A group of hikers discovered the following essay carved into the walls of a cabin in the mountains outside Charleston, WV. The naked, frozen corpse of the author was found in the woods nearby.

To escape from the constant tapping, swiping, clicking, and scrolling of the information age, I responded to an ad in my local Craigslist for a three-day digital detox camp. During the retreat, I would be stripped of all my gadgets — my iPod shuffle, my iPod touch, my iPhone 5S, my iPad Air, my iPad mini with Retina display, my 15” MacBook Pro — as well as my other possessions, including my keys, wallet, and clothing. I would then be left in the woods, hands and feet bound, while I fought to free myself from my digital dependence. But after three frigid nights on the floor of a run-down cabin, slipping in and out of consciousness in a freezing puddle of my own waste, I would find much more than an escape. I would find myself.

When people ask what I do, I often respond simply, and disappointingly, with “web stuff.” A techno-factotum, I may begin the day in WordPress or Photoshop and end it in Excel or Pro Tools. Like many others, however, in between I will receive countless emails, texts, notifications, alerts, and mentions. Far from annoyed, we come to depend on these constant updates to our digital selves. Without them we feel old, out of touch, incomplete. Five minutes away from a device and we may even begin to experience phantom vibration syndrome, an illusory ringing in our empty pockets, the screen addict’s equivalent of the shakes. Ten minutes away from a device and, well, who knows?

My own addiction to technology began about twenty years ago on an Apple IIGS in my elementary school’s computer lab. While my peers laughed together as dysentery plucked them, one by one, from the Oregon Trail, I chose to lose myself in the solitary depths of games like Number Munchers and Word Munchers. These games had no pause and, if you were good enough, no end. There were always more numbers, more words, to be munched. Soon, I was sneaking in from recess to munch without the distractions of other children, until the lists of high scores were composed of only one name.

This fixation only grew over the years as I acquired my own computers, and eventually, I dropped out of school to work at Circuit City full-time, getting others hooked to support my own habit. I tried to kick it occasionally, going a few hours here and there, just to prove that I could. But there was always a reason to go back. I just had to check my email. I just had to design a website. I just had to manage a client’s social media accounts. In A.A., they often say that when you relapse, you don’t go back to where you left off, you go right to where you would be if you’d never stopped. Likewise, my relapses invariably led to all-night anime and reddit binges, 8-bit music blaring as I scrolled and clicked deeper and deeper into the archives.

I told myself I was functional, that I could still glance up from my iPhone during conversations, that I could still connect meaningfully with the people around me. But I couldn’t. In fact, when I found the Craigslist ad for the detox, I was not looking for help at all — I was checking Missed Connections. A few weeks earlier, I had sat next to a woman on the bus and seen that she was watching Game of Thrones on her 8.9″ Kindle Fire HD. I’d wished desperately to be able to talk to her, to ask whether it was the 16, the 32, or the 64 GB model, but instead, I buried myself in my iPhone for almost an hour as we sat there, our knees occasionally knocking together, occasionally lingering, without ever acknowledging each other. Even when her stop came, I just sat there staring into my screen as she clambered over my legs to the aisle. Looking back, Missed Connections was the perfect place for the ad, but at the time, it just seemed like a happy accident.

* * *

Though Charleston is the capital of West Virginia, you don’t have to go far to find nature. No matter which direction you face, the mountains are always looming in the distance, reminding city-dwellers what they could have if they simply walked away. Both scared and excited, I arrived at the base of one of these mountains, at the gates of Kanawha State Forest, on a brisk December evening. I had been to the park many times as a child, fishing, grilling, and searching for turtles. However, I had never been there as an adult, and I was shocked at how small it all seemed now. Yet as I followed the winding directions that had arrived in my inbox, paved roads giving way to dirt, I realized the park expanded in ways that neither I nor Google Maps knew.

When I finally reached the pull-off described in the email, the sun was gone, the park gates no doubt closed. I flashed my headlights, turned off the ignition, and picked up my phone. Three bars. As requested, I had brought along all of my gadgets and a list of my passwords, as well as the $1,500 fee. I had been wary at first about paying in cash, especially since the detox camp didn’t have a single review on Yelp. I quickly realized, however, that this was merely a sign of the program’s effectiveness, and more excited than ever, I emailed all of my friends and family members to tell them that I would be off the grid for a while. I’d hoped to send them all personalized postcards, but that morning a camper had canceled his reservation — probably because of the snowstorm that had been predicted — and I had to take it.

It was nearly an hour before the two counselors began knocking on opposite windows of my car. They had flashlights, but I had not seen them approaching because I was busy tapping out notes for this essay. The men were upset to have seen my car glowing, as I had been instructed to remove the battery from my phone before arriving. They ordered me out of the car and began frisking me to make sure I had no concealed technology. They were a bit rough — I hadn’t expected the retreat to be boot-camp style — but discipline was what I would need if I was going to make it through the following days and, indeed, the rest of my life. As the men led me into the woods, however, I suddenly realized how stupid I had been. The others had clearly been smart enough to have people drop them off and avoid leaving their vehicles unattended.

* * *

I awoke in the night with a blinding headache, lying in a cold pool of urine and vomit. I had expected some withdrawal symptoms, but nothing like this. It felt like there was a warm, throbbing knot on the top of my head, though there was no way to tell, as my hands and feet were tied behind my back. Rolling onto my side, I saw that I had been left in an old cabin, the wind whistling through cracks in the moldering walls. Everything I’d had — my devices, my clothes, my medication — was gone, and the phantom vibrations had already begun, leaving me trembling with unanswered anticipation. At first, I did not see why such drastic measures were necessary, but eventually, I came to understand that to free myself from my digital restraints, I would first have to free myself from my physical ones. I wished desperately to be able to update my Facebook friends on my progress, but I knew that it was better to simply experience the moment.

* * *

After hours of yelling, I finally accepted the fact that my counselors were not going to free me. However, I soon understood that it had to be this way. How could I learn to stop over-sharing, to be a self-sufficient person, while surrounded by others? With new-found determination, I set myself to escaping, and by the evening, I had managed to tear a shard of wood from the floor and saw through my ropes, casting them aside like so many Ethernet cables. I felt like a newborn, cutting my own umbilical cord and emerging naked, both literally and figuratively, from the womb of my own self-absorption. I stumbled to the open doorway of the cabin and filled my lungs with the crisp fall air. I briefly contemplated which Instagram filter I would have used to capture the scene, but such thoughts quickly vanished as I huddled in the corner of the shack, the phantom vibrations sending violent spasms through my entire body.

* * *

The next morning, I ventured out into the woods to forage for food. There was very little vegetation or wildlife to be found, and with the vibrations still growing stronger, I could not stay outside for long. However, just as I was about to head back, I heard a rustling in the woods below and turned to see two camouflaged men emerging from the trees with rifles. Overcome with the need to share my status, I nearly called out to the two hunters, who appeared to be a father and his adult son. But then I saw the teenage boy trailing behind them. He tramped clumsily through the snow, his rifle tucked under his arm, his eyes locked on his iPhone 4, which was clad in a camo OtterBox. It looked like he was on Twitter — maybe tweeting something like: “Come out, come out, wherever you are! #hunting #yolo.” I had always found hunting gratuitous and barbaric, but as I watched the three generations engage in a tradition older than man himself, I realized that I would rather be a neanderthal than a zombie. I stopped following them and trudged back to the cabin to finish what I had started.

* * *

As I watched the snow begin to fall through the hole in the roof, I thought about the future and what I would do once the retreat was over, though I knew that I would be in recovery for the rest of my life. Without a computer, what would I do for work? Did I have any other skills? I recalled playing with Lego blocks before my screen addiction — perhaps I could become a construction worker or an architect. Or maybe I could write a memoir about my journey. A Million Little Pixels. I could lead seminars and even run my own digital detox camp. Who better to guide people through the process than someone who had been through it himself? I wondered what the counselors did with the devices they collected. Were they checking how many games I played? Were they analyzing my browser history? Had they found the folder? Did they understand that it was just for research?

* * *

A photo of the author, hours before his death, captured by a hunter's motion-activated game camera.

A photo of the author, hours before his death, captured by a hunter’s motion-activated game camera. (Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock)

After so many years of falling asleep to glowing screens and chiptune, I had forgotten how tranquil the night can be. But as I gaze through the roof and the snow and up to the stars, everything is becoming clear. I see now that we have become imprisoned in a technological panopticon. Inventions that promised to bring us closer together have simply eroded our privacy while so-called social media have trained us to focus only on ourselves, leaving us alienated from one another and oblivious to our environment. They divide us like wolves separating the herd because they know that together we are stronger than apart, that those who share will consume less, and that those who unite will overthrow. Meanwhile, they saturate our air with chemtrails and psychic interference, and they douse our brains in mood stabilizers, so we forget that the same air that carries data from device to device can also transmit telepathic energy from one mind to another. Finally, as my dependence on technology dissipates into the ether, I can feel myself inching closer and closer to authenticity. I have no more use for computers. No more use for phones. No more use for words. The phantom vibrations have ceased. I am ready to unplug.

Eric Jett is a writer, designer, and teacher from Charleston, WV. He is a founding editor of Full Stop.

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