And It All Went Up In Smoke
I don’t want to make light of addiction.
I also don’t want to pretend that my addiction is the worst out there. It’s a serious problem for me, and I’m terrified to even talk about it, but it’s straightforward enough, so I won’t beat about the bush or dramatize the whole thing (too much).
Both my parents were smokers, and my mom still is. My dad quit over 10 years ago, cold turkey. I was genetically predisposed to become addicted, plus I was born in the early 80’s and I grew up in a time when everyone smoked, everywhere.
I hated it as a child, but then I hit puberty. It was the 90’s, all of the rock stars and actors I was a fan of smoked, and I was a rebellious teenager—it wasn’t a big surprise to find myself hiding behind the school gym, smoking cigarettes during recess that I had stole from my parents. And so it began...
Cigarettes and alcohol, grunge music and staying out late partying was my MO, and later it just became a part of my daily life. I smoked with my coffee in the morning, when I was bored, stressed, or just as a habit. By the time I was in my 20’s I had a full on nicotine addiction, but I didn’t occur to me that it was a problem until I met John.
At 25 I was working night shifts at the Force, and I smoked half a pack a day as a matter of fact, more if I was in a social setting. Bulgaria was a smoke-friendly place; we’re talking about ashtrays at indoor restaurant tables, and everywhere in public really. Frankly, smoking was never something entirely casual for me, especially as I grew older and started feeling the negative health effects, and as cigarette prices went up. I was aware that it was a nasty business, but I didn’t like to think about it. When John and I started dating, I was faced with the real possibility that I would have to quit if I wanted this relationship to work out. John had never smoked; he was a professional athlete, so you see how cigarettes didn’t fit in the equation.
During our stint in London I attempted to quit smoking for the very first time in my life. Cigarettes were extremely expensive in England, and John and I were broke. I kept trying and trying, but I realized almost instantly that this would be a very hard thing to do. I found quitting impossible while I was still in college, despite the generally happy time I had, being independent and surrounded by art and great culture. The stress of academic life didn’t help, and I was still grappling with my new identity as an emigrant. Smoking was something to take the edge off and do while sitting at the local pub, writing, or working on an assignment.
Besides, I had discovered that the process of quitting was quite unpleasant... and I didn’t want to go through it. Pain and discomfort avoidance became my reason not to quit just yet, so I just decided to continued to smoke until I was "ready" to stop. The thing was, I rather glamorized smoking; it's what I believe most addicts do: we associate our addiction with who we are, and we (wrongly) think we just won't be as cool or confident or edgy without it. Addiction is a crutch, something to help us get by, only it does exactly the opposite--it becomes the main obstacle standing between us and who we are meant to be. And, eventually, it kills us.
Smoking felt bohemian to me, and romantic in an old-school way. I was reluctant to look at it differently, and I was comfortably in denial about the times I felt restless if I hadn't gotten my fix in a while, or had to walk to the store at odd hours to buy a pack, even in cold and rain. The truth is, I never truly wanted to quit. I wanted to keep smoking because I thought I loved it. I did love the sense of stillness and contemplation it gave me, but of course I didn't really love smoking itself. I simply needed it, which is quite different.
Excuses, excuses... I had them all! I was convinced that if I didn't smoke I'd eat more, and I would gain weight--another demon I've been battling my whole life, or that I'd have trouble focusing--the myth about nicotine aiding the writing process. Ironically, I gained twenty pounds or more during my London years while smoking, and I also had one of the worst writer's block.
John and I got married, I graduated, and we moved to America. California is a smoke-free state, which further complicated things, and put a dent in my shiny delusion about the luxury of my smoking experience. Smoking became this little dirty secret of mine, as it was frowned upon and looked down on, and I considered quitting again. I tried once, failed, and gave up. I think my unsuccessful attempts felt both exasperating and discouraging, and I resented myself for lacking the will power. Little that I knew, quitting would take much more than that--I wasn't well prepared to cope with the physical cravings, but I also didn't understand the scale of the lifestyle changes I had to make...and if I did, I wasn't willing to make them.
A year or so into my new life here I turned 30, I was learning to drive, and had started a small photography business. The next big thing for me, for both John and I, was babies. Babies and cigarettes don't go together--as much as I hated the idea of quitting, I had to. Luckily, I was able to conceive the moment we started trying and my excitement overshadowed any and all withdrawal symptoms I might have had. Pregnancy cravings replaced nicotine cravings, and soon I was too preoccupied with how hard carrying a child was to care about anything else. Let's just say that my first pregnancy was not fun. I had gotten back in a pretty good shape prior, thanks to the healthy California food, the gym/pool combo at our apartment complex, but by the end of my second trimester I ballooned to the size of a planet.
Now, to make things clear: my weight, shape, or the amount of fat on my body was never the issue. It was all the other, extreme pregnancy symptoms I went through that made me absolutely miserable. I was in pain half of the time, uncomfortable--the other half, and it all culminated in a traumatic delivery followed by a long and equally painful recovery, with a severe PPD to boot. Breastfeeding was a disaster. I started smoking again the minute Johnny took the bottle.
Rinse and repeat two years later; I quit before getting pregnant with Julian and picked it right back as soon as he was weaned. The early baby years were the happiest yet the darkest, and I found some sort of a release in cigarettes. Smoking was a reason to leave the house or to hide and get a break (another important note: I never ever smoked indoors, or around my children). My depression didn't allow me to even think about quitting. I struggled with chronic pain, and with all sorts of personal challenges back in the Bay Area. On the outside I was doing well. I had two beautiful children, a small but successful photography career, and I was even writing a little. My anxieties were entirely internalized, and I habitually smoked my way through the attacks, with the occasional drink or joint to mix it up.
Sure, I also exercised and tried to eat better. At some point I had a personal trainer and I took time to get my pain under control, but I also smoked--daily, regularly--as a coping mechanism. I got healthier overall, especially after we bought our Carmel Valley home and moved to the country. In fact, I managed to address each and every physical and emotional issue I had in the past two years, except for my nicotine addiction. I lost weight and gained back my muscle, I went to therapy, I coped with 2020 as well as I could, and I started writing full time again... and all the while I also had my precious Pall Malls with coffee each morning, after lunch, with a margarita in the evening, or in the back yard on weekends, when the kids got too rambunctious.
I'll be 40 in May. Smoking was catching up to me in ways I could ignore in my 20's, but can't any longer. The wheezing breathing, the receding gums, the patchy skin aside, the need for a cigarette became too tiresome. I simply got fed up with depending on smoking for my mental health ("it's not a good time to quit/too much is going on/I'm stressed and I can't handle trying") and it made me feel old and exhausted and, honestly, sick. I was finally ready, no quotation marks.
The risk of lung cancer isn't a repellent for smokers just like capital punishment doesn't prevent crime from happening, and that's the definition of addiction: you want something so badly you can't think about anything else, you keep doing something over and over even though you know that it is fatal. There's no such thing as "enough" with addiction. It's never enough. You have it, but you still want it, and you want it because you need it. There's no end to it other than quitting...or dying.
I don't plan on dying because I couldn’t put the menthols down. I want to be free of it; I know I will be an addict for the rest of my life, but resisting my addiction instead of succumbing to it will at least make my life longer (or so I hope). I seems like this is my moment for which I waited so long and worked so hard. I found my stride, and I feel strong... the only logical direction ahead is to kick the shit out of this habit (before it kicks mine). To let it go--let it hurt first, mourn it if I have to, get over it--and move on.
This time I planned, almost plotted my quitting process. I timed it during the winter break, when John is off work and here to help me, and around the Holidays so there's something positive to look forward to. I thought about nothing else for weeks. I got nicotine patches and other aids, like gum and a mint inhaler, essential oils, and candy. I borrowed fidgety toys from the kids and made a list of ideas for things to do instead of smoking when I felt overwhelmed by cravings. Most importantly I decided to treat this attempt as the final attempt, because now I actually want to succeed. I intended to stay in bed for as long as I had to, just like when I am sick. Plenty of fluids, walks, breathing exercises, meditation, the works.
Such a fundamental change--I have smoked for 25 years!!!--meant that everything would be different, and that I would hate it, because it's a challenge to reinvent oneself in midlife. I used smoking to hide behind and to escape facing reality, and also to dull my awareness and escape my own self... I guess that's over now. After the year I had, hiding and escaping are not an option anymore. There was so much change out of my control lately, that if I have a choice in at least one thing, am choosing this.
I have been smoke-free for a week today.
It was a hard week, but also a surprisingly beautiful one.
I was in pain at times, but I pushed through and found a sort of enlightenment in the discomfort, reached an elevated state I had forgotten was possible.
I saw a meteor, The Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, otters on the Elkhorn Slough, rabbits and goats at a Tassajara farm, and the most amazing sunrise on Christmas Day (and that evening the boys lost a tooth each and were visited by the Tooth Fairy aka Daddy).
It rained, and the air is clear and humid.
I stopped reading the news.
I haven't had coffee or alcohol since day one, and my voice sounds nicer, less raspy.
I am more present, and I don't pine for what comes next, for something else than what I have here, now.
I learned to be kinder to myself, to rest more and take it easy. And I like myself better now.
There's more time. More of it, and also time itself has slowed down. The world seems softer, smoother.
My back pain has diminished.
My anxiety levels dropped. That pit in my diaphragm is all but gone.
I breathe easily. I smell GOOD.
My skin is younger, and I swear that my entire color has improved.
No smoking didn't make me less creative like I feared. I write daily, and I think clearly.
MY DREAMS. Oh god. My dreams are so vivid I don't want to wake up. I love it.
I have easier time dealing with everything. Somehow I feel like I've given myself a second chance, like a huge burden is off my shoulders. The kids are enjoying more quality time with me at home, and are noticing my improved mood.
I have cravings and the withdrawals are still here (something I get loopy), but they are becoming bearable with each passing day.
The world is brighter, happier.
I feel high on life for the first time since I was a child.
Here's to 2021!
I wish we all can continue to overcome our demons and still find pure, unmitigated joy in the meantime.