I considered having a cigarette yesterday. To celebrate quitting. Like the vegetarian I know who eats bacon or steak or bacon-wrapped steak or some kind of decadent meat every year on the day he became a vegetarian. It makes an inverse kind of anniversary sense.
The unexpected thing about radically changing your life after more than two decades is that even dramatic change can be anticlimactic. You can do something monstrously bigger than yourself and still not feel reborn. Catharsis doesn’t always feel cathartic.
April 9th marks two years since I inhaled my last breath of sweet, sweet nicotine.
That’s the thing. I liked smoking. A lot. Not only did I like the ritual and the act of it, smoking gave me something to do, someone to be, when I was lonely, stressed, uncomfortable or overwhelmed. There was a purposefulness to it. And a companionship that calmed my angsty loneliness both when I was single and when I was lonely in the wrong relationships. It gave me something to do at parties where I only knew the host, a way to look involved in something rather than just standing there panicked with my innate social awkwardness. It could be a conversation starter or a filler when conversation stalled. “Got a light?” So simple.
For all the damage it was doing to my physical health it was enormously effective in protecting my emotional and mental health.
I didn’t even like my first cigarette. At all. A friend in high school smoked Camel wides and I took only a few drags before getting dizzy. I lied down on a bench in her backyard and stared at the sky with my brain swirling inside my skull. I was nauseated almost instantly and my body felt dirty. On the inside.
That 16-year-old girl would have been shocked if I told her, you’re actually going to like it. You’re going to become a smoker. You’re going to start with menthols and switch to American Spirits. Yellow. You’ll smoke Chesterfields in Rome after being shocked to find out they still make the same brand your Nana smoked during WWII. You’ll smoke Chilean cigarettes your friend brought home as a gag souvenir. You’ll chuckle over the limp cigarette on the box warning that smoking can cause impotence. You’ll bring her Turkish cigarettes with a gangrenous foot on the box to return the favor. But that queasy teenager would be most shocked to find out it would be twenty-two years later before I finally quit. For the third time.
Over those two decades I heard countless unsolicited stories about other smokers’ cold-turkey miracles and other paranormal effortlessness that didn’t inspire me to quit so much as it made me think I should just wait for quitting to happen to me instead of something I would actually have to do myself.
A good friend and drinking buddy offered to pay for hypnotherapy. Strangers offered unsolicited advice. I tried nicotine gum. My doctor decided I didn’t smoke enough for Welbutrin or Chantix to be helpful — their doses were higher than what I was smoking and would actually introduce more nicotine into the bloodstream so no pills or patches for me. My RN little sister told me what would happen to my teeth and skin and hair if I kept smoking. She explained how nicotine reduced the oxygen levels in the bloodstream and the body kept that precious reduced oxygen closer to the vital organs, reducing the amount that was getting to the extremities. What “poor circulation” means in terms of physical appearance is lost teeth, wrinkled skin and dull and brittle hair and nails. It was a smart and powerful ploy to appeal to my vanity, which I apparently cared about more than my health, but I still wasn’t ready.
When the supportive and encouraging stranger at 1-800-Quit-Now asked me to set a goal for my quit date I flatlined for a second. I didn’t have a goal. The idea of quitting was a blurry image in a crystal ball, not a date on a calendar. It wasn’t like Oh, I want to lose 20 pounds by my 20th high school reunion or various other specific goals I’d heard from people who were ready to change their lives. I wasn’t. And that panic confirmed it.
I made something up and stayed on the phone to be polite. He knew I was lying. And he knew that I knew we were both just finishing what etiquette dictated. I smoked for at least another five years after he finished his spiel.
He had told me it was harder to quit smoking cigarettes than heroin. I felt validated until I mentioned that to a buddy who immediately responded, You should call 1–800-Heroin and see what they have to say about that.
I would smoke on my front porch, my friends’ porches and backyards, patios at bars and in my car. I loved smoking on road trips. I loved smoking on long phone calls. I loved smoking, period. Some part of me probably still does. That meditative deep inhale, the contemplative exhale.
Smokers will all tell you the same thing, “It relaxes me.” Never mind that nicotine is a stimulant. The act of smoking, the repetitive ritual is relaxing. There’s a calming rhythm to it.
Many people treat their depression and anxiety with it. I’ve stood outside alone smoking all over the world and thought countless times, I’ll always have you.
One night I stood outside a bed and breakfast in rural Belgium. I had been told that from one of my bedroom windows you could see the point where the borders of Belgium, Germany and Holland meet. I saw fields. Trees. And the same sky I’ve always looked at. It’s not that I ever thought smoking would cure depression. But I realized that night that I couldn’t cure it with traveling either. No matter where you go there you are.
I realized in that anticlimactic moment that unless I confronted my truest self I would always be mindlessly smoking in the sameness of different places. My life wasn’t going to change itself. And I couldn’t keep treating depression with nicotine forever.
I didn’t quit smoking on that trip. Instead, I doubled down and developed a drinking problem. Where once there were two now we were three. But that’s a different story altogether.
“In those days I smoked because I wanted to die at least as much as I wanted to live.” — Shantaram
Depression and anxiety had likely corroded my body as much as my mind. But smoking was a salve. Cigarettes were a quiet reprieve, the gift of calm I gave myself over and over again.
And yes, I tried to think of yoga the same way, to sublimate my depression into a routine, to create healthier practices. Maybe I could subvert nicotine altogether. But the contemplative deep breathing of yoga felt like a complement to smoking not a contradiction. And stepping outside for fresh air and a cigarette (or two or three) was a form of meditation I was much more adept at. My self-care.
Not that it was just medication. It was also companionship when I was alone. And when I wasn’t, a friend that always joined us on long-distance phone calls, uproarious nights out and quiet nights in. I still can’t quite explain how it took the alone-ness out of loneliness but it did just as well as it added another social dimension to socializing.
But one day I just didn’t buy another pack. On April 9th, 2017 I chain-smoked my last three cigarettes. I was panicked after fighting with one of my best friends. I was trying to read between the lines of her passive/aggressive texts while inhaling and dumping as much nicotine in my veins as I could. And the next day I must have just not bought more. And then I just kept not buying cigarettes. Or smoking. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months.
If I’m being perfectly honest the lynchpin in all of the cumulative factors making me ready to quit was that I was finally in a loving relationship. I finally had the companionship I’d dreamed of but self-sabotaged my entire adult life. Codependent though that may sound it is the most likely explanation. The tipping point that empowered me to finally let go of the crutch that had kept me company since I was a 16-year-old girl with undiagnosed depression and anxiety.
And once I found myself in a relationship that met those needs the last associations I had to break were smoking while drinking, while talking on the phone and on road trips.
I don’t think it came from reading The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. I didn’t even finish that maddeningly repetitive pile of leading promises that rhapsodized the author and his method without ever actually saying what his damn method is. But it was full of testimonials from former smokers who swore by it.
On the off-chance that it had irritated me into quitting I gave it to my ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend. A former smoker/mutual friend of ours had gushed about it and attributed her success to it so I figured it could make its rounds around our friend group, several of whom are still smokers. And we have to support each other.
My greatest encouragement in quitting came from my fellow smokers. This will only surprise non-smokers. But no one understands how hard it is to quit and all the pragmatic and wonderful reasons you smoke in the first place more than those who also smoke. Non-smokers tend to be fair-weather fans, excited when you’re winning and quitting cold turkey but disappointed in you when you relapse. Smokers will light that relapse cigarette for you and immediately ask you how long it’s been since your last cigarette while congratulating you on how long it’s been since the one before that. Because they understand that quitting is most often a process not just a gleeful winning streak. They will celebrate your incremental cha-cha steps toward finally quitting rather than getting personally discouraged each time you pause along the way.
I thought when I finally quit smoking, (I always knew I would when I was ready), that I would experience some kind of chrysalis or mythological metanoia. That a new clean version of me would molt from the nicotine addict I was. That I would discard that past self like so many cigarette butts in so much ash.
I thought my skin would start glowing. I thought I would become a more athletic runner. To one degree or another I thought my “new” body would feel at least a little reborn. Spoiler alert: only kind of.
Although I didn’t emerge looking more beautiful or younger or healthier I’m still glad I finally did it. I still miss it. I probably always will. But I invested in my future self. I’m trying to give myself the gift of a longer life.
I can’t take back all those years I spent smoking. And I can’t guarantee that I won’t get hit by a bus tomorrow. But it is precisely because life is so fragile and unpredictable that the last thing I need to do is purposely jinx it.