FAMILIES Help_me@internet.net

A St. Mark’s cybernerd battles the newest addiction.

ZACH LOAFMAN WAS UNDERSTANDABLY nervous as he prepared to speak to about 300 of his classmates at their Wednesday-morning chapel service. After all, these were the same boys who in the past had ignored him, even ridiculed him. In their eyes, Zach was just another geeky, overweight egghead with scraggly brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses who plodded quietly around campus in his gray overcoat, with his stubbly chin turned down.

But the 17-year-old junior at St. Mark’s School of Texas felt compelled to explain why he had, as he puts it, “dropped out of sight” at the end of the previous school year-even though many never noticed he was gone. “I had become an Internet addict,” he announced in a deep, slightly mumbly baritone that echoed across the cavernous chapel.

A few boys snickered, but Zach swallowed, took a deep breath, and continued. “I lied to friends, 1 lied to parents, I lied to teachers..,1 was dishonest, close-minded, and apathetic about anything but the ’Net.” The whispering stopped almost immediately, suffocated by air thick with tension.

“In chapel you can always gauge the audience response by how quiet it is, ” says Father Brian Fidler, the school chaplain. “And that morning, to use the cliché, you could hear a pin drop.” Even the usual creaking of wood chairs on the concrete floor was minimal. For the 12 minutes Zach spoke, he captivated the crowd with a bizarre saga of depression and obsession that ultimately led him to plan his suicide before finally checking in to Green Oaks, the psychiatric unit at Medical City.

For 11 months, the Internet consumed Zach Loafman, Like drugs or alcohol for many, it was his escape from the real world, a world that had left him feeling ostracized and depressed,”! calculated that I was spending one out of every four minutes on the ’Net,” he said. “That’s six hours a day on the computer, for a period of approximately 10 months, or 1,800 hours typing or staring blankly, just to get my fix. “

And the more time Zach spent in cyberspace, the more isolated and melancholy he became.

WHILE MANY REFUSE TO ACKNOWLEDGE Internet addiction as a clinical syndrome, Dr. Kimberly Young says Zach is only one of many whose excessive use of the ’Net fostered behavior usually seen in die chemically dependent. (In addition to lying about bow often he was online, Zach became irritable and despondent when not online and he skipped out on obligations to make time to be online,) Since founding the Center for Online Addiction in Bradford, Pa., in 1994, Young has counseled more than 400 Internet obsessives who have sought her help. “It’s a growing epidemic, but it’s impossible to say how many cases are out there, * she says, referring to what some doctors have termed Internet Addiction Disorder. “For every one who calls me there are probably hundreds who don’t. We don’t even know for sure how many people are on the Internet because a thousand new users log on every day.”

About a year ago, the Internet Addiction Support Group sprang up on the ’Net. Though this may seem like serving cold beers at an AA meeting, bulletin boards are packed with horror stories from obsessive-compulsive ’Net users who have dropped out of school or lost their jobs. Many have seen their marriages fail; a few have even become homeless. When Zach checked into the hospital, his mother posted updates on his condition along with a list of addictive behaviors-alienation, mood swings, chronic tardiness, lying, thoughts of suicide-sparking a fiery debate with people who believed Zach’s “addiction” was merely a manifestation of loneliness and social anxieties. “These aren’t addiction problems,” read one message, “They’re called adolescence. If yours wasn’t like that, you’ve either forgotten or are weird and strange, and utterly unlike anyone I ever knew.”

Whatever its cause, Zach’s plunge began in June 1994 when he joined millions of others around the world exploring cyberspace. “I started by BBSing,” he says, referring to the practice of using bulletin-board servers, a common introduction to the Internet, to exchange messages on a particular topic.

Then came the MUD. And the MOO. And trouble.

In the lexicon of cyberspace, MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon-a special locale on the Internet where people meet to play an interactive role-playing game. A MOO (MUD, Object Oriented) is a more intimate version of a MUD, like a little cyber-village reserved for computer experts. In the MOO, Zach found a voice and a large circle of friends-neither of which he had at school. “I guess it gave me artificial self-esteem,” says Zach. “I felt a lot of acceptance there because most of the other people were all computer nerds, like me.”

But his safe haven soon turned into a computer crack house. By winter, Zach, always a straight-A student, was turning in papers sloppy and late, and his grades fell to F’s in two classes. Ironically, the MOO he frequented, Harper’s Tale, carried a mock surgeon-general’s label that warned, “MOOs are addictive and can be dangerous to your G.P.A.”

Instead of studying, he spent late evenings (and early mornings) hunched over his keyboard, eyes pink from lack of sleep. His parents entered him into counseling, but little changed. “The person who evaluated him didn’t really have a grasp on his addiction,” says his mother, Jeri Steele, a computer scientist and early ’Net user who introduced Zach to Internet bulletin boards when he was four. She herself was unsure whether herson’s increasing hours online were a symptom or a cause of his depression. “As a parent, I was happy that Zach found pleasure on the ’Net. It was educational, he was learning more about programming, and he was making friends,” she says. “It was hard to tell when it was necessary to draw the line and say too much is too much.”

When his parents did try to limit Zach’s time online, he’d say he was logging off, only to stay on for several more hours, When they changed his password, he hacked his way into his account. Zach even wrote a program that swiped his mother’s password when she logged on, which he then used to get on the Internet undetected. He also ran away from school for a day in search of a place to go online, only to be thwarted by his stepmother.

His few friends at St. Mark’s had no idea what had gotten into Zach. “He wasn’t the same person, ” said Aubrey Clayton, who had become Zach’s best friend through years together on the math team and in accelerated math classes. Aubrey eventually confronted him about his bad grades. “I told him, ’You’re one of the smartest guys in school. You shouldn’t be getting C’s in math.’ ” But Zach didn’t want to hear it, so for months he stopped talking to Aubrey altogether.

Travis Waddington, another math-team buddy, got a glimpse of the severity of Zach’s problem during gym class last March. “We were sitting in the weight room discussing the philosophical merits of suicide,” recalled Travis. The two friends often spent their gym periods debating a wide range of topics- from science fiction to theology-so this con -versation didn’t seem too out of the ordinary at first.

“Assuming that life with zero value is the same as death, Zach concluded that if your life situation has a negative value and you are convinced that it has no chance for improvement, then death might actually be a logical choice. I found this slightly disturbing because we had previously discussed how it is impossible to know anything outright and therefore would be impossible to know for certain that your life situation couldn’t change.”

Morbid thoughts, especially given that Zach had recently discovered love, falling for a 22-year-old college student in Virginia named Jessica. That is, Zion-a kind of tinkerer or smith that Zach played in the MOO-had become romantically entwined with an animal herder named Koani (aka Jessica). The characiers fell in love after several long nights of online stargazing and soon the smith and the herder were quite the hot item at the Rusty Bucket, their favorite cyberbar.

“I love you,” she would write; he would answer with a smile and a wink. Before long their relationship moved out of the fantasy realm as the two became “out-of-character” lovers. Zach estimates that he was spending 90 percent of his time on the Internet courting Jessica. She preferred to talk on the telephone, however, and his long-distance bill ran as high as $300, paid for with money saved from his summer job as a hardware store cashier.

The relationship became even more real the weekend after Thanksgiving 1994, when Zach/Zion and Jessica/Koani met in person for the first and only time. Accompanied by his father, Zach jetted to Virginia for a face-to-face encounter with his new girlfriend. “It went great,” said Zach, who like any teenager wished his dad had not been so omnipresent. “When the weekend was over, I felt closer to Jess than ever before.” But when the long-distance, Internet-based relationship resumed, it wasn’t long before the honeymoon ended. For more than five weeks, they fought incessantly, pounding out angry messages on their keyboards, each accusing the other of being “smothering” and “unreasonable.”

Their troubles worsened when Zach created his own MOO. First, Jessica got irate when he made two of his friends,Jeff and Vicki, wizards without her approval. (Wizards help run the MOO and therefore have special access and capabilities.) Jeff and Vicki, who met on the Internet and actually married in real life, were a special couple to Zach-perhaps because they were living proof that cyber -world dreams could transcend mere fantasy. But it soon became apparent that the tale of the smith and the herder wouldn’t have the same happy ending.

“Jess got involved in an in-character relationship with this other guy,” remembers Zach, who still sighs when he speaks of her. “I didn’t like it at all because I was worried that they would take it out of character- which is exactly what they did.”

Zach cried a lot more than usual that spring. He had already lost most of his St. Mark’s friends as well as the trust of his parents and the faith of his teachers. And now, Zach had lost his girlfriend. He contemplated driving his old Honda Accord into a head-on collision with an 18-wheeler. Or, he thought, maybe it would be best to flip his car off the Coit Road overpass on Central Expressway. Terrified at what his own imagination had wrought, Zach concluded that he had hit the proverbial rock bottom, and on May 5, less than a year after he had begun dabbling online, he took his parents’ advice and checked himself into Green Oaks.

Before entering the hospital, he posted a temporary goodbye note in the MOO. “I real-ly thought I’d be out and back on the ’Net in seven to 10 days,” he says. But in fact he would stay in the hospital for three weeks, eventually realizing he could never go back to the MOO. He had been smart enough to fool psychiatrists, but he was too smart to fool himself. “They gave me a sheet with the signs of chemical dependency All but one or two matched my behavior exactly. I couldn’t deny it.” Zach considered himself an addict, not too different from a drug abuser or a compulsive gambler or an overeater. But before quitting cold turkey. Zach made one last venture back to the ’Net-to retrieve some poetry he wrote in the depths of his depression:

A limb rustles in the wind, its leaves dragging it further and further.

The limb stretches and stretches, the fibers stretching, stretching until… until… The wind gusts.

The limb snaps.

It lays on the ground, still living, but dead.

It lays in a bed of leaves.

Leaves it once spawned.

Leaves it felt grow.

Leaves it felt fall.

Who is to know?

Who is to care?

Zach is progressing well as his therapy continues. Eventually he may be able to go back online if work or school demands it. Now, however, he must resist the siren song of cyberspace, the temptation to again hide behind the facade of a computer screen. Instead of trying to escape reality, he is learning to confront it, sharing his feelings with real people, face-to-face.

When Zach finished his speech that morning in the St. Mark’s chapel, he received sustained applause from the entire upper school, including those who previously belittled him. Weeks later, the students were still talking about what one called his “courageous” appearance that Wednesday morning. Finally, they were paying attention to Zach Loafman, who is no longer just another isolated computer nerd, wasting away unnoticed.


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