Once upon a time, it was all geek to me, now somebody had better get the Net

August 26, 1999|By Kevin Cowherd

NEWS ITEM: Almost 6 percent of Internet users suffer from some form of addiction to it, according to the largest study of Web surfers ever conducted.

People always wanna know: How'd you get started using? Same old story, my friend. I'm at a party one night and this guy walks up and presses something into my hand. It's an AOL installer disc.

"Naw, man, I don't do that stuff," I told him.

"What's the matter?" he said. "Chicken?"

Well, nobody calls me chicken. So we go over to his place. It's a two-story colonial in a very nice part of town. Homes start at $275,000. Schools are excellent. There's a Starbucks a half-mile away.

He puts some Hendrix on the CD player. Then he brings out the stuff: an Intel Pentium III processor, 64 MB of SDRAM, 17-inch NEC monitor, a keyboard built like a brick . . . well, you know.

I shoulda left right then. But he hit the "on" switch and the thing booted up right away. He handed me the mouse. My fingers were trembling.

"Go ahead," he said. "Click on something. What'ya want, baseball scores? Stock quotes? Wanna shop for a fridge?"

I'll never forget my first e-mail. It was such a rush. An incredible feeling of warmth and well-being washed over me as I typed: "Freddie, did you get those supply forms we ordered?"

Pretty soon I was e-mailing every day, and then it was two, three, four times a day.

Man, I couldn't get enough of it.

Oh, I'd heard all the horror stories: how you start with e-mail and then it's just a matter of time before you're experimenting with search engines and Web sites and finally you graduate to the Big C: chat rooms.

But I didn't think it would happen to me.

I was too hip for that, too cool.

So I kept on using the Net, using it like you wouldn't believe: Yahoo, ESPN.com, online auctions, you name it. Pretty soon, everything about me had changed. Now I was reading PC World, wearing pocket protectors, changing servers the way other people change underwear.

I was into the whole lingo, too. I was so far gone I'd walk around saying: "Yo, you want Internet Call Manager, it requires downloading a 900KB app that runs in the background."

I was even wearing glasses, for God's sake, glasses thick as Coke bottles. And I have 20-20 vision!

But that's what happens. You get caught up in The Life. You wake up every day and your fingers are itching for action and all you can think is: Man, I gotta get me some Net.

They say you have to hit rock bottom before you know how sick you are, and I sure did that.

Near the end, I'd go over to my mom's house when she wasn't home and rummage through her bureau drawers, looking for Compuserve discount cards.

Finally, one night I woke up at 3 in the morning slumped over my PC. I was logged onto the MTV Web site. And this is how low I'd sunk: Apparently I'd been checking out a Britney Spears interview when I blacked out.

At that point, I knew I needed help. I checked into a rehab clinic that day. Treatment was a nightmare. Every time you got the urge to go online, this incredibly fit and sun-tanned counselor would burst into your room and chirp: "Who's up for volleyball?!"

It's been a long, slow road to recovery. I've been clean now, what, six months?

Do I miss it? Are you kidding? There are days I walk past that PC in the family room and I can almost taste the PGA Web site and those instructional tips from Jack Nicklaus.

There are days I would kill to be in one of the NASCAR chat rooms, drinking in the kind of dialogue that once made my heart race with excitement:

"Dale Earnhart rules!"

"Chevys s....!"

"See ya at Daytona, fat boy!"

But I know if I log on even once, I'll go back to using in a heartbeat.

Things are better now. I belong to a support group. We meet every other Tuesday in this church basement. We sit on folding chairs, in a semi-circle, and one by one people will get up and tell their stories, stories of wasted lives, of clicking and tap-tap-tapping and staring into a pale blue screen long into the dark night.

The meetings aren't so bad, I guess. There's coffee in the back and the facilitator (Wildman @aol.com) brings in a tray of peach cobblers for the break.

Me, I just take it one day at a time.

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