Editor's Note: For what price would you put aside your most immediate connection to the world at large? The debate over our reliance on smartphones is nothing new, but for Elana Mugdan, the effects of a smartphone detox were life-changing. The New York writer vowed to go one full year without the use of any smartphone, tablet, or handheld scrolling technology in a bid to win $100,000 from Vitamin Water. Below is her first-hand account of what happened over the course of those 365 days.
In 2019, I was given a gift that changed my life. I entered a contest to go one full year without the use of any smartphone, tablet, or handheld scrolling technology.
I know what you’re thinking – a year without your iPhone? Unthinkable. However, there was a tantalizing incentive to participate in the challenge: the prize for successful completion was $100,000.
For someone who lives below the poverty line, who can’t afford to buy herself a new winter coat, who has refused medical treatment because it costs too much, that sounded like a reward of epic proportion.
I’m used to going without luxuries (or necessities), so I figured this would be the easiest $100,000 I could ever make. However, as soon as I submitted my entry, I promptly put the contest out of my head. I knew the likelihood of being picked was slim to none. Like every audition I’ve ever been on, like every query letter I’ve ever sent, it was a gamble where the odds were stacked against me. I couldn’t dwell on it, couldn’t stake my hopes on it.
Then, something incredible happened.
My entry was selected. I hadn’t won the money yet – I’d only won the right to see if I could successfully go one year without any scrolling technology – but being selected out of over 104,000 competitors were a special kind of validation in and of itself. The moment I checked my iPhone 5S and read the email telling me I was the potential winner of the contest, that I was the Chosen One, I thought to myself: “This will save me.”
And though I admit I went into the contest purely for the money, I am amazed to report that I received a much greater gift along the way.
You’re probably rolling your eyes right now. That’s the kind of saccharine garbage you see in Hallmark movies. That’s the lesson you learn when your life is Not So Bad, when you can afford to think about things other than money. Yet here I am, earnestly, un-ironically spewing this schmaltzy nonsense.
When I relinquished my smartphone, I was forced to confront some painful truths. I have intentionally isolated myself. I have allowed my anger, my depression and my anxiety to turn me into something I never wanted to be. I have taken for granted so many people, and missed out on so many moments. I have mistreated family and friends, either intentionally or incidentally, because of my choices and actions, both with and without the phone.
For a long time, I used my smartphone as a social crutch. It allowed me to “handle” my anxiety by focusing on the gadget and shutting out external stimuli. It was an enabling device that exacerbated the worst aspects of my depression, allowing me to sit in place or lie in bed for hours, mindlessly scrolling in an attempt to distract myself from the crushing weight of a deeply unhappy existence.
Without the phone to rely on, what else was I to do, except to go back to Square One and attempt to heal the wounds I’d inflicted upon others, and upon myself?
Over the course of the past year, I have made a concerted effort to change. I’m not so foolish as to pretend I’ve succeeded, but if this contest taught me anything, it is that change is a process. Oftentimes, it’s a painfully slow process; but every so often, if you are lucky, if you are determined, if you are persistent, you can change in leaps and bounds.
I made an effort to re-engage and I started with the people closest to me, those who matter most. I focused on my parents, because I realized how much I’d damaged our relationship over the past decade. I made an effort to be patient. I made an effort to be present. I made an effort to be kind. I made an effort to open up and speak with them, and it’s true that I feel more comfortable with them now. It is a journey, it is a process, and every day it is a battle with myself: with the worst parts of me, the parts that are dark and broken and angry, the parts that keep me isolated and lonely.
I consider myself fortunate to have been given the opportunity to see the repercussions of my actions. I consider myself – dare I say it? – hashtag-blessed to have begun my change before it’s too late. One day, 2019 will be the year I look back on after a decade, the year I reflect on, and I am thankful that I’ve begun to cherish the time I spend with my family and friends.
On the other side of that coin, I’ve also learned to avoid toxic people. Time is too precious a commodity for me to waste it on vapid conversations, shallow interactions, or, worst of all, being around individuals who make me unhappy. If people are actively detrimental to my fragile state of mental health, if I don’t feel comfortable in a situation for whatever reason, I am done – and I don’t feel bad about that.
Building on that lesson, I realized something else: I’ve been harboring resentments – both justified and unjustified – for years. I first allowed toxic people into my life, and then I resented them for it. In acknowledging this, in taking responsibility for my choices and the state of my mental health, I learned not to resent anyone else for what I feel. I learned to let go of festering negativity and anger.
Goodbye old grudges, and may I never be so foolish as to hold onto another one. To resent a person I know or care about is unproductive; to resent a stranger on the internet is folly. If I am truly to manage and value my time, then I can waste no more of it stewing in impotent rancor.
Ultimately, that was the greatest lesson, the unexpected truth that blossomed from a simple contest, a phoneless existence. I learned to value my time. Without the smartphone I became 1000% more productive, but even without that little handheld hindrance, I still found myself wasting time. I would do this instead of that; I’d put off essential tasks and chores; I’d procrastinate. I began asking myself, “Is this the best use of my time right now?” If the answer was no, I would stop and move on to something else – even if that something else was giving myself a mental break and doing nothing.
Every little action I performed, every little step I took, slowly taught me the value of time, the value of a single day – of every day. In focusing on being kinder to others, I became kinder to myself. In the practice of forgiving others, I began to forgive myself. In learning to value my time, my loved ones, and my life, I learned to more greatly value myself.
I never thought I would be in a place where I would be proud of the person I’ve become and the things I’ve done. To have come so far in the space of a single year, to have reached this realization, is a gift beyond anything I ever deserved.
For too long, I have been my own greatest enemy. For too long, the villain of my story has been me. I vow to no longer let my mental illnesses stand in the way of my relationships or my progress. I have begun, and will continue, to unlearn the negative behaviors I’ve slipped into over the years. I will walk through the fire again and again until I reach those faraway shores. Whatever lies on the other side is immaterial; it is the persistence and determination to reach the end, even in the face of overwhelming despair and adversity, that counts.
In summation, I was given a gift. The gift was not winning the contest; the gift was not even the eventual promise of $100,000. The gift was change. The gift was realizing how complicit I have been in my own demise, how active I have been in my own self-destruction. The gift was being brave enough to confront those truths and fight to reverse them.
They say you cannot change unless you want to. I’ve wanted to change for a long, long time. This contest was my catalyst, because it allowed me to finally confront my demons. Not all, but some. Perhaps most. Maybe all.
I have not found peace yet, but I’m working on it. I have not atoned for my sins and solecisms yet, but I’m getting there. I have not yet arrived where I want to be, but I will fight to reach that place.
Perfection can never be attained, but it can certainly be striven for. Every day is a battle against myself.
And every day, I resolve to win that battle – and value that small victory.
Elana A. Mugdan is an author and screenwriter based in New York City. She has received many accolades in the film industry, including a number of awards for her feature-length comedy, Director’s Cut. In 2015 she stepped away from film to focus on her writing career, and in 2016 her debut fantasy novel, Dragon Speaker, was released in the UK via Pen Works Media.
For the past two years, Elana has devoted her time to traveling across the country on book tour. She has appeared at schools, libraries, and bookstores nationwide to talk about her award-winning series, The Shadow War Saga. Her second novel, Dragon Child, launched in May 2019 at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, the world’s largest bookstore. Her third novel, Dragon Blood, is slated for release in March 2020.
Elana currently resides in Queens, living a quiet but eccentric life with her pet rescue snake, Medusa.