I became addicted to Uber Eats. Not as a customer — as a delivery driver

It’s a Saturday night, and I’m stopped at a red light on Sunset Boulevard. My gaze shifts to strangers on terraces laughing, drinking and eating delicious meals. It hurts to be stuck in my driver’s seat for hours. Hunger burns a hole in my stomach. My jeans are uncomfortably tight, reminding me that this is an inopportune time for another bathroom break. Many restaurants won’t let me use their restrooms when I pick up an order, so I have to hold it off until this one is. My car smells like the last three things I delivered—Japanese seafood, grilled meat, and the Chick-fil-A I just dropped off at a Bel Air mansion. I am a vegetarian.

I would have to log out of the app and go home to my basic Hollywood bedroom, where budget meals I cooked myself are waiting in my fridge. But it’s still the dinner rush, and my phone excites me with the familiar chime of incoming offers. Turning them down is like turning down money waved in my face. As someone who recovered from abusing substances years ago, I recognize the signs of addiction: I can’t quit even when I want to or when it would be in my best interest. . And, through “gamification,” delivery apps encourage and exploit this compulsion.

I started delivering food several months ago after my unemployment ended. I still hadn’t replaced the salary I lost during a layoff from my full-time editing job. After I got laid off, I didn’t have enough pet care gigs, which I loved, to pay the bills. Despite sending out tons of resumes and constantly hearing how “everyone is hiring right now,” I had only gotten a handful of interviews and no offers.

At first, I was delighted by the freedom and novelty. With no set schedule and no boss, I could get in my car whenever I wanted, activate the app, and start delivering. I felt like I was engaged in clandestine anthropological research. I was previously unaware of any citizens out there willing to fund a $15 cab for a single bag of gummy snakes. Sometimes I had a lovely surprise, like when the order for giant cupcakes from Beverly Hills was not for a socialite but for a nursing home.

As a newcomer to LA, I received extensive training on huge swaths of the city’s streets, real estate, and restaurants. I got a glimpse into the lives of famous and privileged people as well as the ordinary. I’d get just enough delivery information—first names, initials, and addresses—so that, combined with Google, I could whip up some pretty tasty blind meals: “Which resident of the gated luxury tower likes his fast- Mexican food like her husband’s reality TV lineup – booming and bad for you?” “What the Rodeo Drive fashion designer wrote in his Buffalo Wild Wings delivery slips: “If you come through the front door instead of down an alley, I PROMISE you won’t tip and have a thumbs down!” (I changed the details for privacy reasons. I like juicy details, but I’m not mean.)

I discovered that I really enjoyed “giving happiness” by bringing people their favorite comfort foods. My 100% approval rating suggested my clients could tell.

Just like when I was drinking and smoking weed alone at home, delivering becomes repetitive and sad.

The disadvantages soon became apparent. My beloved red Prius stood up to high mileage and wear and tear. As a hybrid, it wasn’t the worst gas guzzler, but the fuel costs—plus a hefty 15 percent self-employment tax—ate into some of my already modest income. I was horrified to learn in an online drivers group that I had unwittingly spent the first two months with zero accident insurance because my insurer didn’t cover me while I was at work. When I switched to whoever did, my bounty went up 40%. Besides putting my car and my body at risk, the job was a dead end. It wasn’t something I would admit on my resume or even over dinner. Not that I had a social life. Although the city was waking up as the pandemic waned, my friends naturally wanted to meet at mealtimes and on weekends – also the busiest times to drive.

So here I am, another Saturday night on the road. The ride isn’t terrible; parking is a nightmare. I have to do this twice for each order, on pickup and on delivery. Now, when I see a street festooned with flashing, double-parked cars, I don’t judge. I think, “Greetings, my brothers.” Where that’s not an option, I repeatedly bypass blocks looking for a space (often while the client, who can trace my path on the app, texts me that I can’t not respond demanding to know what is going on). I spend my own money on meters and, as a last resort, I negotiate fearsome and gargantuan parking lots. Some apartment buildings are so large that I voice-record the concierge’s instructions at the client’s unit. “Stairs to the mezzanine. Turn left up to the double doors. Turn right after the pool. Take the second row of elevators to the 12th floor after crossing the walkway to building J.” A maze back and forth, while worrying about whether the car I left will be tagged (three times so far) or towed away (luckily not), makes what seemed like a decent payment that none not worth it once the extra time and stress are manufactured in.

Just like when I was drinking and smoking weed alone at home, delivering becomes repetitive and sad. My car stereo plays my favorite independent station. But the same repeated tunes make a soundtrack to the vehicle’s isolation and shame. In one song, a folk singer intones “I’m just a writer, so writing is what I do.” I swear it plays every time I start a delivery shift, reminding myself of the dream I could chase instead of a dead-end job. So why can’t I stop? The same reason I was robotically calling my dealer after swearing I was done. My conscience has excellent suggestions: “Work on your script! Do yoga! Send resumes for real work! Meanwhile, an imaginary pusher whispers, “Screw it.” Drive.

Clean and sober now for 13 years, I’m still human. If I’m conditioned to get a short-term boost in my brain’s reward center, that’s a hard pattern to break.

Creative goals and self-improvement are difficult, requiring sustained effort and faith despite uncertain gain. Delivering food is a mind-numbing escape that I can claim is good for me because I make money. The app is designed to keep me hooked. A familiar three-note chime sounds when an offer appears. He flashes a dollar amount – the expected fare and the tip I’ll get if I accept. Who can resist money put to music? I’m like a trained Pavlovian puppy salivating over the riches that lie before me when I hear these notes, even if it’s only $10 to get Taco Bell to a stoner. As I accumulate deliveries, the app shows a running total in real time. He knows that the ever-increasing numbers, even if the actual fare after expenses is paltry, will motivate me to stay on the road.

The real-time city map is also set to make me want to drive. Pale blue during off-peak hours when slow, turning rosy pink when things heat up near mealtimes. During busy rush hour it bleeds in a saturated rush hour purple so intense it implies money is raining from the sky and I just need to bring a bucket. I might as well have won the slot machine for the dopamine it’s supposed to produce in me. It’s the same behind Instagram likes and Facebook notifications that scroll users. I rushed to deliver based on these sudden spikes, only to find sporadic, lackluster offerings.

Clean and sober now for 13 years, I’m still human. If I’m conditioned to get a short-term boost in my brain’s reward center, that’s a hard pattern to break. Some drivers I come across in online forums are worse off. A guy switches to a second application when the first cuts him off after exceeding the 12 hour limit. Others are ashamed of neglecting their children because they can’t stop driving.

After decent initial earnings, I noticed the payouts go down. Some said it was inflation or driver oversaturation, others that the algorithm is messed up or it’s a continuing crash in a stagnant economy.

Recovering from my first addiction gave me the tools to save myself from this one.

I didn’t feel like doing anything healthy or worthwhile after giving birth – just consuming TV and junk food. Like when I get screwed, delivering is a conduit to oblivion. And since my higher self knows this, I had to keep numbing myself in a vicious circle to erase this truth.

But if my first addiction gave me the tools to spot when I was falling into those old patterns, my healing also gave me the tools to save myself from this one. It wasn’t the more dramatic consequences of drug use – job loss, injury, ill health – that drove me to get sober. It was the hole in my soul and I hit rock bottom emotionally. Likewise, my very first car accident (collision with another delivery driver) was not the last straw for me in this job. Neither was wiping on the uneven sidewalk: the customer got his pizza back intact, but I came home with a sprained ankle. The change came later, when I could no longer push the truth away. One day a cop tried to write me a parking ticket and the accumulated stress made me burst into tears. “Why don’t you do something else?” He asked. I wondered the same thing.

I continued to drive part-time to earn extra money for months, but with strict limits – only after I completed more important creative, self-care, and job-seeking tasks, and never on a sudden whim to quit life. I knew I was done using driving as a senseless escape. That’s not why I was put here.

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