause to take in the fact that my brain is being a hyperactive asshole, like a 4 year old throwing a temper tantrum that it’s been denied a cookie. Sorry, brain. No electronic cookies for you. You can read, you can write, you can sleep, you can wander the train, you can look out the window. It’s only 2 days. That’s the deal.
Reading, sleeping, and wandering are usually some of my favorite activities, but my head still is anxious and cranky for more stimulation. When you give the 4 year old that runs your mind permission to look in the cookie jar 50 times a day, it doesn’t go quietly when it gets cut off. I have a hundred patient pep talks with myself over the next handful of hours, and as we pass through Eugene, Oregon, I’m finally able to look out the window and have my mind go blank for considerable chunks of time. This void feels like a zen flavored miracle.
I head to the dining car at my designated mealtime, dreading Amtrak’s communal seating policy. My inner 4 year old and I do not want to meet new people right now. I’m seated with a tired looking but pleasant suburban mom named Cathy and her 14 year old son Dylan. Cathy tells me they’re headed to Los Angeles to visit her father who she hasn’t talked to in over 20 years. Cathy hasn’t told her father they’re coming, she thinks it will be fun to surprise him in hopes he’ll want to meet his grandson for the first time and accompany them to Disneyland. This strikes me as a terrible plan, but I tell her it sounds great, because I’m not going. Cathy then tells me she has confiscated all of Dylan’s devices for the trip, because she wants him to enjoy and remember the experience. “I’m a mean mom.” she tells me. “Right, Dylan?” Dylan is all dark bangs and surly pouts as he replies, “It totally sucks, man.” He finds a jelly jar filled with colored pencils and begins to sketch an elaborate outer space depiction complete with dancing robots on our paper table cloth. Dylan instantly becomes my technology detox spirit guide.
After dinner I am sure I will miss my phone the most as it’s too dark to see outside. I’m surprised when I crawl in bed and immediately fall asleep, perhaps because my brain isn’t all hopped up from blue light exposure and it’s exhausted from being a whiny petulant bitch all day.
I wake up with the sunrise around 6 am as we pull into Sacramento. This is typically when I’d use the phone to read the news, check in with friends, and tinker with my work schedule. Without that ritual, I fall back asleep until we reach San Francisco. After some coffee, I commit to taking a few notes for this story and I end up writing for hours. I write ideas for this story, for other stories, for writing prompts...copious pages of notes, mostly hot garbage, but who cares? I cannot write fast enough to keep up with my thought process. It’s as if that blank space I usually fill with mindless phone jabber was repopulated with freshly minted possibility. It’s an eye opening victory for my creative side, which has been pretty dormant these days.
I celebrate with a stroll to the bar car for a beer. I end up conversing a Charles Manson look alike who tries to tell me all women are “high maintenance and predictable” and I probably take up two parking spaces when I drive my Lexus to Whole Foods. I reply, “Dude, I don’t even own a car. I certainly have some time to kill, but not with this bullshit.” Who needs the trolls of Twitter when you can slay misogynist dragons in real life?
As the day winds down, the train makes its way through California’s central coast region, through Salinas, Pasos Robles, San Luis Obispo. As we make our way south towards Santa Barbara and the view for hundreds of miles is unspoiled beach and the steel grey blue of the Pacific, I cannot stop staring at it all. Combined with the Santa Ynez mountains and the oak, lilac and manzanita trees, I am glued to the window by its postcard worthy perfection. I’m so glad I’m not missing a minute of this crafting a witty Facebook post, or trying to take a photo that wouldn’t do it justice, or scouring the web for latest about Stormy Daniels. I just absorb without question and note my brain is officially in time out, content to be at rest.
About 20 minutes from the end of the line, I turn my phone back on. I have a handful of emails, texts, and notifications, all of which are not urgent and can be returned another time. I send a text to an old friend who lives near Los Angeles’ Union Station, a friend who is waiting to pick me up. “Hey, I’m almost there”, I tell him. “Great”, he texts back. “I’m on my way.”