Memoir: in the online gaming world, I was a champion; in real life, I was a mess
I’m an IT manager. And an occasional photographer. Sometimes an aspiring writer. I’m also a city planner, a weapons specialist and a blue-skinned shaman, slaying demons.
I am a gaming addict.
As a teenager in the ’80s, I was a nerd; a part-time name badge at Radio Shack; a bully magnet with a curfew. Everyone else seemed privy to nuances of living to which I wasn’t. For me, friends weren’t a joy—they were a source of anxiety. My fear of ridicule was paralyzing. Family wasn’t a blessing—it was dread and drudgery. But in the video arcades, I was a champion, defending the world from aliens. Silver flashed through my hands in its short journey from emancipating allowance to enslaving machine.
And then—then!—came home computers. And the Internet. They brought the arcade to my desktop, the role-playing club to my bedroom. I evolved with the technology, from text adventures to first-person shooters to online gaming. In the MMOs—the massively multi-player online games that became my electronic drug of choice—I was home. I didn’t go out to live life: I logged on.
A late bloomer in everything, I left the nest at 24. I rented a tiny apartment in St. James Town and, through a temp agency, found a data entry job. I’d already come to rely on alcohol to get me through social gatherings, but now that I was on my own, I drank and gamed every night, with most of my money going to support these dual habits. Friendships dwindled, and I rejected my family altogether.
In 1999, two of my drinking buddies and I started a printing brokerage. It was incorporated on April Fool’s Day, an inauspicious start. I tried hard to play the business manager, but it didn’t work. Within a year and a half, fed up with my unreliability and cantankerousness, my partners ejected me.
For the next year, I drank and gamed to the exclusion of all else. My apartment became squalid and cluttered. Neighbours complained about the stench of piling pigeon shit from the balcony
I never used. When I’d burned through my RRSP, I cleaned myself up enough to land an IT job. But soon my old habits resumed. I remember all-nighters when I’d pee into empty booze bottles rather than walk the five steps to the toilet. (You can’t pause an online game for a washroom break.) I developed tachycardia and gout and bad teeth; at one point, my supervisor suggested I might start showering before work.
While I wanted a clean apartment, happy neighbours and bosses, long-term relationships and a rich, fulfilling life, I was incapable of acquiring them. I convinced myself repeatedly that I’d start on them “right after this game.” Time evaporated in quanta of “just one more level…”
The non-addict hears this litany of insanity and asks, “Why don’t you just stop?” It’s a sensible question, even to the addict. But it’s not a treatment plan. The best way I can explain addiction is like this: if you’ve ever choked or swum too deep, remember how it felt to be deprived of air. Remember the anxiety, and then the panic. Your first thought probably wasn’t about being a good neighbour or attending to personal hygiene. It was: I must breathe.
I remember all-nighters when I’d pee into empty booze bottles rather than walk the five steps to the toilet. You can’t pause an online game
Amid the empty bottles and takeout boxes, I had a pair of cats—spunky, flame-furred rescues I’d acquired in a misguided attempt at normalcy. The more affectionate one liked to jump up between me and my cathode-ray portal for attention. Once, while battling an especially tough demon onscreen, I moved the cat and, predictably, he came back, blocking my view and casting all the wrong spells from the keyboard. I moved him again. He returned. I shoved him off the desk. He returned. So I grabbed him. And I hurled him.
My cat’s head slammed into a steamer trunk. The thud boomed louder than my subwoofer. Between impact and fall I had time to wonder what I’d done: had I turned my gorgeous cat into a corpse—over a game? But he rolled to his feet, shook himself and trotted away, snubbing me.
It should have been my moment of clarity—the event that shines a light on an addict’s life that no amount of denial can obscure—but it wasn’t enough. My turning point was a suicide attempt. When blocked plumbing made my apartment unlivable, I moved into the Hotel Isabella and within weeks was out of money. The thought of being cut off from booze and gaming was terrifying. So I packed my liquor and some pills and drove up to Algonquin Park.
My last meal consisted of seven bottles of sleeping pills and a litre of Sambuca. An OPP officer found me in my car the next morning, barely breathing.
When I woke up a couple of days later in an ICU, I was hallucinating and unable even to coordinate a spoon into my mouth. One of my few remaining friends sat vigil. She later told me that my hand twitched while I was unconscious, as though manipulating a computer mouse. I gamed even in my sleep. From there, I wound up in treatment at Bellwood Health Services.
Newly sober and with a life to rebuild, I had a jam-packed to-do list. My forgiving employer took me back, as did my family. Now 44, I’ve been sober for six years—but the siren calls are always there. Gaming ads target computer professionals; trial versions are just a download away. “The first taste is free,” says the dealer.
The real world continues to play out better than any virtual one. There’s freedom here, and the air is clearer. Achievements aren’t just garish icons on a character sheet. Real sex trumps virtual sex. And after 17 years of estrangement, my reunited family is the real adventure.
Today, I’m an IT manager. And a photographer. And a writer. I’m also a volunteer, an employee and a mentor to fellow addicts. I’m a son, a brother, an uncle; a friend, a neighbour and a lover.
I vote and take courses, and I pee in a toilet.
Gord Jeoffroy is an IT manager in Toronto. He’s been a volunteer at Bellwood Health Services for nearly five years.
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