Best of 2022 | I got hooked on Uber Eats. Not as a customer — as a delivery driver

As a recovered substance abuser, I recognized the signs of addiction: I couldn't stop even when I wanted to

Published December 29, 2022 1:00PM (EST)

A courier delivers a food order to a customer (Salon/Getty Images/Georgijevic)
A courier delivers a food order to a customer (Salon/Getty Images/Georgijevic)

This essay was originally published in Salon on September 10, 2022. We're revisiting Salon's Best Life Stories of 2022 now through the end of the year. Read more Best of 2022.

It's a Saturday night, and I'm stopped at a red light on Sunset Boulevard. My gaze travels to strangers on patios laughing, drinking and eating delicious looking meals. I'm achy from being stuffed into my driver's seat for hours. Hunger burns a hole in my stomach. My jeans are uncomfortably snug, reminding me it's an inconvenient time for another bathroom break. Many restaurants won't let me use their restroom when I'm picking up an order, so I have to hold it until one that will. My car smells like the last three things I delivered — Japanese seafood, barbecued meat and the Chick-fil-A I just dropped off at a Bel Air mansion. I'm a vegetarian

I should log off the app and go home to my basic Hollywood one-bedroom, where budget-conscious meals I prepared myself wait in my fridge. But it's still the dinner rush, and my phone goads me with the familiar chime of incoming offers. Declining them seems like refusing money waved in my face. As someone who recovered from abusing substances years ago, I recognize the signs of being hooked: I can't stop 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 ran out. I still hadn't replaced the salary I'd lost in a layoff from my full-time editing job. After I was laid off, I wasn't getting enough pet-care gigs, which I loved, to pay the bills. Despite sending out tons of resumes and constantly hearing about how "everyone's hiring right now," I'd gotten only a handful of interviews and no offers. 

At first, I was thrilled by the freedom and the novelty. With no set schedule and no boss, I could hop in my car anytime I wanted, turn on the app and start delivering. I felt like I was engaged in underground anthropological research. I'd previously been ignorant of the existence of citizens willing to fund a $15 taxi for a single bag of gummy snakes. Sometimes I'd get a charming surprise, like when the giant Beverly Hills cupcake order went not to a socialite but to an old folks' home.

As a relative newcomer to Los Angeles, I got a thorough education about huge swaths of the city's streets, real estate and eateries. I had glimpses into the lives of the famous and privileged as well as the ordinary. I'd get just enough delivery information — first names, last initials and addresses — that, combined with Googling, I could concoct some pretty tasty blind items: "Which gated luxury tower resident likes her Mexican fast-food like her husband's reality TV programming — burgeoning and bad for you?" "What Rodeo Drive fashion designer wrote in their Buffalo Wild Wings delivery notes: 'If you come thru front door rather than alley, I PROMISE I will give you no tip and a thumbs down!'?" (I changed the specifics for the sake of privacy. I love juicy details, but I'm not mean.)

I found I genuinely enjoyed "delivering happiness" by bringing people their favorite comfort foods. My 100% approval rating suggested my customers could tell. 

Just like when I used to drink and smoke pot at home alone, delivering becomes repetitive and sad.

The downsides quickly became apparent. My beloved red Prius was weathering heavy mileage and wear and tear. As a hybrid, it wasn't the worst gas guzzler, but fuel costs — in addition to a hefty 15% state self-employment tax — ate a chunk of my already modest earnings. I was horrified to learn in an online drivers' group that I'd unwittingly gone the first two months with zero accident insurance because my carrier didn't cover me while I was on the job. When I switched to one that did, my premium went up 40%. Besides putting my car and my body at risk, the job was a dead end. It wasn't something I'd admit on my resume or even at a dinner party. Not that I had a social life. Although the city was waking up as the pandemic waned, my friends understandably wanted to meet at mealtimes and weekends — also the busiest hours to drive. 

So here I am, another Saturday night on the road. The driving isn't awful; it's parking that's a nightmare. I must do it twice for every order, upon pickup and at delivery. Now when I see a street festooned with blinker-flashing, double-parked cars, I don't leap to judgment. I think, "Greetings, my brethren." Where that's not an option, I repeatedly circle blocks hunting for a space (often while the customer, who can trace my path on the app, sends me texts I can't answer demanding to know what's going on). I spend my own money on meters and, as a last resort, negotiate dreaded gargantuan parking structures. Some apartment buildings are so vast I voice record directions from the concierge to the customer's unit. "Staircase to mezzanine. Sharp left all the way to double doors. Turn right after the pool. Take the second elevator bank to the 12th floor after you cross the footbridge to building J." A round-trip labyrinth, all the while worrying whether the car I left behind will be ticketed (three times so far) or towed (mercifully not), makes what seemed like a decent payout not actually worth it once the extra time and stress are factored in.

Just like when I used to drink and smoke pot at home alone, delivering becomes repetitive and sad. My car radio plays my favorite indie station. But the same tunes on repeat make a soundtrack to vehicle-bound isolation and shame. In one song, a folksy singer intones "I am but a writer, so writing's what I do." I swear it plays every time I begin a delivery shift, reminding me of the dream I could be pursuing instead of dead-end gig labor.  So why can't I quit? The same reason I used to robotically call my dealer after swearing I was done. My conscience has great suggestions: "Work on your script! Do yoga! Send out resumes for a real job!" Meanwhile, an imaginary pusher man whispers: "Screw it. Just 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, it's a hard pattern to break.

Creative goals and self-improvement are hard, requiring sustained effort and faith despite an uncertain payoff. Delivering food is a numbing escape I can pretend is good for me because hey, I'm earning money. The app is designed to keep me hooked. A familiar three-note chime sounds when an offer pops up. It flashes a dollar amount — the expected fare and tip I'll receive if I accept. Who can resist money set to music? I'm like a trained Pavlovian puppy salivating about the riches coming my way when I hear those notes, even if it's just $10 to bring Taco Bell to a stoner. As I rack up the deliveries, the app flashes a running total in real time. It knows that the ever-increasing number, even if the actual rate after expenses is paltry, will motivate me to stay on the road. 

The real-time map of the city is also configured to get me hyped to drive. Pale blue during off hours when it's slow, it turns a rosy pink when things are heating up close to mealtimes. During busy surge hours, it bleeds into a saturated rush-hour purple so intense it implies money is raining from the sky and I just need to bring a bucket. I may as well have won at the slot machine for the dopamine it's engineered to produce in me. It's the same thing behind Instagram likes and Facebook notifications that keep users scrolling. I've rushed out to deliver based on these sudden peaks, only to find sporadic and lackluster offers.

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, it's a hard pattern to break. Some drivers I encounter in online forums are worse off. One guy switches to a second app when the first cuts him off after he's driven 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 declining. Some said it was inflation or an oversaturation of drivers, others that the algorithm is messed up or it's an ongoing slump 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 delivering — just consuming TV and junk food. The same as when I'd get stoned, delivering is a conduit to oblivion. And since my higher self knows this, I needed to keep numbing myself in a vicious circle to blot out this truth.

But if my first addiction gave me the tools to spot when I was falling into those old patterns, my recovery also gave me the tools to save myself from this one. It wasn't the most dramatic consequences of using — lost jobs, injuries, poor health — that spurred me to get sober. It was the hole in my soul and hitting bottom emotionally. Likewise, my first-ever car accident (colliding with another delivery driver) wasn't the last straw for me in this job. Neither was wiping out on an uneven sidewalk: The customer got their pizza intact, but I went home with a sprained ankle. The change came later, when I could no longer push away the truth. One day a cop tried to write me a parking ticket, and the built-up stress made me burst into tears. "Why don't you just do something else?" he asked. I asked myself the same thing.

I still drove part-time for extra money for months after that, but with strict boundaries — only after completing more important creative, self-care and job-search tasks, and never on a sudden whim to check out from life. I knew I was done using driving as a mindless escape. It's not what I was put here to do.  

By Margaret Dodge

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Addiction Best Of 2022 Essay Food Delivery Substance Abuse Uber Eats