"We're wired to resist uncertainty"

Chris Stedman on OCD, creating rituals through the internet, and learning to see our problems as collective.

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Chris Stedman is the author of the new book IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning and Belonging in Our Digital Lives. Chris is a leftist, a professor of religion, and someone I’ve known through the internet for years. He’s been open about his struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder, and was kind enough to talk to me about the connections he sees between OCD, the internet, and the collective trauma we all experience living in a chaotic, profit-driven world.

When Chris was 13, his mom noticed that he was developing “little tics.” She was concerned, and found and read his journal where Chris was writing about struggling with his sexuality. Rather than punish him, she took him to a community mental health clinic. It was an extremely stressful time in his life. He was questioning his sexuality, his parents were divorcing, his mom was working multiple jobs. The therapist told Chris he had some OCD tendencies. 

I felt really disconnected, I was looking for a sense of belonging. Me and my therapist worked on it. As I started to deal with my sexual orientation more, my OCD got better. And eventually it got to a point where I could stop going to therapy. I felt like, “I’m cured. I don’t have OCD anymore.” 

Then in 2016, more stress: a long term relationship ended, his job ended, he moved back home to Minnesota after being away for a decade, and had two traumatic encounters with bedbugs and scabies. 

All of a sudden the ritualizing became obvious again. I was treating some things as safe to touch, and others as unsafe. I would have to step in certain places in order to feel safe. I’d take a shower and only allow myself to step on certain parts of the floor. Even after the scabies were gone, I’d have to sleep with a painter’s drop cloth on my mattress and a single sheet I’d wash every day. 

He went back to therapy, and through it realized that OCD would not be something he could get rid of. Instead he would have to manage it. 

OCD is a maladaptive response to uncertainty. The discomfort that uncertainty evokes in all of us, for people who have OCD, their attempts to rid themselves of that uncertainty is through ritualizing behaviors. You step on one part of the bathroom floor and you don’t have scabies symptoms that day, so you keep doing it just to be safe. But it was becoming so disruptive to my ability to like, lead a life in any sort of meaningful way that I was like “okay, I have to deal with this.” 

You can be biologically predisposed to OCD, but it’s also circumstantial. It’s not a coincidence the years I felt I didn’t really have OCD were the most stable years of my life in terms of housing, employment, having a long-term relationship. It’s not a coincidence my OCD emerged during really traumatic years.

Chris studied religion and teaches at a Lutheran university. He realized that the internet had in many ways replaced religious institutions as a space where people create rituals that give their life meaning and order.

Over the past few decades there’s been this huge shift out of institutions and into a more seemingly individual experience of wrestling with these big questions. But I think what many of us don’t realize is that we’ve just kind of swapped one institution for another with the internet.  When you look at religion, these institutions create rituals that emerge over a long period of time that were forged through trial and error. And those rituals help us make sense in a more intentional way, versus the kind of mindless, anxious ritualizing we do online. 

As I started to write this book, I realized that we as a species are wired to resist uncertainty. For people with OCD that takes maladaptive forms, but it’s something we all experience. As we enter a digital space, it’s really easy to use these digital tools to try to rid ourselves of uncertainty. It’s built into the techo-utopianism of the moment. We have an Apple Watch that tells you what your heart rate is, what your sleep cycle is.

I struggled to keep my cynicism about the internet at bay while reading Chris’s book. He’s a profoundly hopeful person. And though he thinks the internet is broken, he believes we as a species might be able to make it our own, to wrest control from corporations and turn it into a truly productive space for community and knowledge, or at least reduce the harm it causes to our psyches. 

In the book, I mention that the internet as an institution is not really a public space. It’s a private space that’s driven by the priority of profit. And that’s the biggest obstacle we face to creating a more meaningful life online. Right now, these platforms don’t care what kind of experience we have, they just care that we’re online, and what keeps us online is a kind of anxious scrolling, a mindless use. That’s a win for the corporations that control the internet. 

It’s analogous to climate change: I can recycle all I want, but until the major corporations that are responsible for the majority of carbon output are forced, through systemic transformation, to be responsible, my individual behavior is not going to be enough. So all I can do for now is manage. In the same way I manage my OCD, I can manage and use social media more mindfully, more carefully. 

I have a cautious optimism about the internet because it’s so new. It’s affecting the way we see ourselves. You can compare it to a mirror, some say a funhouse mirror, but either way, we can look at the ways we use it and learn things about ourselves from that. When my OCD rituals became more obvious to me, I was able to identify them, and start addressing them. And likewise, the more flagrant the anxious ways we use the internet become, the better it can help us see those things in ourselves.

The biggest challenge we face with the internet, and with mental illnesses, trauma, and everything else in American life, is not being able to see our problems as collective. We individualize the systemic.

I lost one of my closest friends to suicide last year. Our relationship had largely been mediated through these digital spaces as we moved around to different cities. I watched him really struggle with getting access to the care he needed. He would try. He would try really hard. And I think oftentimes he would try to fill the gaps of the care he couldn’t access because of systemic obstacles, with the internet—reaching out to me and other friends. We turn to what resources we can find when the system fails us. I look at his death as a result of these systemic failures. He was someone who was completely willing to forge his own path in life, but I think a big part of the reason he felt so burdened was because he was made to feel like his problems were his problems alone, his challenges alone, not systemic ones. 

We need to recognize the collective nature of the challenges we face, not see ourselves as evermore atomized individuals. I feel like we’re just beginning to ask the necessary questions of how to do that. The internet happened so fast, from me biking to the library as a kid and using the computer there for 20 minutes a day, to it being seamlessly integrated into our lives, that we haven’t had the chance to think carefully about these things. 

There was a study from BYU that followed the same people year after year for eight years. They found that people could spend the exact same amount of time online each day, but have very different experiences, which challenges this all-or-nothing thinking about the internet. Are you using it to mindlessly get this shallow satisfaction, like a slot machine, hoping for a dopamine rush, or are you using it in a way where you become more aware of yourself and forge meaningful connections?