With Yoda strapped to his back, Luke climbs up one of the many thick vines that grow in the swamp. Panting heavily, he continues his course – climbing, flipping through the air, jumping over roots, and racing in and out of the heavy ground fog.
YODA: Run! Yes. A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger… fear… aggression. The dark side of the Force are they.
Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.
LUKE: Vader. Is the dark side stronger?
YODA: No… no… no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.
LUKE: But how am I to know the good side from the bad?
YODA: You will know. When you are calm, at peace. Passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.
LUKE: But tell me why I can’t…
YODA (interrupting): No, no, there is no why. Nothing more will I teach you today. Clear your mind of questions. Mmm. Mmmmmmmm.(From The Empire Strikes Back - Lucasfilm Inc.)
I am sitting in my office now. It is after 7 PM and my day of seeing patients has ended. It is a hard time of year for primary care – flu season is on us with a vengeance and we are packing in patients in record numbers. I finally am getting a moment of peace and to take a deep breath. My shoulders ache and my desk is a mess. The soft constant white-noise from the air conditioner is the only sound around me other than the clicking of my fingers on the keyboard.
I have meant to write this post for a while, but circumstance and obligations have kept me from having the time. This requires much more of me than most of my posts, which I can whip out fairly fast. The gravity of my experience and emotion are too great for me to do this without a lot of thought (and even more editing). My belief is that many other bloggers have/are experiencing the same experience I went through. Perhaps my observations in retrospect can help them.
My Blogging Experience
Blogging has been a great experience for me. I have really opened up a side of me that I never really knew. To create something worth reading from my daily life, or from wild ideas, has been a wonderfully visceral experience. It is even hard for me to accurately describe what it is like. Perhaps it is how a woman feels when she brings forth a child. Perhaps it is how an artist feels at an easel; I am just glad to have had this experience.
A joy like this, however, always carries with it the potential for harm. Most good things can become destructive if the desire turns to obsession. When life is hard in other areas, it is easy to escape to a world one creates without the difficulties of real life. My life took many difficult turns over the past six months, and so I turned more and more to my blog as my comfort and my therapy.
At first, I felt like this was not a bad thing; I had many friendships online and was not doing things that were themselves bad. I was entertaining and informing others while developing new skills of my own. Yet I found that my pleasure from blogging became an obsession. My blog started consuming more and more of my time, taking me away from responsibilities and letting me hide from situations that needed to be addressed.
This brings to mind a quote from C.S. Lewis’s Book, Perelandra. In the book, Ransom, the main character, is on another planet where he finds an amazing water-fruit and moves to eat…
After a moment’s hesitation he put the little aperture to his lips. he had meant to extract the smallest, experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger. But then it was so different from every other taste that it seemed mere pedantry to call it a taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant…. As he let the empty gourd fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. And yet to repeat a pleasure so intense and almost so spiritual seemed an obvious thing to do. His reason, or what we commonly take to be reason in our own world, was all in favour of tasting this miracle again. Yet something seemed opposed to this ‘reason’. It is difficult to suppose that this opposition came from desire, for what desire would turn from so much deliciousness? But for whatever cause it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.
The pleasure itself was overwhelming, yet his immediate desire was to relive that pleasure and not simply enjoy it for what it was. I found the same to be true with my blog. I got real joy out of writing and having others enjoy it. Yet success did not breed contentment on my part, it bred a more intense desire to repeat the pleasure. This obsession began to accurately parallel other kinds of addictions (alcohol, gambling, eating), where the escapes became problems in themselves, creating more trouble in life and hence more need to escape. The more I struggled in my real life, the more I blogged (or spent reading others); and the more time I spent away from real life blogging, the worse real life got.
The anatomy of obsession
The blogging experience was no longer about writing, but instead about doing the right things to get people to read my blog. There were a number of things that give examples of this:
- I became obsessed with checking my site-meter. I spent nearly as much time checking my traffic – looking at graphs, where people came from, what they read – as I spent writing and reading.
- I got multiple applications to measure my traffic and checked them all regularly. Perhaps the most addictive application was the "Live" widget on WordPress where you can watch people coming to your blog in real time. I would sit and watch this for hours sometimes. (Seems kind of pathetic to me at this point).
- Whenever I wrote what I thought was a "good" post, I obsessively checked for comments on it. I would check numerous times throughout the day (sometimes multiple times per hour) to see what comments or links I had gotten.
- My mood was often tied to how people responded. I was depressed when I thought I had written a good post but got few responses. On the other hand, I was elated when I was praised or quoted in other blogs.
- I spent many evenings at home with my laptop on my lap, either looking for pictures for a post, writing the post, or looking for others quoting my posts.
Success was my worst enemy. The more people liked my blog, the more I obsessed on the attention. Being quoted in the NY times, or being on the "Power Eight" of Kevin, MD, became important to me as I composed posts. I was no longer posting for the pleasure, but was under great pressure to maintain my readers’ visiting my site.
The Light of day
When life fell down around me in the early days of November, my initial response was to run even more to blogging. But wise people around me told me what my heart was telling me: I needed a break. Blogging had become a dangerous escape for me and needed to be put on the shelf for a while. I have since slowly began to post again – with significant limits on time spent and obsessive behaviors.
I am not saying this all to put down blogging. I have found too much good in it to be able to leave it behind. Even those most effected by my obsessive blogging see it as something too positive for me to abandon (although I must admit, I was willing to drop it all if I had to – it never came to this).
It is my hope that my experience will serve as a warning to some and an encouragement to others. Let those who are as drawn to the opium of public praise as I am be warned that it is a cup that is impossible to fill. The joy comes in the writing and the friendships, not in the acclaim and praise. Spend as little time thinking about the responses of others as possible and write for yourself.
To those who are in the trap I was in, I offer encouragement. My problem was much deeper than blogging addiction, it was some deep insecurities that made me a prime target for this kind of addiction. I did not overcome things by simply walking away from blogging; I walked away from all of my escapes for a while. Initially I felt like I had my life ripped from me – as I spent most of my free time in these escapes. Eventually, however, I found that I could once again find myself as a person, apart from those things I ran to for comfort. I am who I am when I am not blogging. It is me that comes to write the blog; I am not defined by my blogging. This may seem ridiculous to those who have not been through it, but it is really easy for some of us to lose ourselves in the doing of life. We no longer live, we do things. I am very thankful to be once again living.
Where to from here?
The irony of this post is that I am aware it may, in its candor and relevance, get a lot of comments and attention. I cannot say I wouldn’t be disappointed if this did not happen. Yet I have always valued honesty in my blogging and feel I must share on such a crucial topic. Nobody is perfect, and my awareness of my own imperfections are what make me a good husband, father, doctor, and friend. I consider many of my readers to be among my friends, and so I hope this helps you understand the last few months a little better.
I am not certain exactly how often I will post on my blog from here on in. I don’t see myself going at the torrid pace I once had. The minute I see myself going back into my obsessive patterns, I will once again back off. I will still check for links and quotes from others, but will try not to obsess on them.
Part of the appeal of medical bloggers is the fact that you can see what goes on in the mind of medical professionals. What is it really like to be a doctor in the exam room, the operating room, or the ER? One of the things I have often said to my patients is, "One of the best things about being a doctor is that you get to see that everyone else is as messed-up as you are." I get no illusions of the perfection of those around me. Medical blogging should be the opportunity to turn the window around. You get to see into our lives and see that we are just as messed up as you are. Is it scary? Probably a little. But it is reality that none can escape – we are all on this ride together. We are all a little dumb, a little blind, a little bad, and a little confused (some would argue "a lot"). But we are far better to be that way together.
Let’s just try to stay out of the dark.This material, written by me, is free to re-post and share under the Creative Commons agreement. In other words, use it all you want; just give me credit.