When I tell people that I used to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, they look at me askance—and I don’t blame them. Do you know how hard it is to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day? That’s 40 f-ing smokes. You have to wake up and do it before you do anything else. It has to be the last thing you do before you fall asleep, which can be dangerous. And you have to focus on it all day long, navigating your way through numerous situations where smoking isn’t allowed and planning it like you’re going on a combat mission—which essentially you are. That’s a full-time job. Conveniently, at the time that I smoked that much, I had no real job so there was plenty of time for it.
A lot of kids, or at least kids like me, fall into smoking. But I wonder how many of them remember driving onto the freeway at the age of 16, pushing the lighter in, lighting one of their mom’s Merit Ultra Lights, inhaling when they looked in the rearview mirror and saying to themselves, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a smoker. Like a real one. Not one who just steals Merit Ultra Lights from her mom’s purse.”
My dreams came true—and I didn’t even have to make it far into adulthood for it to happen, either. I went from casual smoker to hard-core smoker during the spring break of my freshman year of college when my dance class went to New York to perform with a professional troupe. The irony of this was not lost on me. I was very pleased with myself as I trudged around Manhattan smoking.
And then it was, as they say, off to the races. For the next decade, every meal or sexual experience I had was punctuated with a cigarette—or two. I was actually fond of saying that I only ate and had sex so that I could enjoy the cigarette after. I smoked through jobs, boyfriends, car rides and workouts. Oh yeah did I mention I’ve always been a hardcore exerciser, even when I smoked? Even during the two-pack a day days. When I lived in England my junior year in college and got around Cambridge on a bicycle, I smoked the whole time I road. I justified this because I didn’t have a car and I always smoked while driving. When I returned to the States, I tried to cut down on smoking; one of my methods was that I had a very strict rule with myself that I wouldn’t smoke once I was in my workout clothes. I would try putting on my workout clothes early in the day to prevent myself from becoming a human chimney but it was too easy to change clothes so that stopped working.
The summer between my junior and senior years, however, the universe gave me a gift—in the form of tonsillitis that wouldn’t go away. As it turns out, tonsillitis doesn’t go away when you take penicillin but drink and smoke the whole time. Every time I finished my round of antibiotics, the tonsillitis would come back and eventually my ENT told me it was time to take my tonsils out. He mentioned that if you took tonsils out when a person was older (19 is considered older in the tonsil world), there can be some complications but he didn’t go into specifics. He didn’t need to because I got to live the complications first hand when, a few days after the surgery, one of the sutures in my throat split and I started coughing up blood. My mom, who’s coffee obsessed to a degree that she drinks coffee while she meditates, always had to-go pint coffee cups on hand for when she needed to leave the house while imbibing. This is how I know that I coughed up more than a pint of blood that day. With blood clots pouring out of my throat and into those handy pint cups, my mom drove me to the hospital where the ENT shot novocaine down my throat and tried to stop a broken suture he couldn’t see because it was too far down my throat. Anyone who hasn’t been gagged by a suture closing stick while swallowing novocaine, consider yourself lucky.
My point in telling you this grotesque story is that the aftermath of this incident meant that I couldn’t eat, let alone smoke, for over three weeks. Of course the reason it had all happened is that I went from smoking a pack a day to not smoking the day of and after my surgery and in case you don’t know, that can leave you hacking up a lung—or a suture. But my further point is this: I was three weeks off the smokes! The three hardest weeks were handled! I went back to college my senior year determined not to smoke, clutching this cigarette pencil whenever I had the urge and self-righteously announcing, whenever someone asked me if they could bum a smoke, that I had quit.
That lasted less than a week. Back to the smokes I went, with all the determination of someone who hadn’t been coughing up pints of blood mere weeks before.
Smoking saw me through the lowest points of my drug addiction because Camel Lights mix better with cocaine than peanut butter does with jelly. And then they saw me through rehab and early sobriety. Smoking after meetings became my new smoking after doing coke in the bathroom.
And then something weird happened. I went to a meeting on the west side with my friend Peter and the two of us went to dinner with this woman Carrie, who’d been sober since, it seemed, the beginning of time. I did what I always did during that dinner, which was go outside to smoke a few times. One of those times that I returned to the table, Carrie turned to me and earnestly asked, “Honey, why are you putting a smoke screen between you and God?” Something happened inside of me when she asked but something more happened when she told me that I should meet her at a Nicotine Anonymous meeting the next night, since the guy I’d told her I had a mad crush on also went.
I had no intention of quitting smoking. I just wanted to be around that dude. But I didn’t want to show up at the meeting reeking of cigarettes and so I only had a few smokes the next day and then met her at the meeting that night. I sat in between her and the guy. I listened to the speaker. And then the guy asked me if I wanted to go to coffee and talk about how much we were craving cigarettes.
He really thought I was doing this quitting thing! It made him want to bond with me! How could I tell him I didn’t really want to quit but had just wanted to be somewhere that he was guaranteed to be?
“Oh, yes,” I answered. “I need to talk about the cravings.”
And so he and I had coffee and during that coffee he told me he had been in love with his cousin—not like a cousin by marriage or something but actual cousin—and my crush on him evaporated instantly. But by then, I hadn’t smoked since noon that day. It was 8:30 pm. I hadn’t gone that many hours without a cigarette, aside from when I was asleep, in years. I decided to see what would happen if I didn’t smoke for the rest of the night.
Here’s what happened: the next morning, really just as an experiment, I decided to see what would happen if I tried to keep this whole not smoking thing going. And I did. I haven’t smoked since. That was July 19th, 2000.
Just because I stopped then doesn’t mean it was easy or problem-free. It was a nightmare; I was so delirious during my withdrawal that I would walk into, say, a drug store with the intention of buying toothpaste and walk out holding a Danish that had been in a package there since, seemingly, the 70s. I went back to that Nicotine Anonymous meeting and the one time the speaker didn’t call on me to share, I went up afterwards and YELLED AT HER for not understanding that NEWCOMERS NEED TO SHARE. She told me to keep coming back and I cried. You get it—I was a mess.
Now I’ve become that nightmare ex-smoker, the one who holds her nose when she walks by groups of people smoking on the street and who says, if someone smoking a cigarette tries to hug her, “I’m sorry—I don’t hug people who are smoking.” I don’t know how or exactly when I transitioned from girl who automatically liked someone if they were a smoker to the most sanctimonious ex-smoker in the county. The 16-year-old me would be ashamed.