Seventeen years

I just smoked my last cigarette.

It feels weird to admit, but I almost broke into tears writing that.

I just smoked the last cigarette I will ever smoke in my life.

Fucking hell. I don’t even know what I’m feeling- something like deep sadness and years of mourning intertwined with liberation and joy. I am free. I AM FREE.

My mom’s dad smoked until the day he died of emphysema at the age of sixty-two. I was two years old at the time.

He was a music teacher. He was a poet. He was, by all accounts, a sensitive and wonderful man. My mom still gets upset every Christmas around the anniversary of his death. He participated in his own destruction slowly, surely, and literally, one noxious cigarette at a time.

My mom was robbed of her dad just as she was having children. I… I was robbed of the only person in our family who would have understood my desire to create art, to create music, to write. When I started writing poems at the age of 12, my mom gave me a collection of his writing that he had bound with his own hand. For twenty years, I’ve missed a man I never really met.

I am sobbing right now.

My father smoked his first one at fourteen. I have no idea how much he smoked per day, but it was a lot. He finally stopped on New Year’s Day 2005 after seeing his best friend die from cancer that year. Good old Chuck. He just woke up puking blood one day and they dragged his ass down to the hospital. They split him open (in Pop’s words, “neck to nuts”) and found cancer in nearly every major organ system. He died a month or two later. Pop went off the rails after that. He couldn’t handle it, so he resolved to quit smoking even as he upped his drinking. I made a pact to quit with him. He requested it. I saw the look in his eyes and couldn’t say no.

I broke it, of course.

Pop, however, stuck with it for five more years until he died his own horrible death.  Roughly a year after his own cancer diagnosis, he passed out in the middle of his street, full of booze, pain pills, and chemo drugs, split his head open on the concrete, and went comatose until his kidneys failed. I have no idea whether he would have lived any longer or better if he hadn’t ever smoked. I can’t prove that his smoking contributed to it, but fuck your proof. Right now I just want my Pop back.

I am wailing like a child at my desk, typing through my tears.

I smoked my first one at the age of fifteen on my own porch. Up till then, I’d been militantly against smoking and drinking. Obvious reasons, maybe. I’d just never seen any good come of it.

The one person on earth who could have gotten that cigarette up to my lips did it. I was betrayed by my best friend in the world. She started smoking because of a girl she liked. She wanted to impress her, to look cool, to look adult. We used to sit on the porch after school drinking Slurpees. Sometimes I’d put my head in her lap while we talked. She was practicing smoking.

She literally put it to my lips and told me to inhale. Seriously, she put it to my fucking lips.

It’s been seventeen years since then. Seventeen fucking years.

Lauren, if you’re reading this please know that I don’t blame you. You just wanted a smoking buddy. I get that. You wanted someone else around to deflect the stupidity of it all. I get that, and it was my responsibility for participating in it.

During that first few weeks, we tried hard to get ourselves hooked. You have to try pretty hard because the smoking itself is disgusting and hard to do. (Go ahead and tell me you loved the taste of your first one and that cigarettes aren’t an acquired “taste”. I dare you.) So we tried and tried, despite how awful it was, for the brief buzz that we knew would go away once we were fully addicted and for the appearance of adulthood.

What followed was seventeen years (seventeen years) of choking myself and spending stupid amounts of money on an addiction that brought me absolutely nothing positive in return.

The worst is how guilty you feel.

You know you’re doing something terrible to yourself.

You know you’re being judged by others.

You know your clothes and hair smell.

You have to lie to yourself constantly.

You have to ignore things you already know.

You have to act like a fucking addict.

You know that moment at the end of the night when you do the quick math and you get panicky because you realize you need to hurry up and get cigarettes before the stores close? It never occurred to me how perverse that is until now. If it were alcohol instead of cigarettes, my friends would have sent me to rehab a long time ago.

You’ve got to understand: it’s not weakness that keeps a smoker smoking. It’s a small amount of physical addiction and a massive amount of brainwashing that keeps us coming back. The amount of bullshit you end up believing as a part of this addiction is astounding. You know better, you pretend you don’t, and then you loathe yourself for it all.

Even after I broke the physical addiction, I still couldn’t break the mental part. The physical part is easy. The mental part is a nightmare.

You start feeling hopeless.

Fuck, it’s like you just get used to the idea of dying.

You begin to embrace it.

It got so bad recently that I was thinking about how Alan Watts smoked until he died. I actually envied him. I started a mental list of people I admired who never quit, who just accepted it and died smoking. I mean, if they can do it then maybe I can just give in and forget about this whole quitting business…

When I started this writing project, I knew I’d have to face this eventually. How can I possibly live authentically if I am constantly deceiving myself and, worse, know very well that I’m doing it?

What I finally realized is that, no matter how agitated or anxious or unfocused I feel right now, a cigarette will not make it better. It never has. How could it? A cigarette will only make a nicotine craving better, and even then for only a moment.

I’m laughing as I remember that a cigarette was always the answer to every state of being. Happy? Smoke. Sad? Smoke. Feeling focused? Smoke. Feeling unfocused? Smoke. Et cetera, et cetera.

If it’s the answer to every question, do you think that maybe we bullshitted ourselves about why we were smoking?

Yeah, I thought so.

We didn’t smoke for pleasure. We didn’t smoke out of boredom. We didn’t smoke because we liked the taste or the quiet time alone outside. We smoked because we were addicted to nicotine and because we thought we couldn’t live without it. The addiction was talking the whole time. Every other reason was a fucking excuse.

I don’t want to die. [I sank into Maggie’s arms and sobbed this when she got home.]

I don’t have to die. Not like that. I don’t have to do it. I don’t have to participate in that bullshit anymore. I don’t have to do something that fills me with guilt, makes me despise myself, and leaves me feeling defeated.

I am free.

I keep having urges. I still feel that vague, restless anxiety speak. Like I said, the difference this time is that I don’t think a cigarette will actually satisfy it. I keep telling myself it won’t. It’s working.


Post script:

It took me three days to finish and edit this essay. It’s still very raw and I’m leaving it that way. I assure you I am still not smoking and that I never will again. Please do me a favor, though, and don’t congratulate me for quitting. I have done nothing virtuous, and your kudos will make me uncomfortable. No offense. There are probably a number of reasons, and I don’t quite understand them yet. Please feel free to share your personal stories and any other comments, though.

As far as decisions are concerned, we’re all alone in this world. No one can make them for us, and we won’t make them a moment before we’re ready to. With that in mind, I have no advice to give you. I’m just hoping my story is interesting enough to keep your attention. If, however, you smoke and you want to quit… there is a book. A few of my friends have read it and they said they quit after finishing the book. They said that everyone they’ve talked to quit at the end of the book. After yet another mention of it from a yet another friend, I acquired it and read it in two sittings over a 12-hour period and had my last cigarette when I finished the book. It is called “The Easy Way to Quit Smoking” by Allen Carr. The book breaks all of the brainwashing down. Here is a pdf if you want it. (If the copyright holder is reading this and wants me to take it down, send an email to whatdoyoumatter at gmail dot com and I’ll remove it.) Just trust me on this.

14 Comments on “Seventeen years”

  1. Tim says:

    Glad to hear it Joe… oddly enough I thought of you and your (now former) cigarette smoking earlier today. I don’t know too many people who smoke at this point, and I’ve been watching the British series “Cracker” on Netflix, in which many of the characters smoke like chimneys… and then I saw some poorish looking young women smoking while they were walking down B’way, which made me think about how I unconsciously look down on people who smoke tobacco (not you personally, it’s just an automatic response even to people I think are a-ok, I’m always reminded of a line from a Pato Banton song… “what it do for you, it give you strength and power?”). Anyway, you generally seem like a pretty righteous dude, so it was incongruous that you smoked, “no offense” (I usually say “no offense, but” right before I say something totally offensive).

    • Joe says:

      Thanks for the support, Tim, and no offense taken. You’re right: it was pretty incongruous. That’s why I tried my best to understand and explain how it is that bright and courageous people stay hooked on those things.

      I appreciate your honesty about your unconsciously looking down upon smokers. It’s not an easy subject to tackle, and addressing it can be uncomfortable. (See my reply to Sean below.)

  2. Rachel S says:

    Thanks for this.

  3. Bob says:

    Everything I just read I already know, being a smoker for 15+ years, but to hear it come from somewhere else other than my inner dialogue was truly moving and rattled me quite a bit. Such a strange thing, something that disgusts me, something I know is killing me, something that I tell, even beg my youngest family members never to try, and here I am, still at it. I’m going to read that book Joe, I’ve tried quitting several times, I have no allusions about it being easy, or there being a magic bullet, but I think there’s something you touch on, and that its a bit of brainwashing, and maybe I’ve accepted defeat before even really trying to win. Thanks for writing this man, it’s strong.

    • Joe says:

      Thank you for putting in your two cents, Bob. I put this out there because I figured someone somewhere must be thinking the same things. It helps me a lot to read your words too.
      I also think you’re the first commenter that I have no idea who they are, so that’s a milestone too.
      If you want to correspond, shoot me an email at whatdoyoumatter at gmail dot com.
      I’d be down to talk about this more. If not, best of luck and please let me know if there’s any way I can be of help.

  4. Mo says:

    Yes, I always think of daddy during the holidays, and how much I miss him. But, now I’m smiling really big through my tears. Cigarettes won’t take you…

  5. sean says:

    bravo on lifting the veil. if i see you smoking you can expect a hearty slap to the face.
    ❤ you

    • Joe says:

      I realize that you mean well, but responses like this are part of the reason I hesitated to post this.

      What you just said is that if you see me smoking a cigarette in the future, you will physically assault me. Now I know you don’t mean that: you’d never actually pull something that ridiculous. I also know you will claim you were kidding, but I want to look at this a little deeper.

      My first response was anger. My first thought: “Who in the fuck does this little prick think he is, threatening me like that?” I was writing a response that was supposed to be witty, cold, and eviscerating when I decided I’d better go make a cup of tea before I responded.

      It wasn’t until I asked myself why I was so angry that it dawned on me: The reason I didn’t want anyone congratulating me is because I didn’t want to be condescended to.

      Now, I don’t think everyone who congratulates condescends. Some congratulate because they feel real empathy, and because they’re happy that your journey took you to a happier place.

      Others, however, congratulate you because they want to welcome you to the “right” side. They want to clap you on the back and say “Well, buddy, I always knew you had it in you to see the error of your ways. Welcome to the world of the righteous.”

      The reason I can’t accept your generous offer to slap me in the face with a feeling of brotherhood, Sean, is because you think you’re better than a smoker. You actually think you’re a better person than a person who smokes. And you’re so arrogant about it that you can publicly fantasize about committing violence against me (in an attempt to force me to be a non-smoker) and not think twice about it.

      If you doubt this, ask yourself whether you’d make that comment to someone you felt real empathy for. Would you try to intimidate someone you felt suffering and joy with?

      This is what Bill Hicks was getting at when he railed against non-smokers as being “…a bunch of whining little maggots” and “obnoxious, self-righteous slugs”, following it up with “I’d quit smoking if I didn’t think I’d become one of you.” ( See: ) The thinking is that if being a non-smoker means being self-righteous and condescending to people with addiction problems, then that whole world can go fuck itself. There are non-smokers (including you) who view smokers as being weak, disgusting, and beneath them. It’s both incredibly insulting and laughable, as I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t have some sort of skeleton in their closet that others could judge the same way.

      That judgment, though, of smokers being weak and being beneath you, we know you think it. Over time, we internalize it. We know it’s not true, but over time we begin to believe it ourselves.

      And you know what? That makes it even harder to quit. We’re weak, we suck, we can’t understand why it’s so hard for us, whatever. We feel even more trapped. And the whole time, there you are, waiting for validation. Because you’ll be validated if we come to your side. Oh, and we know that too.

      We misunderstand the issue just as you do (that it’s about will-power rather than breaking the brain-washing that comes with addiction), but your judgment makes it worse.

      There is a whole separate issue here, too, about the desire to control and illusions about our importance is in the lives of others but I won’t get into it now.

      You know I love you, but you need to get off your high horse and turn that condescension down a notch.

      (Note: I didn’t say all of this to shut you down. I’d rather the conversation continue. Anyone else with a thought, please chime in.)

      • While I recognize that many people who don’t smoke have a smugness about it — is it at all possible that, in the manner of brotherhood, that Sean wants to help you accomplish what you set out to accomplish? And is willing to smack you, jovially, to do it? And that his comment has less to do with him, and more to do with your goal? My $0.02

        (Because I will smack you for smoking, because you don’t want to smoke – not because of what I think of it, and I couldn’t give two damn cents about smoking. Just don’t blow it in my face :P)

        • Joe says:

          I hate to sound like a killjoy, but I didn’t realize non-consensual touching, no matter how jovially intended, was something I had to make an explicit ruling against. So, to be clear then: keep your fucking hands to yourself or you’ll get punched in the nuts.

  6. bepare says:

    You write the way I wish I could, and express such complicated things in very beautiful ways.

  7. jOchallah says:

    Joe, usually I find things written in such an honest sort of ‘touchy feely with ones emotions and the surrounding world’ way to be pretty annoying/cause me to roll my eyes in discomfort. And then I realized, it’s because (realized as I was writing the word discomfort to be specific) it makes me uncomfortable. You are an incredible writer, and kudos to you for such honest, emotive and provocative prose. And I mean that as a reader, not as an ex-smoker too.

    • Jordan says:

      I so appreciate the fact that you have been so honset about the emotional side effects of quitting. I have had a few moments too, when I thought I couldn’t stand myself ..when I would say something that just sounded so mean to my daughter or roommate .something I would never have said before I quit. I realized it was not the real me talking, and so did they. Smoking was so integrated into my daily routine that I felt lost without it and agitated that I din’t know what to do to change it. For me, physical activity was the key. I have walked, cleaned, done yard work anything to keep busy. Today I am 60 days smoke free and I don’t even think about it much anymore. And you are so right about the support. I have a great support system and that makes all the difference!

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