Near Microsoft headquarters, the U.S. opens it first internet-addiction clinic

Note: Ironically, The Sunday Express didn’t archive this story online. The text is my original.

Ben Alexander wears his heart on his specs: a charm made from bin-liner twisties. Next weekend, the 19-year-old goes on his first date, meeting a gal pal at a music festival.

That’s a landmark for any young man. But for a recovering Internet addict, it’s an extra awesome time. Thanks to the first US cyber-rehab clinic, he’s turned away from the keyboard and keyed into the real world.

Alexander’s almost finished with reStart’s 45-day residential program in Fall City, Washington. The facility — Heavensfield — lies 13 miles away from Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters and about 28 from Seattle. The skyscrapers melt away, then even the mini-malls. The clinic’s five acres are pure rural Pacific Northwest: windchimes scare deer from the organic garden, set among towering firs and moss-shrouded valleys.

Here experts coach Alexander on chores, coping skills and even dating chops. Each program’s tailored to the patient; his involves violin, cross-country running and – since he aspires to a biology or veterinary career – tending goats, cats, chickens, doves and a wigglesome Australian Shepherd puppy.

He bakes ginger-molasses cookies and talks to his ladyfriend on the phone (sometimes too late into the night, he admits). Alexander’s lucky to live in Colorado, not China. A net-rehab in Chengdu beat 14-year-old Pu Liang into the hospital and Deng Senshan, 16, died in Guangxi Qihuang Survival Training Camp. This summer the Chinese health ministry banned electroshock therapy for net-addiction. That’s a far cry from reStart, where Alexander’s gently reminded: “please don’t climb on those ropes. Why? Because it’ll upset your therapist.”

He smiles. And he complies. Not because anyone’s making him, but because he cares. Heavensfield’s team has dialled a disenfranchised teenager back in.

ReStart’s program, launched in July 2009, costs $14,500 (£8,850). The price tag excited plenty of tweets and online static. Vaughanbell’s comment is typical: “$300 a day clinic for ‘internet addiction’ has Twitter stream. @GetYourLifeBack The irony, it burns!”

Except, well, maybe it doesn’t. Founders – Psychotherapist Cosette Rae and Dr. Hilarie Cash – see reStart’s online presence as taking the message to the streets. And $322 (£196) per day is fairly cheap, compared to other residential services. America’s Betty Ford Clinic – akin to the Priory – dings the register at $866 (£528) per day, for example.

But alcohol and drug rehab have been on the radar a long time. While average folks might flinch at a star-sized bill, they probably wouldn’t question it with comments like “just put the bottle away!” Yet even the quickest surf online reveals that many pundits consider net-addiction a big joke. “Turn off the computer already!”

Rae laughs right back: “Hey, if it were that easy, I’d have a 1-800 [toll free] number telling everyone to switch off a while. It would be great!”

Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) isn’t part of the hallowed Diagnostic and Statistical Manual yet. This means reStart can’t bill to insurance … a hassle in the U.S.’s brutal pay-as-you-go medical system. But the clinic offers scholarships for disadvantaged clients – and was intake-interviewing one as this article went to press.

As Cash says: “the new manual will have non-substance-use addictions. We’re pretty confident gambling will be in — IAD too, we hope.

“All addictions have certain things in common: compulsivity, pursuing a chemical or behaviour to get high, a sense of euphoria or relief, development of tolerance over time … and when you’re cut off, you go into withdrawal. They can also lead people to indulge in behaviour despite negative consequences and to go against their own morality: to lie, cheat, steal, etc.”

We’re not talking about a stolen hour on Facebook, Bejeweled or the Express’s forums. Think intrusive cyber-binges … the point where students drop out of university like Alexander, workers lose jobs and families splinter. Rae – a former programmer, systems analyst and (briefly) disgruntled net-mom – acknowledges: “a little self-soothing online can be fine, but when it impairs your life, and those of people around you, it’s time for some help.”

Still, reStart doesn’t try to wean patients from cyberspace forever. The clinic encourages them to detox, then develop a management program, identifying triggers and avoiding them.

Turning away from online gaming often is critical. Cash explains: “A massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft works on so many layers: The graphics, narrative, heroism, the social component … people develop online friendships and become part of guilds.”

Also, players can’t predict what reward comes from an action or mouse-click. That principle – known as “intermittent reinforcement” – is what hooks us on fruit machines and playing the odds. Gabe Carter, a games producer for Oberon and I-Play, explains: “that’s literally the backbone of design … plus lots and lots of fun. It’s all about moderation. A carrot is good for you, but 1,000 carrots are not good for you.”

Here’s the trouble: we may be wired to seek — a mammalian urge deeper than food, sex and companionship even.

Right here in Washington State, Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp observed that animals could grow “excessively excited, even crazed” to get that buzz. Google, Twitter and texts feed that instinct for humans. The warm fuzzy dopamine flows, time lags and it gives us a kick a la cocaine or amphetamines.

Restart – to its credit – goes to the mat. And so do I . Rae sweet-talks me into a Buddhist mindfulness mediation on the lawn.

“Focus on a positive thought,” our leader Jens suggests. Alexander flourishes a photo of his gorgeous date. He also twisties the spec-heart onto his nose.

I giggle. Jens reminds us all to accept feelings, smile at ’em and resume meditation.

Right. Eyes closed, I slip into yoga breathing. “I am loved,” I think. ” My boyfriend, my mates, my family: everyone was incredible after my pre-cancer surgery ten days ago.”

Still, my brain noodles all over the shop. If I could tap LOLcats or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog right now, I so would. Anything.

And then I calm. I breathe deep, spiralling down like a nautilus shell. Who knew thousands of years of Buddhism could pay off? Aside from reStart, that is…

Even this quick visit to Heavensfield reminded me to look inward – not towards the screen. Perhaps, as Alexander noted, “sometimes the simplest technologies really do work best!”

Contact reStart through Dr. Hilarie Cash also consults through and co-authored the book “Video Games and Your Kid”.