Prominent Doctor and Author Andrew Doan. Photo by Henry Ortlip

Prominent Doctor and Author Andrew Doan

Understanding and Overcoming His Own Addiction Leads Doctor to Write Book on Video and Internet Gaming

Written by Kelli Gillespie

He started innocently enough as a kid playing video games, but that took a drastic turn when he discovered internet video gaming. Andrew Doan used the gaming as an escape.  He wasn’t your typical bored young adult. He was a busy, promising medical student with a young family.  While Doan continued to move forward in his career obtaining both medical and doctoral degrees in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, he suffered for years with a depth of addiction to internet gaming. He knew he needed help and through a conviction and commitment to Jesus Christ, he now helps others by sharing his story. Today Dr. Doan is a recognized expert in technology and video addiction and the author of Hooked on Games. As a prominent eye physician and surgeon, his practice also involves a mission to restore the sight for many in Ethiopia. Risen met with Doan to talk about his path, his faith, and his passion to help others.

Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in Del Mar, California

Risen Magazine: Tell me about addiction and how someone can actually be addicted to technology?
Andrew Doan: Addictions can be broken up into two categories; substance abuse, which we know – alcohol and drugs, and then behavioral. What’s amazing is that regardless of whether it’s substance abuse or behavioral, both lead to the same prefrontal cortex neurotransmission pathway called the dopamine pathway. Pretty much all substances and all behaviors that feel good, lead to that pathway. For instance when someone takes cocaine, they will get a whole dose which makes them feel high. When you have a behavior, let’s say even a common one, like eating chocolate, it hits your mouth and the pallet and then you feel this rush from your face all the way to your head, that’s the dopamine rush and the association with eating something that feels good. Same concept with sexual intimacy. So the question now is, can a behavior like technology stimulate the same pleasure centers in your brain? And the MRIs and research show that dopamine is released in the brain similar to that of drugs and alcohol. You take somebody addicted to technology – like internet pornography or internet gaming – and their head lights up like someone addicted to alcohol or drugs. It all leads to the desire to escape something.
Another example is if you took an MRI scan of someone using their cell phone; their brain lights up like somebody in love. When you get a text message, it’s kind of like the Skinner rat experiment, where the rat pushes a lever to get a food reward. [Similarly] when we hear this ding [from our cell phone] we think, “Oh, it could be my fiancé.” And frantically you check it, you get a nice message, and you feel that rush. Or you took a picture of yourself and you put it on Facebook, and you feel this incredible sensation when someone you are attached to “likes” your picture. That’s why we fall in love with our devices; it stimulates the pleasure centers.

Prominent Doctor and Author Andrew Doan performing surgeries in Burkina Faso.

Andrew Doan performing surgeries in Burkina Faso.

Risen Magazine: How did your own addictions with video games manifest?
Andrew Doan: I grew up in an all-white neighborhood in Hillsboro, Oregon, in a Buddhist family that did not know Jesus and was constantly picked on. On the surface I was well adapted as a kid and even lettered in three sports. But ten years of getting picked on can really chip away at a person’s confidence. I didn’t like being Asian, and I had all this emotional baggage, so in order to gain control of my situation I became angry and became a bully.
When I grew up my parents always said, “Don’t worry about the video games. You’re home and we’d rather have you do that than be out using drugs and alcohol,” because those were the known addictions. Being Vietnamese immigrants, they felt I’d be a loser if I got caught up in all those other things. But gaming seemed smart and like it would teach a kid something.
Before I even knew the Lord, He blessed me with incredible talent and I had six full- ride offers to medical school, four of them were the top programs in the country…Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Washington U… and I ended up going to Hopkins and did an MD/PhD program.
When it came to relationships, I needed love and acceptance and dove into any relationship I could – it was always a mess. I got married too early to my wife Julie because I didn’t have Christ in my life and we were living in sin and we got pregnant with our son, who is now 16 years old. At that time I didn’t know how to deal with relationships because I grew up in a family that didn’t love each other, that didn’t know how to accept each other; there was always fighting, and it was a hurtful family.
So when I had my own young family, I looked for ways to escape. I found internet gaming. Internet gaming allowed me to beat up other people because you play online, and you can pick any avatar you want, so they didn’t know I’m Asian. I was a hero online. If I would’ve had internet as a kid, I would’ve been messed up. I was a young man who wanted love and acceptance, so why would I want to play by myself. I would play a game and then get over it. But with the internet, you have the socialization, camaraderie, acceptance, and you work as a team. Then pretty soon, you’re playing all night. It’s never ending. So I slept about 2-3 hours a night and played about 50-100 hours a week.
It’s not like you start out playing this much. It starts with half of an hour and then you find a buddy called maybe, Johnny, and you and Johnny start playing a lot and then you become a team and start beating people and you’re laughing; you play over and over hoping to climb up in the world leader board ranking. You blink and it’s been ten years. But you justify it, “It’s only gaming. It’s not an addiction, it’s just my hobby.

Risen Magazine: What finally made you realize you were out of control?
Andrew Doan: Oh boy. After 20,000 hours of gaming, I had all this adrenaline built up and I started raging. I was verbally and almost physically abusive to my wife. At one point she was in a fetal position in the closet just rocking back and forth balling. One day we had an argument and she knew the next step was going to be physical abuse, so she took my daughter, who was the age of one at the time, and our son who was two, went three-thousand miles away with only the clothes on her back and slapped a restraining order on me. I still had two more years left of medical school from one of the best in the world, and I was like, “Wow, what is my life coming to?
That night I was balling. I was just crying and praying, “I’m broken. If there is a God, please redeem me and I promise to serve you as your servant for the rest of my life.” That was my prayer. I was planning suicide; IV drip, potassium chloride. I had full access to this as a medical student. I’m supposed to be a surgeon soon; I’m supposed to be a successful doctor and my wife just left. I kept telling my wife that the money would be coming soon, and she would say, “Money is not going to fix this.
Luckily I called my mom and she flew out to Baltimore the next day. Here I am 29 years old and my mom is living with me to prevent me from hurting myself. And then here is the addict, after the shock of the departure, I think, “Sweet, I don’t have my wife.” And I go back to gaming again.
[Within in several months] My wife sent me a Christian book called, Winning Your Wife Back. I am reading it on the plane as I’m flying to Oregon from Baltimore with my lawyer planning to steal back the kids. We get there and I see my wife and I’m thinking, “I do love her and I miss her.” We end up reconciling against all our family’s expectations. She had been gone for six months and she said, “If you go to church, then we can get back together.
Academy of Ophthalmology saw my talent and picked me up. [Then] I became addicted to business. It was a seven year rehabilitation before I got my sleep patterns back to normal. I didn’t act like I was bipolar all the time, so it really was a long road.

You take somebody addicted to technology – like internet pornography or internet gaming – and their head lights up like someone addicted to alcohol or drugs. It all leads to the desire to escape something.

Risen Magazine: You touched earlier on being raised in a Buddhist home and not really knowing or having a relationship with the Lord. What did your relationship with Jesus look like through your addiction and how have you seen Him heal?
Andrew Doan: It goes through phases. We have awareness, “Wow God is real.” I had a week where I just balled and said, “I’m sorry Lord. I just can’t believe I did all this stuff.” It was during my ophthalmology residency in Iowa when I discovered that God is real, He’s very real. And I had a week of repentance where I thought, “Wow. I am a sinner. I’ve been abusing my life, not managing my time…” And I went through that process, but I didn’t know how to have a relationship with the Lord. I was so arrogant and thought about the verse John 3:16; I’m good to go, I’m done, I’m tagged for Heaven.
But my wife had gotten saved before me and she was in Bible study and kept encouraging me to read the Bible. I was lazy and I didn’t want to take time to get to know [Jesus]. My life got to the point where I was a Christian, but things weren’t working. I was still spinning my wheels. About three or four years ago, I started with a men’s Bible study and we went through the book of Hebrews. When I started reading the book of Hebrews, I got it. That’s when things started opening up. The scales fell off my eyes and I could see what I needed to do in the world and what the Lord created me for. That’s how I ended up writing, Hooked on Games and that led to the Ethiopian Eye Hospital Mission and other things I’m involved in.
I’m not anti-games, I’m just anti-abuse of games. It’s like water, you drink too much water and you’ll die from brain swelling. Too much video gaming is bad, but enough can actually teach hand-eye coordination. So doing cataract surgery is like playing a game of asteroids for me. I can sit there at the microscope and divide the cataracts into half, quarters, eighths; the little pieces are moving around, it’s like playing a video game. I can do that all day. I realized the Lord has blessed me with these surgical hands and I can restore sight and minister to [people].

Risen Magazine: You’re not only changing lives through your personal recovery and your book, but you are using your ophthalmology gifting both locally and abroad. Why did you pick Ethiopia?
Andrew Doan: As an eye doctor, I learned that you can do ministry anywhere. I built an eye clinic next to my church to serve the church’s rescue mission and we’re trying to make a model where we can serve paying patients and non-paying patients. The beautiful thing about that is Rick Eisemann, who works for e3 Partners and has been in Ethiopia for 18 years, approached me about a northern part of Ethiopia that has been closed off to Christian ministries for 200 years. But [the country officials] said if you bring eye care, you can come in. I said, “Okay! We can do that.” Later, I was sharing my testimony at the American Eye Study Group and another Christian ophthalmologist named Scott Lawrence pulled me aside. He told me he had been planning to move to Ethiopia to do the same kind of thing that had been placed on his heart for many years. We were able to synergize and look at the research and found that there was only one eye surgeon for one million people in Ethiopia. In [contrast] for example, in Coronado, California, there is one eye surgeon for every eight thousand people. [We made a way that] For sixty dollars, we can restore sight to someone in Ethiopia and they can get their life back.

Prominent Doctor and Author Andrew Doan with patient he restored sight to

Andrew Doan with patient he restored sight to

Risen Magazine: When it comes to technology, you’re not saying it is bad, you’re just saying like alcohol, or food, or fitness, everything should be done in moderation. From your perspective, what type of relationship should people have with technology especially as we move more and more in that direction with smart phones, tablets and gadgets everywhere?
Andrew Doan: I think it depends on the age group. I say, “No video games until a kid is 13 years old.” The reason is that the brain is very plastic. This is so important and my heart is broken for this because parents don’t know this. The problem is we only have 24 hours in a day and the brain needs to develop self-control. A child needs to learn how to sit still and imagine in order to keep himself/herself busy. If we give a digital device [to a kid] it’s like an anti-depressant, drug, or a stimulus. When you take it away, they will never learn how to sit still. Why do you think we have so many hyper kids and then the mom gives them a device in the grocery store and they stop [because they are mesmerized by the screen]. So a kid should not touch the stuff and respect the game rating.
When it comes to young adults, this is where I would say using everything in moderation. Recognize that if Facebook is causing dysfunction in your life – meaning you constantly have to update your status, you are checking other people’s status and comparing yourself, it takes more and more time to feel good about yourself, you are using it for escape – then it is too much; use it in moderation. I’d say the rule of thumb is that if you are using it for entertainment purposes, then use it less than one hour a day. And if you are doing it for work, make sure you are well balanced. You can judge by whether or not relationships are suffering from it.

Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Winter 2013

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