No phone service, no wifi, staying alone in a tiny cabin in rural Ireland—I was about as “off the grid” as you can get these days. On the one hand, it sounds idyllic: a lovely retreat from the pressures of modern life. But during that retreat I discovered an addiction to technology and social media that I didn’t think I had.
I was able to look back on nearly three dozen pages in my journal, and I discovered that my reaction to the loss of technology largely followed the classic Kubler-Ross stages of grief. Let me set the scene.
In exchange for some light gardening and cleaning, I was given a tiny cabin and fully-stocked fridge in a rural part of County Sligo. I was happy to get the chance to hike in the stunning countryside and focus on my fiction writing for a week without the “trappings of modern life.” I was completely alone: no friends within a few minutes, no chats at the store, no scrolling through social media or texting anyone. I didn’t even have phone service.
Shock and denial
I had signed up to stay at a hermitage. You might think I understood the implications of the word “hermitage” before getting myself into this. I knew I was going to be alone for awhile, but I thought: “I’ve lived alone for a long time. I’m an introvert, so this will be great.” I was wrong, at least at first.
The lack of technology was a complete shock to my system, and I spent a great deal of time pacing restlessly and wondering just what to do with myself. I had no idea how to just be. I started to realize that I had been defining myself based on my relationship to others, whether in “real life” or on the internet. Once I really had to face myself, alone but for the cattle in the field next to me, I didn’t even know how to structure my day. I found myself looking around for validation only to discover that there was no one there to give it.
About halfway through the second day, I was mad. I was mad at myself for choosing to come here. I was mad at the website, which had said there was wifi in the main building. (There was, but it was in one room and quite slow.) I sent a few emails and started searching for ways to get out of this place early. I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it another three days, much less seven.
Mostly, though, I was angry at myself for being so reliant on technology without knowing it. I am someone who got rid of Snapchat because it annoyed me, who is barely on Facebook because I find it a waste of time (I’d rather talk to people in real life). I thought I was one of the lucky few who had managed to beat technological addiction. I hadn’t realized how reliant I was on technology for entertainment.
I managed to make it through the first two days, pretty unhappy but grudgingly realizing that this was good for me. I told myself that I’d find just one thing, anything that could keep me sane through this experience. Cue good old J.K. Rowling.
I managed to find The Order of the Phoenix on audiobook. My complete elation at finding this gem cannot be described. I told myself that a CD player didn’t count as technology, because I wasn’t connecting to other people. It was still technology, though, a distraction to fill a chunk of my free time. However, it was my only solace.
By day three, I finally gave up. I took an entire day and didn’t leave my cabin. In fact, I spent most of the day lying on the floor (yes, the floor) listening to Jim Dale’s excellent voice narrate the adventures of Harry and company. I didn’t even cook for myself; I just ate a lot of fruit and some cereal.
I spent hours writing in my journal. There are three full pages of questions I hadn’t even acknowledged I have about my life. I wrote down my priorities and goals as well as lists of how I spend my time, comparing the lists and coming to some conclusions about myself that I didn’t necessarily like. It was the first time in a very long time, maybe ever, that I really looked at myself.
My lists and my questions didn’t match up at all with the vision of what I really want my life to be: something joyful and filled with love and art and creativity. I wanted to keep things simple and yet accomplish a lot in terms of my work and my personal life. But I hadn’t been using my time to work towards those things. Instead, I’d been watching Netflix.
After coming to terms with my own technology addiction and looking through my written lists, I did what a lot of nerds like myself do: I made more lists. I wrote down what I wanted (goals, priorities, etc.) and how I was going to get there. Netflix was definitely off the menu going forward.
The anger and the depression and all the rest of the mess went away. I felt determined. I wanted to take the things I’d learned about myself and my life and actually do something about them, something concrete. Writing a list of goals and changes is great, but it needs to go somewhere. And I didn’t need to consult the internet “experts” to do it. Without the ability to compare myself to others online, I was starting to come to terms with myself.
On my fourth day at the hermitage, I went to the beach, which was about five minutes away by car. (I got a ride from someone. Human interaction!) Along the shore of the North Atlantic, I collected rocks and seashells and watched little hermit crabs spin in the waves. I even rescued a beached jellyfish and made a collection of some different types of seaweed and compared them. I was like a little child again, looking at the world through fresh eyes.
I started to get all sorts of interesting ideas for stories I could write. I incorporated everything I saw and touched and smelled into my writing. I wrote over 20,000 words in three days, with a certainty that I would find ideas right in front of me if I just looked around rather than looking at my phone.
Since I’ve come home, that peace and certainty have followed me. I’ve paid more attention to my family and friends. I’ve written a great deal more. I’ve watered and weeded my new garden every day, and I’ve found joy in different sorts of things than before: the new growth on my plants, unpacking and putting together a new home in a new town, falling in love with my new job, finding a new and wonderful friend.
For the first time in the past few years, I feel like I’m achieving important things and making huge leaps forward in my personal and professional life. So much happiness has followed in the wake of this new clarity. I’m busy, certainly, but I’m using my time to do things I love rather than just passing the time.
I couldn't stay in my Irish hermitage forever. I need a phone and internet access at work and for many of the practical aspects of life. But I now use the internet rather than letting it use me. I leave my phone across the room from me as often as possible, and I go to the library or a coffee shop a couple times a week when I have a project that requires wifi.
I haven’t watched any Netflix since returning home, and I haven’t gotten internet in my new house yet. I don’t think I’m going to.