When I was young, I watched about a thousand PSAs on TV about why I shouldn’t smoke cigarettes. These PSAs were theatrical, and graphic, and grim. They told me smokers would die ugly, live unhappily, and perhaps turn into giant talking cigarettes themselves. At least one of them gave me vivid nightmares about having my internal organs catch fire.
Another thing about those PSAs: they didn’t work. I started smoking when I was 12. I did it for the stupidest, most predictable reason, too: I got an in with the cool kids at my school, and they all smoked. So I smoked. The habit continued, and intensified, on and off, for years: I smoked socially in middle school and high school, on my own in college, and then, eventually, I was just a smoker. A chain-smoker, actually. My boyfriend—who was a social smoker—started hiding his cigarettes from me, because he knew that if I found them, I would smoke the pack, and smoke it quickly, and not realize how much I was smoking until the cigarettes were already gone. When I challenged him about the hiding of cigarettes, he compared my behavior to “a scene in Trainspotting.” AND MEANT IT.
So, I’m not going to warn you not to smoke. If you already want to smoke, or if you do smoke, that doesn’t work—in fact, I’m pretty sure that all of those warnings were why the “cool kids” at my school smoked cigarettes. Smoking was bad and dangerous and adults didn’t want us to do it, and therefore, it was something we automatically wanted to do, all the time, forever. So. No graphic lung-cancer descriptions for you, young person! I know those are super sexy and enticing!
I am, however, going to tell you why you shouldn’t smoke. Or, for that matter, flirt too hard with any addictive substance. The reason is this: sooner or later, you’re going to want to quit. Everyone does. The problem with smoking—or being addicted to anything—is just that simple. You either have to keep doing it until it kills you, or you have to voluntarily undergo the worst time of your life.
I quit smoking after spending a weekend in Texas. I had to go on a long flight to get there, and I was scared. I was supposed to be working that weekend, but I wasn’t really worried about work: I was just afraid to go six hours straight without smoking. Once I got to Texas, I realized that I didn’t know how to get around town, or where anything was, so I spent that entire weekend carefully hoarding and timing and counting my cigarettes, in case I ran out and couldn’t buy more. A bunch of my friends were also in Texas that weekend. But during every conversation, I was thinking about when I could have another cigarette and how many cigarettes I had left. Furthermore, I was so broke that I was scavenging free food from parties for the entire weekend. Which really made me wonder why I was spending $12 a day on cigarettes.
I’m telling you this because it provides a fairly clear snapshot of how your mind works when you’re addicted to something. I don’t mean to exaggerate my situation; being a smoker is actually one of the least stigmatized, least obviously harmful addictions. Things would be worse if my life were built around staying drunk all day, or scoring coke. But every toxic habit works in a similar way, whether it’s coke or cigarettes or gambling or a crappy relationship. Every part of your life is organized around getting the fix, and everything else is expendable. Over the course of that weekend, I realized how screwed up my priorities were. My work wasn’t as important to me as smoking; my friends weren’t as important to me as smoking; money wasn’t as important to me as smoking. Eating, apparently, had become less important to me than smoking.
And I was sick of it. So I decided that I was done. Which is when the pain started.
I mean, not at first! At first, it was great! I started to get my senses back—smoking kills your sense of smell and taste—and I wasn’t tired all the time, and my skin stopped breaking out, and I could actually breathe. Quitting: clearly it wasn’t that hard! I just had to want it! Which I did!
Yes, it was super-easy, as long as I was still putting tons of nicotine—the active, addictive chemical in cigarettes—into my system. My quitting strategy relied a lot on “replacement” methods, like nicotine lozenges and patches. Which I do recommend, by the way: There’s no need to make this harder than it has to be. But, during the “easy” part of quitting, I wasn’t actually quitting anything except for the smelly part of my habit. When I cut my nicotine replacement therapy in half, I promptly lost my entire mind.
I was a loser. I was a failure. I was mean. I was stupid. I didn’t deserve to write. I was a terrible writer. Everyone hated me. I hated myself. I should quit writing. I should move back to my parents’ house. I should go back to bed and stay there forever. I was going to die. Probably I already had cancer. Probably I was already dying. So what was the point of quitting? All of this could go away. All I needed was a cigarette.
People tell you that addictions are often a form of “self-medication,” that most bad relationships with substances are about burying your real emotions. When the substance goes away, the emotions come out. I knew this. But I wasn’t prepared for what I was hiding. For the next week, I paid for every time I’d ever forced myself to stop worrying by lighting a cigarette, by being more intensely, irrationally, constantly afraid than I had ever been in my life.
I mean, I know. This sounds like magic Oprah talk. I was also just experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms, which include anxiety; anyone who starts smoking eventually has to face the choice between letting the cigarettes kill them or feeling like this. And, again, I don’t want to be melodramatic: As awful as this felt, it definitely wasn’t the worst-case scenario. Heroin withdrawal is agonizing. Alcohol withdrawal (if the addiction is severe enough) can cause fatal seizures. And you should still quit, because by the time you have to care about withdrawal, the addiction is probably going to kill you anyway.
But I genuinely believe that there’s more to it than that. Many compulsive, self-destructive behaviors really are just bad coping strategies. Most of the problem drinkers I’ve known were profoundly sad people who drank to prove they were “having fun.” Most of the potheads thought too much; many of the people who did a lot of ecstasy were uncomfortable with their bodies. And those last two supposedly don’t create physical dependency. But, if you look at the people who do them constantly, you can’t tell the difference. The behavior of addiction doesn’t rely on physical dependency. It relies on your willingness to use something external to compensate for something inside yourself. I was a shy person who had chosen to make a living by sharing controversial opinions. So I’d cultivated this tough-girl idea of myself, to cope. And what was more tough than smoking?
Well, I will tell you. What was tougher than smoking was “not smoking,” because I was actually terrified of everything and everyone on the planet. I had just never learned to deal with that in any way that did not include “having another cigarette.”
All of this sounds grim. And I will be honest with you: I relapsed, more than once. If I went out, I would sometimes bum a cigarette before I even realized what I was doing. When I was scared, especially in social situations, it was almost impossible not to buy a pack—which, since I was constantly scared in social situations, was a problem.
About three weeks in, I attended a party, where I met someone who’d been cruel about my writing. We’d never met face to face. I knew that it would probably be stupid to try talking, but not trying felt cowardly. I went over to him, and I said several things along the lines of (I swear to god) “It’s like, I know I’m too sensitive, I am just like a big HEART with SKIN on it,” and then I went over to our hostesses’ window and smoked approximately seven cigarettes in a row and went home. Because I’d bought a pack before coming to the party, because I am not a hero.
And that’s how it is. Many people try to quit more than once. Many people fail. This isn’t the first time I’ve tried. My mother, who used to smoke three packs a day, still says that she technically hasn’t “quit” at all: She’s just waiting until she’s 75, so that she can smoke in the nursing home.
But I have hope. Because at a certain point, during every relapse, I’d realize that I wasn’t fixing anything. People might still dislike me, and I was still scared of them. I was just scared while smoking. If I was smoking to “focus,” I didn’t actually get smarter or more talented. I was just myself, but with cigarettes. Ever since I was a little kid, smoking had been a prop: Something I used to “prove” that I was tough enough to hang out with the cool kids. But it never made me tougher. And it never made people like me. It only made me a smoker. The cigarettes had lost their magic powers. They were just objects now.
Yesterday, it started to happen again: Somebody was making fun of me, and I had work to do, and I was scared, and I hated myself, and everything was awful. And then I saw them: my boyfriend’s hidden cigarettes. Hidden under his work notebooks, next to his desk. They were there. I could take one. He wouldn’t know.
And I didn’t care! I looked at the cigarettes for a while. I thought about how I used to think they could fix me, about everything I thought they would take away. And I looked at myself, in the middle of my life, handling it without them. And then I walked away. ♦