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.