Cigarettes, Alcohol, and Everything Else

Cigarettes and alcohol, 1983. Photo by Katy Lyle.

I didn’t plan to quit smoking. I planned to go get another pack of cigarettes when I was down to my last five American Spirits. But last Friday, when I ran out of cigarettes, I decided not to get any more.

I thought I was halfassing it the way I halfass everything. But just after I cleaned out the tree-sized planter that has served as my overflowing ashtray for the last two years, I posted on Facebook. “I’ve now been smoke free for 14 minutes,” I wrote. “This is the longest I’ve gone without a cigarette since 1983.” My friends, as always, showed up strong. They wrote about how and why they quit smoking, and left uncharacteristic messages more supportive than snarky. And once I outed myself I knew that I had to at least try to stop smoking, which is more than I’ve done, ever.

It wasn’t entirely out of the blue; I’ve been hit with gotta-stop thoughts for weeks. It started with a line in a Dan Chaon story about a guy dying of cancer. “The cigarettes kept their promise,” he wrote, and it stayed with me. I heard it over and over in my head right up until it was replaced by the sound of a 5-year-old asshole on the 3rd Street Promenade who pointed at me and yelled “Smoking is for bad and you are dumb.”

I bought cigarettes at the 76 up the street on Wednesday and for the first time noticed that spending $8 every day on cigarettes ranks right up there on the stupid scale with say, SMOKING them. Then last week the new and improved object of my affection told me that he lived in a non-smoking building in a town where smoking was actually illegal.

I didn’t quit because it meant that I couldn’t hang out there. I quit because I thought about how many places I haven’t gone over the years because it would limit my ability to chain-smoke, and the places I’ve gone because it hasn’t. Like casinos in Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Lake Tahoe, Sydney, Amsterdam, Niagra Falls, Tokyo, Reno, Atlantic City and New Orleans.

Wait. Wait.

That bit about casinos is not true. I didn’t go to casinos because I loved smoking, I went to casinos because I loved to gamble, and gambling is just another entry on a long list of shit I’ve had to stop doing. I quit overeating, starving, shopping compulsively, and the one-night company of inappropriate men. I quit drinks, blow, weed, pharmaceuticals, and heroin. All of those I enjoyed to the last. I haven’t enjoyed smoking for years.

Former junkies and reformed smokers say that the cigarette kick is harder than the dope kick. They are wrong. Physically, tobacco withdrawal is a party compared to opiate withdrawal, and there’s nicotine gum, patches, and mints to soothe the ride. Also, opiate withdrawal was never as bad as I pretend it was — I remember it as brutal because it helps me to believe that I’ve actually accomplished more than managing not to run out of cigarettes every day for the last 35 years. (Yesterday my friend Beth told me that quitting nicotine replacement products was harder than quitting nicotine of the light-er-up variety. I looked at her incredulously, wondering if she was aware of how agitated I am or how poor my impulse control can be.)

I’ve lived most of my life in between smokes. I smoked when I got out of bed in the morning, with coffee, and before and after breakfast. I smoked to mark my last morning smoke, and then smoked again. I smoked when I left my apartment and when I arrived at my destination, and then left destinations because I needed a smoke. The only time I didn’t smoke was when I ran out of cigarettes, which, as previously noted, hasn’t happened in 35 years.

I’m just riffing. I needed to practice writing without smokes. Thanks for indulging me.

I know it’s gonna get hard. I’ll be back.

Day five. Here goes.