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Unplugging in Chicago

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 11:10 AM

I recently came to a sad realization: One of my longest, most stable relationships over the past three years has not been with a boyfriend. It's been with my BlackBerry.

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Sure, my Blackberry Bold can be slow, occasionally runs out of energy, disappears from time to time and wakes me up with an annoyingly loud beep. But it is, without fail, the last thing I look at when I go to sleep and the first thing I look at when I wake up. Yes folks, I sleep with my BlackBerry.

And why not? I do everything on it. I use it to communicate with bosses, friends and family; to get directions to wherever I'm going; to read the news; to store phone numbers and other important information; to schedule appointments, listen to music and even play Sudoku.

But most importantly, my BlackBerry connects me to Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Gchat so that I know what my friends are thinking, doing and eating at any given moment. I admit it: I'm that annoying person who nearly knocks you down in the street because she's too busy looking at her phone to notice you. I'm the diner who keeps her BlackBerry on the table next to the cutlery. I'm the runner who checks her e-mail while waiting for the crosswalk light to change.

In my defense, I'm not the only one with a digital addiction. A recent study found that 72 percent of Americans check their e-mail while on vacation, on weekends or on other non-work days. And in another study last year, 200 University of Maryland students who were asked to abstain from social media for 24 hours and then describe how they felt used words such as miserable, anxious, jittery and crazy.

I could identify. Lately, I'd gotten to the point where I couldn't even go to the water fountain at work without my BlackBerry. This was alarming enough to force me to take drastic action: It was time for a digital detox vacation. "Think of it as exploring the Land of Silence," one of my friends said when I told her of my plan.

As Facebook and Twitter increasingly take over the world, many hotels and resorts are starting to offer travelers an escape from the digital world. Yoga retreat company Via Yoga offers digital detox retreats to Mexico. At Petit St. Vincent, an island resort in the Grenadines, the only way to communicate with the staff is to hoist a flag on a flagpole in front of your cottage: Yellow is for service, red for "Do Not Disturb."

For my three-day detox, I chose the Hotel Monaco in Chicago, which has a one-bedroom "Tranquility Suite" that seemed like the perfect place to unplug. At check-in, you can have your electronic devices locked in a safe in the office. And in your room, you can relax with heating pads, sleep masks and a sound machine. Or soak in the Jacuzzi. Or lounge on one of the window seats overlooking the Chicago skyline and the river. All in the Land of Silence.

The night before I headed out, I prepared for a life unplugged. There are only a handful of phone numbers that I know by heart - my sister's, a couple of friends' - so I jotted down some important ones in case of emergency. Like my parents' number. (Shame on me for not having that memorized.)

The next morning on the plane, when the flight attendant uttered those dreaded words - "Anything electronic must be turned off" - I rushed to update my Facebook status one more time: "off to Chicago for a digital detox. no blackberry, laptop, facebook or twitter until friday. wish me luck."

I didn't know what to do with my hands. My seatmates had switched their phones back on as soon as the plane touched down. As we waited for our gate to be cleared, I left my BlackBerry in my backpack and leafed through the in-flight magazine.

At the hotel, I paused to figure out my next move. I've gotten so used to planning my trips via the Internet, right down to studying restaurant menus when trying to decide where to eat.


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