This post was originally published on July 3, 2014.
I was at a meeting the other day, trying to listen to a really compelling old timer speaking from the podium, but I kept getting distracted by a young woman furiously banging away on her phone, probably texting a friend to tell her how bored she was at the meeting. The flying fingers continued throughout the meeting and I found myself wondering why the fuck she had even bothered coming before finally moving my seat to a spot where I could no longer see the flashing lights of her device while she pored through her selfie collection.
Even though I was annoyed at the time, in hindsight I’m just grateful that I didn’t have to try and get sober during the smart phone era. Cell phones had been around for a little while by then, which was a huge boon to people getting sober, because in the days of the pay phone it wasn’t always that easy to find one when you weren’t home, really wanted to drink and needed someone to talk you out of it. But that was pre-texting and pre-Internet access on your phone, and the last thing a fried early sobriety mind needs is another distraction, especially at meetings where you’re trying to learn how to change long-term fucked up behaviors.
When I came to AA almost 11 years ago, and was finally able to put down the booze and drugs, I had the attention span of a squirrel who had just guzzled a Red Bull. I couldn’t retain more than a sentence of any of the literature, and had trouble paying attention to all but the most riveting of speakers because my mind was racing a million miles an hour. Booze may have been killing me slowly, but at least it slowed me down enough to sit still and pay attention for more than a nanosecond. I struggled with listening for a while, but was really desperate and slowly the message started to get through the dense fog in my brain. If I’d had anything else distracting me (other than, occasionally, a member of the opposite sex), I would have had a tough time absorbing what I needed to hear. So if there is one suggestion I could give to a newcomer (and people in recovery in general) it would be this:
Shut off your phone.
At many of the meetings I attend there’s an announcement at the beginning to shut off cell phones and other electronic devices, and there’s a good reason for this: it’s really distracting to other people. I find that at Al-Anon meetings, people nearly universally comply (and when someone doesn’t, it’s invariably a double winner—an alkie or addict who goes to Al-Anon as well). But at AA/NA meetings, not so much. Which speaks to the self-centered nature of our disease. Active alcoholics and addicts (and those in early recovery) are famous for saying “I was only hurting myself with my drinking and drugging,” so we’re not really known for our ability to see how our behavior negatively affects others. But as I heard a guy say once before a meeting, “You have the right to not pay attention, but you don’t have the right to make it so that I can’t.”
But since alcoholics and addicts aren’t wired to think of the greater good, and I risk sounding controlling and self-righteous, let’s move the conversation to why the smart phone obsession is bad for those who are actually doing it during a meeting. Obviously, I’m not talking about the guy whose wife is about to have a baby or someone with a sick parent or child but about those who randomly check email, text their friends, update their Facebook status or play Angry Birds while the meeting is in progress.
One of the main things that alcoholics and addicts suck at (besides drinking and drugging safely) is connecting with other human beings. The same people who will slobber over a person they don’t even like and say things like “I love you, man!” when they’re loaded have a tough time opening up or listening to people when they don’t have any intoxicants on board. And one of the main ways that recovery works is by establishing that transmission line from one alcoholic or addict to another, either one-on-one or in a group. Which is really hard to do while you’re texting the latest object of your desire or playing Tetris.
Joe Kraus, a Partner at Google Ventures, the venture capital investment arm of Google Inc., gave a speech a couple of years ago called “Slow Tech Talk: The Constant Culture of Distraction,” where he talked about how we are “losing our humanness” as a culture due to our relationship with our smart phones. The main point, to me, is when he says, “We inhibit real human connection when we prioritize our phones over the people right in front of us.” Amen. And as bad as that is for all people, this disconnection can be fatal for those of us in recovery. The spiritual connection that I made with a Higher Power first began with learning how to connect with other drunks and addicts, and it just grew from there.
Unfortunately, there is no app for this.
For those who think that they can effectively use their phones and pay attention, just Google “The Myth of Multi-Tasking” and you’ll see a slew of studies that show the negative effects of this. But I have my own (unscientific) test that anecdotally demonstrates this point.
One of the surest signs that I’m connecting with the speaker and the other people in the room when I’m at a meeting is when my head involuntarily nods up and down while someone is sharing. Since I’ve never seen a burning bush or a white light, this is one of the most common spiritual experiences that I have in my everyday life, because I’m actually connecting with my fellow human beings on a meaningful level.
So the next meeting that you’re at, particularly one where people are engaged and nodding in the fashion I just described, try this experiment. Take a look around at the people that are operating their devices. Rarely, if ever, have I seen a person nodding his or her head while operating a phone. I honestly don’t believe that you can multi-task a spiritual connection.
Is this good science? No. But neither is most of the stuff that works in AA.
In his viral video, “Look Up,” Gary Turk makes a brilliant case for why we need to sometimes disconnect from social media and actually be present. “This media we call social is anything but,” he says. “When we open our computers, it’s our doors we shut.”
I can’t think of a better place to avoid doing this than at a meeting.