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Christian Billington Oct 4, 2011

Turn Me On...

Please forgive me, the title is deliberately misleading. I wanted to get your attention and hold it for the five minutes it takes you to read my blog and the ten minutes that (I hope) you spend considering the idea I present. The title, ‘Turn me off…” would have been more apt, but would that have encouraged you to read this?

This week in my practicum, I made a rookie mistake. And I’ll bet you’ve done something similar yourself or you know someone who has. I made a mental note before I went into a session to switch off my cell phone. The session was shaping up to be a particularly emotional event where my co-therapist and I planned to directly address the undeniable “elephant’ in the room.” I knew as soon as I sat down in session that my phone was in my left pocket, still armed to ring, which it does often. I felt horrible, unprofessional and distracted. I hoped it would remain silent and harmless in my pocket, but I feared the worst. Of course my fear was well founded and about forty minutes into this emotive session the sonar beep that is my ring tone sounded. Mortified, I fumbled in my pocket, simultaneously apologizing and hitting every button and screen I could in an attempt to silence the monster. It was embarrassing and something I really despise – when a phone rings during a meeting, seminar or in class. Thankfully it did not affect the session and I apologized for my oversight.

I commute to practicum by bus, which allows me time to think and process. I thought about my phone ringing during the therapy session. I was also able to observe how connected and distracted my fellow passengers are most of the time and this got me thinking. Practically every person I observe walking, sitting, bicycling and even driving is staring into their phone and tapping away: selecting songs, checking emails, calling someone, sending a text, or dropping plump, little exploding birds onto angry green pig’s faces. Additionally, laptops, palm pilots, tablets and gaming consoles all connect us to this virtual world through the internet, at the touch of a button. It is amazing to behold this easy, instant access to information, friends and news. The world at your finger tips is quite simply awe inspiring. But at what cost does this come to us? (And just how many accidents have been caused by this connectivity explosion this past ten years?) Being that connected and available at any moment has, in my opinion, cost society a great deal of intimacy and interaction. And by the way, when was the last time you received a hand written letter?

I am guilty also. Waking with this blog percolating in my sleepy head I reached warily for my night stand, past the home phone, past the laptop and finally to my iphone. I brush the screen a few times, past the numerous apps until I find the notepad and tap type in a few sentences and notes, lest I forget them. I wake up and the first thing I do is plug myself back into the social network and my media apps. Doesn’t everybody? For some it is probably the last thing they do before they go to sleep as well. Perhaps I have not fully succumbed yet, as I remain unconnected to the productivity sapping – but fun - Facebook.

Part of self care, I have learned, is knowing when to stop, when to disconnect and lay things down. The fact that our careers and lives can be carried with us and accessed for the most part through the internet is a consummate reminder of how fast our world is moving. Clients so far in practicum have presented because they are overwhelmed with emotions, partners, careers, school, families, activities, society and global community in which we all live. What would happen if they turned off their phones and internet access? If they literally disconnected? Would it help these clients to be alone with their own thoughts and emotions, disconnected from the circus and pressures for at least part of the day? I have been purposely disconnecting for the past six months and it has helped me immensely. As it turns out, free time can be spent with partners, families, out in nature or whatever you desire. Note the same is true for our clients as well. Freedom from constant connectivity even allows me to sleep better.

I think periodic unplugging is a simple tool to protect not only ourselves, but also the clients we serve. I understand skeptics thinking “Now just hold on a minute, disconnecting from what has become the social ‘norm’ is like asking someone who likes caffeine – a lot - to give up Starbucks or asking a teenager to ‘act normally for heaven’s sake’ (whatever that looks like) - it’s not impossible but it’s sure hard.” For most of us the prospect of disconnecting raises our anxiety because we have learned to feel comfortable checking email, reading blogs, tweeting and texting from our laptops and cell phones. I have found that with time, my anxiety over being alone, with only myself has declined dramatically, and the benefits I have reaped from being disconnected are well worth the trouble. With that said, try it and see how you feel before you promote the idea with clients. Would this simple idea really exact such a positive effect upon your client’s lives? Well the answer is up to them and how strict or flexible they want to be with it. I have tried this one simple idea and set the boundary of not checking emails after seven at night and not reading or responding to text messages, calls or using the phone past six at night and it has helped me. I also stay ‘unplugged’ through the weekend and have been able to read and hand write letters, journal entries and be comfortable with “work” waiting until Monday morning. I feel healthier and better prepared to help my clients. So consider disconnecting you might be glad you did.

Turning off for now…(until next time).

Christian Billington is a counselor in training. He is passionate about end of life issues, grief and loss, trauma and the development of training to better prepare the emergency services for what they experience in the field.

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