In 2012 my father succumbed to lung and brain cancer at the age of sixty-three. Though my father had quit smoking for at least five years, the toll of a forty-five year pack a day habit had already proven fatal. My father had taken early retirement two years prior from a job he despised, and I imagine he forecast a number of years to enjoy his family and grandchildren. It was likely a profound insult for him to have finally reached retirement only to find himself terminally ill. Whatever his plans may have been after that two year respite, he spent the last year of his life ravaged by cancer. It was a sad and painful way to leave this world, and all the worse to be so young. As a smoker, seeing my father succumb to this first-hand was a sobering experience, and an unavoidable reminder of what was in-store for myself if I continued to smoke.
Like my father I had begun smoking at the age of thirteen. It was the spring of 1989 and a day of firsts. I had spent half the day with neighborhood friends sampling the contents of one boys’ parents’ liquor cabinet. After gagging down a mix of beer, whiskey, vodka, and liqueurs, our faces rosy with alcohol and our behavior an increasingly exaggerated pantomime of what we understood as drunkenness, we ventured out to pal around town.
Eventually we found ourselves in the basement of a friend and out came a pack of Marlboro’s. I had never seen any of my friends smoke before, though now they all casually lit up, and conversation turned to “mature” commentary on the brands they liked and how prolific their habit had been. Curious, as well as not wanting to be left out, I asked for one. This was received with an exaggerated, “What? You don’t smoke”. I pointed out I had never seen any of them smoke before, contrary to their declarations of habit and brand preferences. A shrug ensued, I was handed a cigarette and a light, and I took my first polluting drag.
First drag and I instantly enjoyed the sensation. There was no coughing fit, no face wretched in disgust and question as to why someone might do this to themselves. It was perfectly pleasurable and a sense of knowing came over me. It was almost as if that moment had been predestined.
The idea of predestination strikes me as juvenile but perhaps in some ways it had been. I had been sucking down second-hand smoke for the entirety of my life at that point, the smoke clouds filling our home from my mother and fathers prodigious habit. The first and most profound examples of what it meant to be human had been modeling smoking for me for thirteen years. Add in the cultural influences my malleable brain wasn’t even aware of then, from product placement in movies, to magazine and billboard advertising, to a cultural acceptance of the habit that included smoking in most every available public space, and it’s no wonder I felt as if a missing piece had clicked into place.
Then again, maybe that is bullshit?
I had two brothers who grew up in that same environment and smoking milieu and neither one ever picked up the habit. Perhaps I was just the weak minded middle child who was looking for peer acceptance or an early sense of emancipation? No matter what it was, that day marked the beginning of a twenty-seven year habit.
At this age and remove, to imagine a thirteen year old smoking is to see the soft specimen of a baby barely out of their training pants with a cigarette between their lips. It’s absurd. We were white suburban boys, not depression-era children prematurely aged by want and hard labor. Yes, we came from working-class families, some of us living in less-than-ideal conditions, but we were fed and clothed and at the very least received the affectionate attention of our mothers on occasion. We were not third-world kids surviving the fall-out of insurrectionist warfare and given over to a fatalism that marked adolescent smoking as the least of concerns.
My step-daughter recently turned twelve. When I contemplate that in one year she would be the same age as myself when I started smoking I’m filled with an unnameable and sickening sense in my stomach. To even imagine her with a cigarette in her mouth, polluting her perfectly pink and healthy lungs, is to imagine a sense of disappointment so profound it borders on outrage. It also puts into perspective my own childhood in a way I had never before been capable of seeing. That brings a sense of eye-opening sadness that is hard for me to ignore.
Smoking Then and Now
These days it’s rare to see people smoking in public and when you do it’s like spotting some elusive and endangered animal. I imagine the children of today could go through adolescence encountering few examples of smoking. A determined parent could further eliminate these encounters if they saw fit to do so as even television and movies now contain warnings if smoking is depicted.
I was part of the 90s upsurge in teen smoking. The tobacco industry, after years of declining adolescent smoking rates and knowing damn well that hooking a teen was the path to a lifetime customer, had spent gobs of marketing dollars pushing their brands. They were successful. Teen smoking rates spiked before beginning to dip again in the late 90s.
Juxtaposing today’s world against the world of 1989 and the 90’s era I maneuvered as a teen is a juxtaposition of stark contrasts. Public smoking was a normal part of life. Cigarette machines could still be found displaying their wares in hotel and restaurant lobbies. Every underage kid I knew who smoked was aware of where these machines resided and made mental note of any new encounters. While the minimum age for the purchase of cigarettes was eighteen when I started, you could easily purchase cigarettes at gas stations and liquor stores. It wasn’t as if my thirteen year old ass looked eighteen. It was that most places didn’t give a shit. The person behind the counter was likely a smoker themselves.
You could smoke in restaurants and bars, there were billboards and magazine spreads advertising cigarette brands, and even cigarette samples arriving by mail. Yes, the U.S. mail being used as a cigarette distributor for new cigarette brand samples! I’m not referring to a sample someone requested through the mail. These were neighborhood-wide dispersal’s to every household, smoker occupant or not. Smoking was depicted in television shows and movies (our action heroes, capable of amazing physical feats of strength and endurance always smoked), our music and fashion icons smoked, our parents and teachers and friends’ parents smoked.
I was part of the 90s upsurge in teen smoking. The tobacco industry, after years of declining adolescent smoking rates and knowing damn well that hooking a teen was the path to a lifetime customer, had spent gobs of marketing dollars pushing their brands. They were successful. Teen smoking rates spiked before beginning to dip again in the late 90s. Just about everyone I knew smoked or started smoking. Their friends smoked. Friends of friends smoked. Finding myself around large groups of teens only drove that home as well: everyone was smoking. Most of our parents knew we were smoking and accepted it.
My parents discovered I was smoking not long after I started. Finding a pack of cigarettes on me, I took the sorry maneuver of pleading I was holding them for a friend. One morning a short time later, after hopping into a friends car for a ride to school, I pulled out my cigarettes for the first smoke of the day and found a small note nestled within the pack. It was in my mothers unmistakable handwriting and read, “Think you’re fooling someone? See you after school.” I moved through that school day filled with dread and snowballing thoughts of increasingly severe punishments.
In the end my parents were nonplussed by my smoking. They were disappointed that I had lied to them, obviously felt that thirteen was young to be starting, and dished out a set of reasons to quit smoking. Nevertheless, they allowed me to smoke. They reasoned they had little authority to tell me I couldn’t smoke when they smoked themselves. They went on to say I wasn’t allowed to smoke in the house and they wouldn’t buy them for me. For a kid who had sweated out a full eight hours in school imagining the possible punishments he would endure this was a surprising turn of events. With relief I stepped outside and smoked a cigarette.
Was this the right approach for a parent? Probably not. I find it sad to contemplate that this was my parents’ response to something so life altering and unhealthy. Then again, what could they have done? They spoke to me, perhaps not as convincingly as they should have, about the health effects and the costs and how addictive it was. Would anger and severe punishment have curtailed what I was doing? No, and they knew well enough at that point they would have had little ability to stop me.
Ritual and Reward
I was a chain smoker from day one. I smoked upon waking. As a teen I was already a coffee drinker, and I’d smoke with my morning coffee, and then I smoked after my breakfast. Off to school, and in later years to work, I’d smoke non-stop the whole way, snubbing out the stubs in an overflowing dashboard ashtray, a spill of ashes and butts spreading out onto the floor.
Smoking quickly became a release and reward ritual built around the minutia of my life. Hard stretch at work? Reward with a cigarette. Difficult conversation with a loved one? Steady those nerves with a cigarette. Nervous about making your bills? Spend money you don’t have on another pack of cigarettes and ease your anxiety. Smoke because something was good, smoke because something was bad. Have a smoke, and hey, have another when a friend joins you on break. Ready to call it a night and get some sleep? Gotta have that last of the evening cigarette prior to brushing your teeth and crawling into bed.
I loved smoking. I loved the packaging and the rituals, the extension of the cigarette from the hand, an exclamation to every declaration or point of inflection. A new pack of cigarettes held a pleasing feel of solidity and expectation. With the compact red and white box of Marlboro’s there would ensue three hard raps of the top on my palm, followed by a rotation of the pack and three more raps. Pulling open the cellophane wrapper produced a strange though satisfying appeal as the separation from top and bottom cellophane was silent and liquid like. Pull open the box top and release the top foil to be greeted with the sharp, tangy smell of the tobacco and the tightly packed and perfectly formed rows of cigarettes.
Isn’t that what every smoker tells themselves, especially in the beginning? A vague notion that in a short while they’ll quit smoking? Then that continues for year after addicted year until a fatalism sets in and it morphs into a detached sense of inevitable death by cigarette.
A new pack promised plenty, hours of relief, a passage of time contained in that box where I didn’t have to worry so much. Pull out that first cigarette, light, inhale, and release that calming blue cloud while a gazillion hungry mouths all over my body munched and digested nicotine particles. From the top of my spine to my fingertips a wave passing over me like a warm and comforting blanket, a sense of tightness and mental tension suddenly released.
I never knew a smoker who was not aware of how unhealthy and ultimately deadly smoking could be. That being said, as a person who smoked for almost three decades, I’m aware of the mental gymnastics that a smoker acquires in avoiding the truth of their habit.
Yes, I knew it was unhealthy and there were like, a lot of bad chemicals released with every drag. Yet I wasn’t going to go out of my way to get too in-depth with any of that information. Honestly, I was going to quit smoking soon. Isn’t that what every smoker tells themselves, especially in the beginning? A vague notion that in a short while they’ll quit smoking? Then that continues for year after addicted year until a fatalism sets in and it morphs into a detached sense of inevitable death by cigarette.
Of course that is a type of avoidance, a mental trick. That sense of death is a non-reality that feels back-of-the-mind avoidable, somehow a lucky dodge of the bullet, though it simply grants you the excuse to continue smoking. Mental gymnastics or not, most smokers eventually come to the conclusion they need to quit smoking. Whether they are successful or not is another story.
I don’t believe there is a proven, fail-safe method that will work for everyone when it comes to kicking an addiction like smoking. I’m certainly not the poster child for how to quit smoking as I tried to countless times over the course of twenty-seven years. For some nicotine gum will work, or the nicotine patch, or hypnosis, or Chantix, or any one of the innumerable ways out there that must garner persons and corporations untold sums in profit every year. My belief is it’s different, and personal, for everyone.
The first time I quit smoking was not by choice. I was forcefully, nail-bitingly smoke-free for the three months of Marine Corps boot camp. Our drill instructors eloquently advised we take this opportunity and continue to refrain after completing boot camp with words along the lines of: “You doggone filthy recruits need to stay off that shit! Don’t go acting like some dirty-assed civilian once you’re done here! You’re off them, stay the hell off them!”
Taking those words to heart the first thing I did after boot camp graduation was to purchase a pack of Marlboro’s and light up in the airport smoking section. Of course I thought for a moment about how it would be so much healthier and financially smart to stay off them, and they did feel foreign in my hand right then, no longer the natural extension of the body they had always seemed to be. But oh, the feeling was so good after such an arduous three months. I told myself I wanted to feel like a regular person, and by the time I arrived home for my week of leave I was a full-fledged smoker again.
Nicotine Gum, Pretzel Logs, Vaping, and More Oh My!
Over time I tried to quit smoking using many of the methods I previously mentioned. I chewed nicotine gum for a time. With each piece I’d start with a slow, contemplative chewing, letting the nicotine release, trying to be patient, letting the chicklet rest between my lip and gum like a nicotine plug. Soon enough I’d realize I was chomping at that tiny piece of gum like a crazed animal, accidentally biting the insides of my cheeks until they were covered in blood blisters. After a days worth of gum my jaw would be painfully sore.
When Vaping first arrived in Boise I tried that as well. Vaping presented itself as a have your cake and eat it approach to quitting, and I was stoked about that. What could be better than to satisfy an addiction to nicotine and quit smoking cigarettes with…smoking?
The gum gave me some relief. It took the edge off, but I’d chew the gum in the same quantities as I’d have smoked cigarettes and I wasn’t weaning off nicotine. By the time I got to the point of using gum with lower nicotine levels I’d end up caving and begin smoking again.
I tried the patches. The patches never did a damn thing for me except leave itchy welts all over my skin. I’d put on a patch, scratch at it for a number of hours, and eventually tear it off in a nervous fit. I’d quickly resort to smoking, all the while wondering if I was going to give myself nicotine poisoning.
There were other short-lived and novel attempts at quitting. Inspired by a friend (and if I recall correctly this actually worked for him) I tried the pretzel approach. This entailed buying pretzel logs and breaking them into pieces about the size of a cigarette. You then kept these in hand like a cigarette and sucked and chewed on the pieces. This was an attempt to soothe the nerves and break the hand and mouth habit that solidifies aspects of the addiction. All I ended up with were chapped lips from all of the salt and a half a bag of stale pretzels.
The pretzel log was a play on the fake cigarette approach, which I also tried. I tossed that piece of Styrofoam crap in the trash within a few hours of purchasing and exchanged it for the real thing. I logged numerous attempts with the “tell others you’re going to quit smoking and they’ll keep you accountable and you won’t want to let them down” approach. It never worked. No one gave a shit when you faltered, and they were usually the one who bummed you a cigarette after you pleaded with them for a few moments. If anything, it was simply a lesson learned that smokers have little spine when it comes to helping others with a shared addiction. Their resolve to be firm and deny you nicotine for your own good is about as firm as your resolve to stick to your word and quit smoking.
When Vaping first arrived in Boise I tried that as well. Vaping presented itself as a have your cake and eat it approach to quitting, and I was stoked about that. What could be better than to satisfy an addiction to nicotine and quit smoking cigarettes with…smoking? Initially skeptical I bought a cheap unit, was taught how to wire my own torches (the wire that heated up to vaporize the vape juice), sampled mixtures until I came up with something approximating my Marlboro’s, and was on my way.
In the beginning all was well. I wasn’t smoking. Though soon enough it became apparent I was excessively smoking the vape. I was likely getting more nicotine than I had previously as I was now given a license to inhale whenever I wanted. No more having to venture outside to puff away in dejection. I could now fill my kitchen and living room with clouds of purely innocuous, slightly scented, water vapor. The perception that it was healthy (a perception I clung to tenaciously for a time) allowed me to reason it was perfectly acceptable to constantly smoke that thing.
Eventually the novelty wore off. Beside my wife expressing serious concerns regarding the quantities I was inhaling and possible health effects, I was growing tired of the whole process. Wiring up torches was a pain in the ass and they were never consistent in how well they heated the vape juice. The vape would leak as well, getting vape fluid everywhere. Then there were the times it seemed I was heating up the coil and inhaling charred metal over vaporized nicotine. I’m quite sure that was healthy.
This was before the better vapes came out – you know, the ones where a person jettisons a vapor cloud on par with the size of diesel engines roadside exhaust. Having an older and cheap unit, I was never satisfied with the volume my vape produced. That left me disappointed and with a nervous itch in the addicted center of my being. Like every other attempt, I ditched this after a time.
I had a few smoking cessation attempts that looked as if I had quit smoking – a one time best coming in at ten months. That was savagely discarded with the frenzied smoking of a whole pack in one evening. Even as I coughed through the slime the next day, and registered how raw my throat felt, and how stinky my clothes smelled, I continued. There were other cessations that lasted months, but they dwindled in duration as time went on.
With every failure came a sense of humiliation. Near the end, failing and then hiding that fact was ultimately the most profound. As an adult, with an otherwise mature capacity to navigate the world and to meet my responsibilities head on, able to demonstrate intelligence and fortitude in all other aspects of my life, to repeatedly fail to quit smoking and then to hide that usage from my loved ones like I was a tween all over again, was humiliating.
At times I was successful hiding it, other times I was abysmally bad at it. I recall one instance – taking out the trash after dinner and coming up with the idea that within the moments it took me to make it to the garbage can I could light a cigarette, take three or four desperate drags, and then come back inside without being found out. Of course, my wife immediately smelled the cigarette smoke. I could continue detailing a long list of ways in which I went about trying to hide my habit, my dirty little smoking secret, but I won’t bore you. It’s enough to say it filled me with a sense of shame, embarrassment, and humiliation.
What Finally Worked for Me to Quit Smoking
Ultimately it was going cold turkey and attempting to quit again and again that was my own personal recipe for success. Over time, by continuously attempting to quit, I taught myself what I needed mentally and physically to break the habit.
The first thing I learned was if I could make it three days without a cigarette, I’d get over the hump of feeling like my life was falling apart without nicotine. It was enough to where I then had to simply (a deceptive “simple” – it was anything but) avoid cigarettes and resist caving when strong urges arose. Those urges would be powerful. The urges lasted much longer than the literature of quitting attested to – five minute cravings is often what I read. No five minute craving for me. My urges could last a solid hour causing a mental tailspin where thinking of anything other than all the minute aspects of smoking was out of the question.
Vigorous, body destroying, and energy depleting exercise was crucial for me. Running and lifting weights accomplished this. I believe the endorphins released through this activity helped to alleviate feelings of unease and anxiousness. I have no idea if this is true, but it’s a nice thought.
I learned if I slipped, and I did, I was able to quit smoking again. I learned I need not give up. This seems simple and commonsense, but my addicted brain would often tell me there was no hope of quitting after a failed attempt.
It helped that we’ve entered into a world where smoking is not as commonplace as it once was. I know of only two people at present who still smoke, and they live in different states. I have no contact with anyone that smokes, so there is little risk of being tempted by a friend who still lights up. That’s a big deal for me. I learned early on I cannot “just have a cigarette for old times sake” after having quit. If I do, I will start smoking again.
I wish I could say watching my father die helped as well. It may have had a back of the mind persuasiveness, but honestly, I smoked the whole time he was battling cancer, up until his death, and for a time afterward. It was a brutal, and ugly way to go, and attests to the power of my own addiction to nicotine that I still rationalized my habit in the face of what could befall myself.
After the Habit
Even after considerable length being smoke-free I’d find myself anxious about failing. I still craved nicotine, or the act of smoking, from time to time. I often felt I was not an ex-smoker, but a smoker who was in-between the next time they would smoke.
If you talk to any former smoker about their habit and about the process of how they quit smoking, eventually they will speak of having smoke dreams. My smoke dreams were filled with longing, a pleasurable filling up of a hole in my center, dreams where the smoking felt like a homecoming. Upon waking I would be filled with a nagging agitation, and a sense of melancholy loss. I often lamented I felt as if the craving for smoking would never leave me.
It was only after a few years of being smoke-free that this changed. I had a smoke dream, and in this dream-world a cigarette had appeared in my hand, and I was inhaling smoke, and conversing with someone or some persons. At first I wasn’t fully conscious of what I was doing, simply having a conversation and smoking a cigarette. I then realized I had no idea how a cigarette had come to be in my hand, let alone how I had come to be smoking. I was filled with revulsion. Waking with a start I was relieved it had been a nightmare. This was the first time I dreamt of smoking where it was not associated with longing and pleasure. It was then I finally, truly knew, I was a non-smoker.