I never thought that I would be a smoker, even though every male in my family generations previous to mine smoked or still do. I loathed the habit when I was young, was held siege by the fear of what the people I loved were doing to themselves. My uncles and father started smoking around the age of ten, stealing cigarettes, I’m told, from their aunt, but up until my early to mid twenties, I was still revolted by the practice. Few were happier than I when my father finally gave up the practice after fifty years.
I thought I would lose him to his addiction and its deleterious effects. I told my friends that he sounded like Darth Vader, which was true enough; I always knew to hide whatever book I was secretly reading instead of doing my school work when I heard his labored, whistling breaths accumulating in frequency as he passed through the rooms of the house towards mine.
I knew that quitting smoking was difficult, sometimes, it seemed insurmountably, because after attitudes towards smoking began to shift, and we’d begun boycotting more than a few restaurants because they had switched to smoke free environments, and friends and coworkers began making comments, my father would occasionally buckle to social pressure and try to quit again. I can’t count the number of those attempts; the efforts were often accompanied by medication, literature, tips and techniques for trying to abandon the practice, but still, they remained largely unsuccessful. I had been married for two weeks when my mother told me that he had finally quit the month previous. It had taken her a week or two to notice that she no longer had to clean his ashtray, perhaps longer to actually ask him about it and confirm. There was an unwritten rule in our family by that point: don’t harass the smoker, don’t add to the stress, don’t nag him about the practice or make him feel worse when he already feels lousy about it to begin with.
Now I’ve read in numerous places that an addiction to cigarettes is harder to quit than cocaine, heroine, even methamphetamines, or any illicit substance for that matter. I won’t bother going into the why: certainly it’s more accessible, the places one can do it are more available, and the situations one can be in while high on nicotine are practically infinite, at least in comparison to other social or work situations. I’ve seen the smokers shivering outside on doorsteps, huddling in corners to keep out of the wind, and being nagged and harassed by the nonsmokers who pass by. No one likes a smoker anymore, or so it would seem. Yet people still smoke, in large numbers, even in a country where everyday one is deluged with materials informing them of at least some of smoking’s ill effects: cancer risks, increased to the umpteenth, especially of the sinus, mouth, throat, lung, stomach, and intestinal variety; cosmetic effects such as wrinkles, sagging, yellowed teeth and fingers; emphysema, asthma, and other breathing difficulties; birth defects; financial drain in the cost of cigarettes, increased health care and insurance costs, decreased home and car values; and the social drain from bad breath, clothes and hair that stinks, and the risks to professional, romantic, and familial perceptions. Did I mention numbness, a sodden gray feeling, depression?
Yes, we still smoke. That’s what addiction is. It doesn’t matter that it’s -20 F outside, -40 F with wind chill, or that there’s a blizzard, or that six people, glaring, walked by because they caught a whiff of our second hand and asked us if we know those “things” cause cancer. We know. It’s not that those things don’t bother us, or that we’re all suffering from sort of death wish, or that we enjoy being treated like a plague on humanity. We’re not even deluded enough to think that those negative things won’t happen to us.
It’s not easy to explain addiction to someone who’s never experienced it, and an addiction to one substance isn’t even the same as being addicted to another. Cigarettes are not only addicting, they’re a habit, forged after every meal, every cup of coffee, a bonding experience with similarly fueled friends or coworkers, an excuse to go outside, to take a break, to think, to kill frustration or stress as they accumulate. Smoking isn’t just a physical addiction, with withdrawals that are unpleasant enough all on their own, but a mental and emotional one.
I was 24 when I picked up my first cigarette, not exactly your average smoking statistic. My reason was foolish. I’d always been a “good” girl, never done drugs or been promiscuous, barely had a few drinks. To be honest, I’d only been drunk two or three times, and that at home, in the comfort of a small, select group of friends. I never partied; I got good grades, didn’t swear, used proper grammar, refused to speak of anything “impolite”, paid my bills, held down a job, stayed away from debt, tried to be helpful, loving, accepting, and all of those things one is “supposed” to do if they are going to be a useful, productive member of society. Oh, I was a rule oriented, Miss Goody Two Shoes. My classmates would have said “prude”. I bought into whatever an authority figure told me was appropriate, “right” behavior, and acted accordingly.
I was told I was nice, polite, so very well-behaved, professional, clean, etc. Gradually I realized that such a list came with a set of assumptions, sometimes worded, sometimes not, depending on the person delivering the opinion. I learned that the overarching perception was that such a person could not have fun, or understand the trials and tribulations of anyone who had made a mistake, that I was considered likely to react negatively to anything less than perfection. Such assumptions would have been far from the truth, for even then I was a long way from perfect, and I’d made the sort of mistakes that when told usually are more likely to result in fearful withdrawal than an expression of commonality or empathy.
“Do you do anything? Drink? Smoke?” one of my more blunt coworkers demanded of me one evening while we were out on break. I shrugged and mumbled something vague along the lines of “I do stuff. Sometimes.”
I’d gotten tired, it seemed, of being careful and prudent and defending myself for good behavior, because stung by the disdainful words of someone who had a felony conviction for drug distribution, and in the company of two other convicted felons, I somehow thought it was a great idea to go home and demand that my husband buy a pack of cigarettes so that we could do something stupid for once.
Of course, I didn’t mean to make a habit out of it, and for several months I was a sporadic once a week or two kind of smoker. In those several months I discovered that cigarettes killed the pathological emotional mood swings and reduced the stomach and joint aches of a condition I didn’t know existed as of yet, and didn’t have the slightest inkling that I had.
Then summer came, and with it the hail that blocked the storm drains by my little downstairs apartment, and I found myself staring at a broken door and standing knee deep in water while my furniture and belongings floated past me. The losses weren’t as great as they initially appeared to be, but the stress of the realization that such a thing could happen to me, and relocating and moving three times in the space of a month led to a significant increase in cigarette consumption. At the same time I switched jobs within the company I work for, and voila, I was a line cook. The best way to get a break, if one is a cook, is apparently to ask for a cigarette, otherwise one is generally out of luck. Besides, cooking can be frustrating and harried work.
I’d like to say that I was deluded and that picking up cigarettes didn’t result in a dramatic uptick of offers to hang out, be friends, or extra social situations, but that would be a lie. I do think that it isn’t so much that one has to smoke or drink, or engage in behaviors that are less on the up and up, as they need to be human and approachable. Smoking isn’t cool, and I’ve never been under the impression that it has made me so, but picking up a device, an obvious character flaw, has strangely made me more approachable, or at least lifted reservations people had about being friends with someone they feared couldn’t let loose at all, or who they thought might judge them for letting loose themselves.
Now I want to quit. I have to stop. Cigarettes may not control me, per say, but I’ve let them hold the reigns, and I’ve abused them to the detriment of many of the things I used to care about. There’s not enough breathing capacity left to play the flute, or sing in tune, or even finish the phrase of a song, in tune or not. I write a paragraph and need a cigarette, only to get distracted and move on. I no longer remember to eat, or drink water; my body’s simplest, most basic and necessary drives, and the cravings that spur a normal human being to take care of such normal functions, are all translated into the desire for a cigarette. I never used to take breaks at other jobs, now I take them, at least in my opinion, with remarkable excess. I’m quite certain I’d have at least another hour, if not two or three, in the day to do things I actually care about if I put the cigarettes away for good. I could probably finish the first draft of my novel in six months if I simply spent the time I spend smoking on writing.
Besides, all of the “benefits” of smoking, the effects smokers enjoy, fade away within the first few months of the habit. Smoking becomes a regulatory device, a habit to keep the brain chemicals firing at normal levels. I think, eventually, that it makes everything feel flat and gray. All emotions are less pronounced, including joy, or enthusiasm. The emotions die back or are subverted into the cravings for a cigarette. Cigarettes don’t kill frustration or sadness anymore, they don’t even make a dent. It wouldn’t matter if they did, because being hooked on anything, needing it to get through day to day life, doesn’t seem like living in a real sense at all, especially when the substance, not living, is the only way to feel.
Yes, I’m tired of this. Three hours ago, after a week of trying to wean my consumption to a level where the side effects might be less painful, I finished the last cigarette in the pack. Quitting is going to be unpleasant, but unless I smoke until the day I die (not an option), I’ll have to experience the withdrawal one way or another, and I might as well get it over with. In the meantime, dear readers, you’ll probably have to suffer through a few blog posts about my efforts to quit, but I promise that I’ll eventually regain my concentration and be capable of writing short stories and poems again.