As a mother of two sons who had moved away to university, Elaine Uskoski and her husband were enjoying their time as empty nesters. That freedom, however, was short lived when Elaine was suddenly faced with one of the biggest crises of her life: her youngest son, Jake, was addicted to video gaming. In 2014, there was little known about this addiction, but Elaine was determined to learn everything she could in order to help her son. Marrying her new insights with her experience in social service work, as well as her 18 years’ experience as a Holistic Health Practitioner, Elaine helped Jake recover from his addiction. Now she works as a coach for parents and as a speaker. She shares her powerful story to promote awareness and to educate parents on the risk factors associated with video gaming addiction.
After meeting Elaine at MindFest 2020, I had the privilege of speaking with her to learn about her experiences as a parent of someone who struggled with video gaming addiction. Here are edited excerpts from our discussion:
Could you tell me about Jake when he was growing up?
From the very beginning, Jake did not cope well with school; he hated being there. I pulled him out after six weeks of Grade 1 and homeschooled him for that grade. He had difficulty with reading and writing, but he was math obsessed. We had him tested at the end of Grade 1, because when I home schooled him, I wasn’t sure whether I had done a good enough job. I wanted to know if he was ready for Grade 2. When the test results came back, he was found to be gifted, highly intelligent. They didn’t discover any learning disabilities, so we didn’t do further testing.
He was a bright kid, but the system just didn’t work for him. I had him assessed for his learning style. He’s very tactile kinesthetic, which is not typical in schools. He learned best by doing, so we ended up getting him scribers. Somebody would scribe for him during tests or they would give him a desktop so that he could type tests. By Grade 8, when the teacher was giving him a test, she noticed that if she asked him the questions verbally, he knew all the answers. But as soon as she put paper in front of him, he would absolutely freeze.
Because he didn’t lean toward academics, reading, and writing—although he loved math—he gravitated toward screens. His love was screens and video games, educational games, and combat games. There’s less reading, of course, and he got more success while gaming. He got the kind of feedback he wanted, as he was a perfectionist and had high standards. If he wasn’t getting A+’s, he wasn’t happy. That’s not something we put on him; that’s something he put on himself.
In high school, he gravitated toward computer classes. I remember a teacher saying, “Jake doesn’t even need to take this course. He could probably teach it.” He was interested in coding which also made playing video games more appealing.
During middle school, Jake was moved to a different school so that he could start the gifted program. But at this new school, he didn’t feel like he fit in. Not very many of his friends were going to that school. He started to feel isolated. Then he started to become bullied, felt ostracized, and so he gravitated to screens. He realized that he could meet other kids who were similar to him, others that were having emotional issues and being bullied as well. He started having conversations with these gamers, and they became his new community.
I didn’t know that he was being bullied as badly as he was because when we asked him about it, he said he was fine.
When did you first suspect that something was wrong?
It wasn’t until he went off to university that I noticed changes. During his first year, I would notice that if I was to pick him up to bring him home for a long weekend or a holiday, I’d arrive at 2:30pm and his residence would be pitch-black, and he would be sound asleep. I’d be banging on the door trying to get him up. I didn’t understand why he wasn’t ready when he knew I was coming. Of course, he would say that it was because he was up late doing assignments, but really, he should have been in classes during the day, and he wasn’t.
After first year, he took us out for a celebratory dinner and paid for it. He told us that it was a fabulous first year and that he passed all his credits. Because he was 18, we didn’t check. We went on the assumption that once your child is an adult, their business is their business.
When second year started, we moved him back into residence. That’s when I started to notice more changes. I noticed that when he did visit, which wasn’t very often, he smelled bad, his hair was greasy, and he wasn’t looking after his dental hygiene. He was starting to lose weight, and he was shaky all the time. Every time I would ask Jake about his appearance or his behaviour, he said that school was busy. If I asked why he wasn’t answering my texts until 3:00am, he would say he was up late working on assignments and had no time to text. We felt like he was pulling away, and I just had this gnawing sense that something wasn’t right.
At what point did you realize that your son needed help?
It was October 31st, 2014, when I received an SOS email from him. He wasn’t a registered student because he had missed the registration cut-off date in the summer while gaming. He contacted me because the university finally caught up with him. He wasn’t a registered student, he wasn’t attending classes, and therefore, he couldn’t live in residence. They threatened to lock the doors. He didn’t come to me on his own volition; he was forced to reach out to me. He said he thought about his choices. His first thought was to take his own life. His second thought was to run away. His third thought was to ask for help. That was a difficult decision for him. He said he cried thinking about the email, and he also cried while writing the email.
After receiving the email, I drove to his residence and banged on his door. I was afraid he may have taken his life, given the shame I read in his email. The door opened, and before me, stood my six-foot-two-inch son weighing a 127 pounds, with severe tremors. He had dilated eyes, and his complexion, which was normally peachy cream, was a mess of acne. He smelled horrific. His hair was greasy. I don’t think he changed his clothes in weeks. His residence was a disheveled mess. This was not my son. He looked fragile, bony, depressed, and full of shame.
What steps did you take to ensure that Jake was getting the help he needed?
I immediately took him to the family doctor, and our doctor didn’t see the video gaming as problematic. He diagnosed Jake with severe anxiety and depression. He offered him an antidepressant. He also suggested that Jake had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). We were both shocked because he had been tested when he was seven, and none of that had shown up. The doctor offered Jake something for depression and ADHD, but Jake said he didn’t want medication. I had no control over that—he was an adult. But I insisted on counseling.
Jake did eight weeks of counseling, but it was mindfulness therapy. If you are detoxing from video games, you cannot be alone in your head. He said his brain felt like it was constantly vibrating. He was very anxious and more depressed. He was grieving the loss of his online community and the loss of school.
During those eight weeks, I had him remove all gaming from his laptop and his phone. I took him to my fitness classes. I put him on a healthy diet. We went out for walks. I had him help me with things around the house.
After eight weeks, we moved him back to residence for second semester of second year. The mistake we made was we dropped him off on a Sunday night. I had a terrible feeling all week. I wasn’t hearing from him. I went to check on him that first weekend, and when I opened the door, it was clear that he relapsed again. It took a long time for him to admit. He still denied it. But finally, I said, “I can’t help you unless you’re honest with me.”
He said, “When you dropped me off on Sunday night, I opened my laptop and loaded the game believing that I could just game for an hour. I started gaming all night and then I slept all day.”
What was the turning point?
I brought him home again, and we talked about his relapse. I knew there had to be some kind of emotional issue that was driving his behaviour. It started with the bullying in middle school, the lack of confidence, the school system failing him, and him being such a high achiever. He lacked confidence when he reached university. He discovered there were kids smarter than him—a lot of kids. He was coming out of the gifted program where he felt like a big fish in a small pond, but then, upon starting university, he felt like a tadpole in an ocean. His self-confidence completely tanked. He went back to video gaming where he felt most confident and powerful.
At that point I asked, “Do you still want to be in university? We can look at other options.” He said, “I want to be in university. I want my degree.”
“So then, how are we going to make this work? I’m going to offer the sky’s the limit. Whatever you need, I will do. I will even put my business on hold. Just tell me what you need.”
“I need you to drive me to school and walk me to class until I can do it on my own. If you take me back to residence, I think I’ll game again.”
So that’s what we did. I took time off, and every day, I drove him from Caledon to Guelph, walked him to class, and waited outside. We did that for several weeks until he felt like he could manage some of it on his own. So then, I would drop him off on a Monday morning, and then he was required to take a photograph of himself in the classroom and email it to me.
I also took him to student services because I couldn’t do this alone—I needed support. I explained the situation; we received amazing support. They gave him a counselor to see regularly. They gave him a peer support person and a special needs advisor because now he had a learning disability, due to his anxiety and depression. He started to meet with them regularly. He emailed me before every class and lecture, and he had to come home every weekend to be monitored. He didn’t trust himself in residence at school. He wasn’t able to have a typical university experience. He couldn’t join activities or sports because practices and games were on weekends and he wasn’t there. It was difficult for him to make friends because parties and get-togethers happen on weekends.
By third year, he lived with a family friend in Guelph, but he was still required to come home on weekends. There were lots of relapses. I would sometimes catch him playing games on weekends. They were easier to detect, and it was easier to get him back on track. He continued to be in denial and was still drawn to gaming.
By the summer between fourth and fifth year, he had a big “aha” moment with his brother, and at that point, he recognized that we weren’t overreacting and that he had a problem. At that point, he committed to stopping completely. He stopped being in denial. That summer, he started detoxing for good.
Prior to that, we had decided that we were going to sell our large property in Caledon and that we were going to downsize and move to Guelph. We spent so much time in Guelph, and we started to fall in love with the city. We have friends and family here. Jake was able to live with us in fifth year, which was perfect because that was his committing-to-detox year. He had full support, living in a home with us, and he was free to do whatever he needed socially on weekends. He started to join clubs and sports and attend parties. So finally, in fifth year, he was having a typical university experience.
I think that was probably the most helpful part because it’s one of the things we don’t talk about in addiction recovery. The final step to make it work is to find a new community. The alcoholic can’t go back to the bar, and the drug addict can’t go back to parties with his drug-addicted friends. The video gaming addict can’t go back online to his old community; Jake had to find a new community. That helped Jake put the last piece of the puzzle together, and he graduated successfully.
How has your life changed since this experience?
I actually wanted to write a book about the transition between “parenting your child” and “parenting your adult child.” That was my challenge. It’s a bizarre limbo period for parents. I spoke to other mothers and everybody said they felt the same way. It’s like, “What is our role? Are we moms? Are we friends? Can we ask about their lives?”
If your child is a young adult, that’s probably the last thing they’re thinking about. They’re off discovering new adult life, so they’re not concerned about how you, as a parent, feel about it. Kids don’t generally think of their parents as emotional, feeling beings. They think they just make the magic happen, they just do their job, and that it’s natural, when really, it’s not.
I decided that Jake’s story needed to be included in the book, and that’s what captured everybody’s attention. The book isn’t about video game addiction, but it’s become a video game addiction book.
In August of 2017, I was asked to put together a presentation for MindFest. During the presentation, someone from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) was in the audience, and someone from the Toronto Catholic School Board was also in the audience. Both came to speak to me afterwards, and that opened up opportunity for me to speak more.
CAMH asked me if Jake would also speak with me. In June 2018, we flew to Ottawa and addressed 140 front line workers from all across Ontario and that morning, the World Health Organization had established video gaming addiction as an actual disorder. It was a huge day. Jake was celebrating one-year sobriety that month. I spoke, and he spoke, and he was very emotional. He was very candid. He received a standing ovation and he wept at the microphone. It was a very powerful moment.
Because of the World Health Organization’s announcement, CBC was sending somebody to do an interview, and they asked if Jake and I would be willing to go on camera. We ended up on The National that night. It was an exciting thing for Jake, and of course, that then opened up more media opportunities for me. Jake and I did a CBC radio interview, and then I started doing more TV and podcasts. I joined forces with gamequitters.com as a moderator on their parent support page and started sharing things that worked for me. From there, I was asked if I could start coaching parents. So, it’s definitely changed my life.
I’m excited about sharing my story and creating more awareness. I don’t feel like I’m being brave, as people say. I think we have to stop using that word in terms of sharing stories because it implies stigma. I think we should feel free to share. It’s a social obligation. We’re put on this earth to help each other. I think I’m supposed to share my story. When I was going through this, I didn’t know one other parent who was also going through it. I felt so alone, and so isolated, and I longed to know one other parent that could share their story with me. Because I was in that position, I truly understand why sharing my journey is so important.
For more information and to learn more about the services available for video gaming addiction, check out these resources:
Edited by Celina Liu & Emily Deibert