Video Game Addiction: A Recovery Story
Andrew Doan, MD, PhD, is a trained eye surgeon, father of three, a professor — and a recovering video game addict. Astonishingly he made it through medical school at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine while playing a real-time strategy game like StarCraft for 7 to 14 hours a day. He’d started gaming at the uncharacteristically old age of 24 and got married a year later. Unhinged by lack of sleep and irritability when not gaming, he freely admits, “I was abusive to my wife,” Dr. Doan says.
Addicts know this story well and what comes next. You lose everything you love and still can’t quit. Doan’s wife left with the kids. He gained 30 pounds on a 5-foot-7 frame, developed high blood pressure as he “yelled and screamed” at the virtual action on his laptop. This college rugby player who got an endorphin high on competitive sports was replacing his fix by endless couch surfing.
“I had hemorrhoids the size of walnuts from sitting so long,” Doan says. “I had urinary incontinence from losing the sense of how full my bladder was. I only got two or three hours sleep a night, then I slept in my classes.” It was only after his livelihood was at risk that Doan recognized the extent of his addiction. Carpal tunnel in his “surgery hand” threatened to torpedo a career 10 years in the making. Still he didn’t stop.
Studying His Own Affliction
Now 43, Doan remains a staff ophthalmologist and ocular pathologist at Naval Medical Center in San Diego and an assistant professor at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and at Loma Linda University in California. After a decade, Doan, a commander in the Navy medical corps, was preparing to leave the service when a position was created for him: Head of Addictions and Resilience Research at the naval hospital.
Doan’s research allows him to apply his life experience and science background to studying mental health. That includes how video games and technology addiction may impact military life. Last year he co-authored research about the first known case of Google Glass dependence, in which a man suffered technology addiction, which includes video gaming. Neither is part of the DSM-5 yet. He’s also been a speaker at annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.
In 2012 with writer Brooke Strickland, Doan authored an unvarnished look at his own addiction to offer a window into compulsive video gaming. The book is entitled Hooked on Games: The Lure and Cost of Video Games and Internet Addiction. And at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference last summer, Doan warned that we are raising “a generation of Vidiots” who are so immersed in a virtual landscape that they miss developmental milestones, social skills and problem-solving skills they’ll need in life.
Late-Blooming Compulsive Gamer
Unlike so many of our kids today, Doan’s childhood wasn’t consumed with electronics. Born in Saigon, he was 4 years old when the family immigrated to the U.S., settling in Portland, Oregon. After undergraduate studies at Portland’s Reed College, Doan earned a full scholarship from the National Institutes of Health to attend Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He was there eight years earning his MD and PhD. It wasn’t until he was 28 that the video gaming engulfed him.
As an athlete, he’d fed off the dopamine surges, but after a year of studying to be a doctor in Baltimore, he replaced that rush with the one he got from the intellectually stimulating strategy and competition found in real-time video gaming with players all over the world. The only good news in this is that he’d already developed basic personality and social skills before video gaming eclipsed every part of his life, something younger video-game addicts don’t do.
Doan wasn’t soaring but certainly getting by at one of the country’s premier medical schools while gaming up to 100 hours a week and sleeping only a few hours a night. Blessed with an ability to grab complex concepts in the classroom fast, he often dozed off during class.
By the time he was in his residency at University of Iowa, his video gaming was hard core. His surgical hand was now fully inflamed. “I realized my health issues and carpal tunnel from gaming was destroying my ability to practice medicine.” He wanted his wife to be able to stay home with their children, but they couldn’t afford it. Doan joined the U.S. Navy as an officer in the reserves. The Navy awards financial aid to some doctors if they agree to join full-time after their residency, and so he did.
Toward the end of medical school, marriage counseling went nowhere and Doan’s wife finally had enough and walked out. For six months he was solo. For the sake of the kids, the couple agreed to attend church together to see if faith might help them repair their frayed marriage.
For four years, Doan sat in the church pew, sometimes dozing, but still online gaming. Yet here and there the words in sermons and Bible passages seeped in. The first lightning bolt came for him one day while reading the New Testament, in which “Jesus always saw the good in everyone, but I never saw the good in my own wife,” Doan says. “I used to yell at my wife and degrade her. I then felt this understanding that God loves us all and he has a purpose for us. But what was mine? It was then that I started to open up.”
Finding His Own Path Out of Addiction
As a scientist, Doan is impressed when he tests something and gets results. In treating his wife with gratitude, she responded, he felt better, and this gave credence to what he was absorbing in Bible studies. He incessantly teased his children and others. “Then I read a passage that said joking amounts to shooting flaming arrows at your friends. And that was me,” he says.
People have to find their own path out of addiction, and Doan’s was spiritual. “My treatment was literally reading the Bible and applying it. I had all the addiction withdrawals — depression, the insomnia, shakes, the body aches — and I’m still the same addict I was back then. But I never needed surgery for the carpal tunnel and hemorrhoids,” he says. His blood pressure and weight dropped. At his church he started a weekly support group for gaming addicts, but it’s evolved into a general mental-health focus. “The gamers don’t show up or stay for long,” Doan says.
After a period of abstinence, Doan is now able to have video games in his home and plays on occasion, but not the multi-player strategy games on which he was hooked. His children have strict limits on electronics: They can only game in person with others in the same room, and movement must be involved.
“Out of gratitude, appreciation and love for God, I make a choice to live life in a way that honors Him,” Doan says. “If this means to avoid gaming so I can be a better husband, father and human being, than I pick abstinence.”
By Nancy Wride
Follow Nancy on Twitter at @NWride