Can't stop surfing? Go to rehab

PEORIA, IL "Days would pass before I would shower, shave or eat," Ben told

The college student, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his identity, said that he simply could not get off the computer.

Ben said he would play computer games until the sun came up and then sleep for a few hours during the day. Eventually, he simply lost interest in the world around him and flunked out of college.

It wasn't until his online obsession drove him to attempt suicide that Ben sought help at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery -- the only in-patient facility in the country that treats patients for Internet addiction.

Located 180 miles outside Chicago in Peoria, Ill., Ben said that the rehab saved his life.

Coke or Internet, All Addiction Is the Same

While could not observe an actual group therapy meeting because of confidentially concerns, the Illinois Institute put on a mock session that it said closely reflected a real meeting.

Five employees performed the parts of addicts who are routinely treated in the facility, including a cocaine addict, an alcoholic, a compulsive online shopper and a nurse who could not stay away from Internet chat rooms.

And while this was only a mock session, therapist Tonya Camacho told that it was almost identical to what she dealt with every day.

"It's very common for others not to believe that Internet addiction is real," said Camacho, who said that bickering between addicts is common during sessions.

During Ben's six-week stay at the institute, he went to group therapy with addicts battling other vices, such as eating disorders.

"In fact, the person who is addicted to his or her computer is going to have the same 'high' as the drug addict who is about to go see their drug dealer," Camacho said. "Both are escapes from the real world."

She said that Internet addicts commonly resist the removal of their computers.

"They just can't live without it," said Camacho, who added that a few people have even walked out of the program to get back on the Web or sneaked in Internet-ready cell phones or BlackBerry devices.

"It's disappointing, because we hope for better for our clients," she said. "But if they don't want help, we can't force them."

One of the most severely addicted Web shoppers in the institute's history shipped boxes of clothing bought online to the facility.

"When the boxes arrived we didn't open them," said Coleen Moore, the coordinator of resource development at the Illinois Institute. "She had one of the worst online shopping addictions, but with in-patient therapy, she survived."

Much like drug and alcohol addicts, Internet addicts must avoid being around the substances to which they are addicted. Therapists suggest that Internet addicts get rid of their home computers and pay their bills the old-fashioned way.

Therapists also suggest that if a computer in the home is absolutely necessary that it be housed in a room that can be locked.

If patients have to use a computer at work, they are encouraged to look for other work options or ask their boss to block the machine from being Internet accessible.

According to Camacho, the most challenging aspect of Internet addiction is the recovery process because of the wide availability of the Internet, whether it is on a computer or a cell phone. "Cocaine and other illegal drugs are not at the library or a coffee shop," Camacho said. "Computers are everywhere."

Facility Predicts Growth of Internet Addicts

The Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery uses a therapy program similar to the well-known 12-step program to treat Internet addicts, which they've been doing since 1996.

Patients hail from all over the world, and therapists told that the strains of Internet-related addictions tend to be gender specific.

"The women who come here mostly have online shopping or chat-room addictions," Moore said. "The men we treat [suffer] from Internet gaming, gambling and pornography."

So far, the facility has helped hundreds of people; its youngest patient was just 13-years-old.

"In the future we expect this Internet impulse disorder to grow," said Moore, who estimates that 15 million to 30 million people could be diagnosed as Internet addicts in the future. "The Internet is accessible and acceptable."

As for Ben, he told that his life has been transformed since completing therapy at the institute.

"I have two part-time jobs, I work out and I re-enrolled in college," he said. "I even have a 3.8 GPA."

When asked what he does when he sees a computer, Ben admits that he sometimes battles a strong urge to log on.

"The hardest part of my day is walking through the computer lab [at school] to get to my English class," said Ben, who now pays his bills via snail mail and never goes on the computer at night -- an old habit he doesn't want to revisit.

"I remember what it did to me, where I was and where I am now," he said, "and I control myself." More technology news | Houston blogs | Houston headlines on Twitter | RSS feeds

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