Thom Piasecki is on day 19 of digital rehab at a rural retreat in eastern King County.
His daily routine is mostly outside, walking on dirt paths through forested areas, feeding chickens and doves, and checking on goldfish in a tub outside.
There are no computers or cell phones or video game consoles. He stays entirely away from technology.
It’s been a difficult adjustment for Piasecki. Age 24 and still living at home in Connecticut, he used to spend most of his day playing video games. He says he chose to come to this expensive retreat clear across the country because his life had fallen apart.
“I lost my job in November, I broke up with my girlfriend shortly before coming here, and I knew that playing 14 hours of video games a day was not healthy,” he said.
Piasecki worked tough shifts at a Chrysler car dealership in Connecticut. He worked three 14-hour days on, then had four days off.
“Those work hours were pretty brutal,” he said. “They also left me with a ton of free time. I was not someone who exercised. I was not someone who had a social life. So I stayed in the basement with my online friends and played video games.”
His games of choice: League of Legends, Dark Souls and Kerbal Space Program.
Piasecki’s online life eventually took over at work. It got so out of control that he was fired after his managers realized they couldn’t get him to stop.
“I tried to avoid using too much data, but obviously they thought I was using too much,” he said. “So they gave me four or five warnings. And then finally they just said, ‘It’s pretty clear that you’re not going to stop, so we’ll find someone else.’”
He knew something had to change, but he didn’t know how.
“Over the next two weeks, when I realized that I had just been sitting and trying to escape reality, I finally talked to my mother and said, ‘I need help,’” he said.
That’s where Hilarie Cash, co-founder of reSTART Life LLC, enters the story. Cash has been helping people immersed in a digital world for more than 20 years. ReSTART is one of the few places for digital addiction.
Participants in her program spend anywhere from three weeks to three months “detoxing their brains” from the constant feedback they get from playing video games.
“If you don’t have that break, it’s very hard to fight your own brain's addicted impulses,” she said.
Cash says anything that stimulates the prolonged release of certain neurochemicals to the pleasure centers of the brain can be addictive.
She compares excessive video gaming to pathological gambling, which, after many years of debate, was classified a couple years ago as an addiction by the American Psychiatric Association.
“There’s just been enough research on what’s been happening neurochemically to show that it’s pretty identical to what happens when you ingest a drug,” Cash said.
“The drug is what’s stimulating that release,” she says. “It’s not the behavior. But in gambling, which is highly pleasurable to those who become addicted, it’s stimulating just the same; regions of the brain are lighting up.”
The APA currently has one page in its manual for “Internet Gaming Disorder.” It explains what it is and recommends further study. The number of addicted gamers in America is unclear. Some researchers believe around 8 percent of gamers become addicted.
Cash’s program is small. It’s for men only, five at a time. They tend to range between ages 18 to 28.
Their treatment at the retreat in the Carnation-Fall City area doesn't come cheap. It's $25,000 for the first 45 days, and pro-rated thereafter. Later, when they're living on their own and readjusting to life, the cost is $8,500 for the first month; that drops by $1,000 a month until the participants are stabilized, which usually takes up to six months.
And insurance doesn't help: Because it's not an official disorder in the APA's manual, there's no coverage.
Participants' days are filled with meetings – therapy that is modeled after traditional 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. They keep a schedule of daily chores that teach them how to function in the real world.
“Almost all addicts no matter what the addiction don’t have good skills at emotion regulation,” Cash said.
“We give them new skills so that they can tolerate unpleasant emotion without having to run away from it. We teach them and talk a lot about social skills and communication skills and then just life skills. Doing laundry, cooking an egg. Shopping and preparing a meal. Things like that.”
Before leaving, participants must complete a life-balance plan to help them navigate the real world once they leave.
Thom Piasecki reads his handwritten plan at the reSTART offsite facility in Redmond.
“It’s hard to believe my time in onsite is already over,” he said. “Been here just over two months, and it feels like it’s been a couple years. The night that I arrived, I was a scared child.”
Piasecki is surrounded by his counselors and friends he made at the reSTART program.
They listen and provide feedback. He says he will move into an apartment with a roommate from the program. He also needs to find a job – one that doesn’t rely on a computer. To find that job, Piasecki will use a computer at reSTART’s offsite facility a few hours at a time.
He even hopes he could play games again in a couple of years, although his future roommate cautions him not to focus on that.
Piasecki worried about that while he was in the rehab program. When asked whether he could play without relapsing, he wasn’t confident.
“I’m not so sure,” he said. “Because playing video games for me will always remind me of running away and isolating from the world. And just trying not to deal with anything.”
Correction 5/5/2015, 2 p.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the group that classified pathological gambling as an addiction. It was the American Psychiatric Association.