I first experienced cigarettes in sixth grade. I sneaked out my parents’ house in the middle of the night to go TP’ing with a friend. Some older neighborhood kids were sitting under a streetlight blowing giant plumes of smoke into the still night air. They had long greasy hair, baggy jeans, and absurdly long belts hanging past their knees. If one of them pulled out a switchblade and told us to take a hit, it would’ve been exactly as I imagined from all the PSA’s. But they didn’t. My friend came over and asked for one. They handed him a Marlboro Red 100 – the kind you only see in bowling alley bars and Keno lounges. He held the thing with all five fingers and smoked it like a fine Cuban cigar – then he threw up on the curb and never smoked again. I wasn’t so lucky.
I smoked my first cigarette at 20. My best friend at the time lit one after finishing a can of Bud Light. “It feels awesome when you’re drunk, gives you a better buzz.” he exhaled. Due to his undeniable reasoning, I tried it. I didn’t cough up a lung as they do in every movie, which I’ve never seen in real life (not even when a 12-year-old smokes an entire Marlboro Red 100). And I didn’t feel like I’d found the missing piece of my soul. It was just…nice. For the next few months, I bummed smokes until finally I broke my first rule – I bought a pack.
You are not an official smoker until you:
-Buy your own pack.
-Smoke by yourself.
-Smoke during the day.
-Smoke on your break at work.
-Smoke in your car.
-Smoke one right after the other.
-Smoke more than four a day.
-Smoke when you wake up.
I found ways to justify breaking each of these:
-Buying a pack is fine as long as you give some away.
-Smoking by yourself protects others from second hand smoke.
-Smoking during the day is okay as long as you’re at a happy hour or a party.
-If you’re not at a happy hour or party it’s even better because you’re only smoking and not drinking AND smoking.
-Smoking one right after another is okay as long as you don’t exceed four in one day.
-Smoking more than four a day is okay as long as you spread them out.
-Cigarettes on Friday and Saturday night don’t count.
-Smoking when you wake up is like smoking at night except you slept for a while.
I secretly envied others who could do it so casually. I obsessed over every one. I hated myself each time. But I loved it. I never talked, walked, shuffled cards, tightened things with a wrench. When I was smoking, that was it – I wasn’t going to waste a cigarette by multi-tasking. First I’d find a good spot with the least amount of traffic- somewhere hidden from the judging eyes of non smokers and the chatty conversation of fellow smokers. I liked to be alone. I’d spark the end, get one quick puff, then take a big long drag. I’d open my mouth and inhale every last bit before tilting my head back and blowing it all out. It was meditation.
I told myself it was an excuse to get outdoors and appreciate nature. “I’d never enjoy this balcony view,” I’d reason as the swoosh of the sliding glass door became the soundtrack to my addiction. The worst part about living on your own when you smoke is knowing all those butts in the empty beer bottle you’ve converted into an ashtray are yours. Sometimes I’d count them and tell myself. “This is my last one, it’s not even satisfying. Fuck these things.” I’d throw away the bottle after adding a fresh one to the top and go for a jog. Then came the proclamation- no more junk food, soda, booze, or cigarettes. From now on it’s kale shakes for breakfast, grilled salmon for dinner, and exercise every day. I’d run by someone puffing away on their balcony and feel sorry for them. Three hours later I’d be back on mine watching the joggers pass by as I dropped a lone cigarette butt into an empty beer bottle.
There’s several reasons to quit smoking, but for me, I think it really came down to shame. My neighbors above me cursed and groaned and slammed their screen door when I’d light up on my balcony, so I’d go out on the sidewalk. The second I found an empty spot on the sidewalk some woman with a baby stroller would walk by, or the cute girl from the gym, or the sweet old couple enjoying what precious time they have left on this Earth before I came out to poison their air. Smoking became a source of stress and anxiety – the very thing it was supposed to cure. In California, smokers are one small step above dog fighters and rapist. I hated the dirty looks, even if it came from idiots. I still wanted those idiots to like me. Having clean smelling clothes, white teeth, not going blind, not dying from a heart attack while mowing the lawn at 42, not having my insides rot and decay until I need to haul around a tank of oxygen to carry out the most basic of life functions – all just a bonus.
I treated it like a job. For two weeks I could fester on the couch watching T.V. while firing down deluxe chili cheese fries from Del Taco. And as long as I didn’t have a cigarette, I was golden. All other bad habits got a pass. Training for a marathon gets you strong legs, a slim waist, a medal, a bumper sticker, and a picture of you at the finish line with all your friends and family. Quitting smoking doesn’t get you shit. There’s no finish line or medal. There’s not even progress. You just don’t do it and it sucks. But you constantly remind yourself why, and when those moments of weakness arise, you’re prepared.
After I broke up with my girlfriend of four years, I asked a friend who’d been through the same thing for advice. “You just pretend you don’t care, keep pretending, then one day you really don’t.” Cigarettes were like a nine-year relationship I had to let go. The thought of never smoking again was too much, so I told myself “one more week”, “one more month”, “it doesn’t have to be forever, “you’ll get to smoke again, just not right now. Right now you and cigarettes need a break”. I thought about them every minute, then every hour, then every day, then one day . . . I forgot.
It’s been a full year now. My skin doesn’t have a new radiant glow, I can’t run longer or faster, I don’t go on hikes where I stop to take in deep breaths of cool mountain air. It just feels good to be in control of my life. I don’t have to negotiate my schedule around some stupid ritual anymore. I’m no longer Desmond on LOST trapped in the hatch having to reset the clock every hour . Plus it’s cool being able to throw on an old shirt from the hamper when you don’t feel like doing laundry. I haven’t completely curbed the junk food or the soda or the booze yet, but I’m taking one step at a time. The quest for self-improvement isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.