Illustration by Emily sanders hopkins

I’ll Smoke When I’m Dead

How to quit smoking in 1,467 easy steps. Part I

I started smoking when I was 14, in a psychiatric hospital. Most of the other kids on the adolescent ward smoked, and all of the nurses did. I don’t know how it is these days, but back then, in the early 1980’s, mental hospital culture seemed to be mostly about sitting around in the common room playing Spades and smoking cigarettes.

Nobody was very crazy, I didn’t think, just sad. There was an anorexic named Stephanie (my roommate) who wore such heavy eye makeup that when I saw her with a bare face, I didn’t recognize her. She lived off of coffee only, as far as I could tell. I wondered why nobody was making her eat. There were some kids who’d gotten in trouble for smoking pot, a bulimic girl, and a girl who had maliciously and untruthfully accused her father of molesting her, she told us during group therapy one day. There was a kid, Cameron, who seemed to be in the hospital mostly for being a smart ass. A very quiet girl named Sherry was rumored to have been locked in a closet for years. She was on lithium. I could hardly believe it, that story. It seemed too dramatic.

And there was Ken, a sweet thirteen-year-old boy with floppy hair who was completely obsessed with Rod Stewart and talked about almost nothing else but his music and the possibility of meeting him one day. I saw right away how his idol worship of Stewart was a mental illness, or a manifestation of one. It made him so vulnerable, so doomed. He’d probably never meet Rod Stewart, not even once, and even if he did, it wouldn’t soothe his aching hunger.

I was surrounded by smokers. (Ken didn’t smoke—it was if he was keeping himself pure for Rod Stewart, or as if his obsession wouldn’t allow room for a smoking habit.) But almost everyone else smoked. Their smoke strayed across the table and got into my nose and eyes when we played cards. I complained. It stank and it hurt my lungs. And it was the supreme proof, in my mind, that I had fallen into a den of iniquity. I was from a nonsmoking family. Smoking was insane, where I came from, and tacky.

The nurses, who were card sharks, kept their soft packs of Virginia Slims and Benson & Hedges 100s in little leather carriers. Usually there’d be only one nurse playing, and the other three players were patients, who had their own cigarettes, procured how I can’t remember. You were supposed to have parental permission to smoke if you were under 16, and I think it was the nurses who were supposed to enforce that rule, but they didn’t.

The nurses were card sharks.

One day, I left a game to go call my mom on the pay phone at the far end of the common room, past the bumper pool table and the sofas. The call didn’t go well. We fought. I was furious. Crying, I staggered back through the common room, down the short hallway to the room I shared with Stephanie. I sat on my bed and cried. She walked in and sat down beside me and rubbed my back with her light, bony hand. Her face, close to mine, was triangular. Freckles showed faintly through her foundation. Her eyelashes were black and tangled.

“Can I bum one of your cigarettes?” I asked her. She was surprised. It was a Benson & Hedges and she handed it to me along with a lighter. I lit it and inhaled. I didn’t inhale much, just a sip of the mouthful of smoke. It burned and tasted interesting and bad. In that one cigarette, I improved my technique, tried out different poses. After I stubbed it out, I went into our bathroom and brushed my teeth for a long time, and then snorted water up my nose to clean the smoke stench out of my nasal passages. “Don’t tell anyone, okay?” I told Stephanie. “Okay,” she agreed.

Alan Carr’s famous and helpful book, The Easy Way To Stop Smoking, is based on the idea that you should just stop wanting them first, and then quitting is super easy, like quitting eating cow shit. The book’s best analogy suggests that a smoking addiction causes cigarettes to be pleasurable only in the way that wearing painfully tight shoes causes taking those shoes off to be a pleasure. So, it’s not that cigarettes are in themselves pleasurable, but that they momentarily relieve the pain they themselves cause.

This is absolutely true. Nonsmokers, for instance, do not crave a smoke. Barefoot people aren’t dying to take their shoes off. But the really diabolical part of smoking is that the very moment you satisfy your craving (by smoking) you guarantee and set into motion your next craving.

Relief from pain is such a pleasure!

And even if you’ve been off cigarettes for months,the idea of having a smoke may still appeal to you, for a split second, until you remember that you’ve already solved this particular math problem: the deep pain of being a smoker is greater than the fleeting pain of being a former smoker.

These days, as a former smoker, I sometimes want to shout it from the mountaintop: Quit! You’ll be glad you did! It’s an amazing journey and you should go on it! Or: Quit, you stupid motherfuckers! Smoking isn’t acceptable!

But it’s hard to get off. The carousel’s spinning; your horse is going up and down. If you make a move to dismount, smokers on the other horses are like “Hey, where’re you going?” So you say to yourself, “Well, just one more time around. Then I’ll get off.” You know you look silly, but hey, you love your carousel. It’s home.

Not long after bumming that first-ever cigarette from Stephanie, I was bumming at least one cigarette a day from her. I smoked in our room, or out on hospital grounds, where we’d go for walks along a sidewalk that looped around the back of the building. There was a wooden park bench nestled close against the building and partially hidden by bushes, and this is where she taught me to inhale a ribbon of smoke up into my nose. Soon, I expanded my pool of cigarette providers, and then I was openly smoking at card games in the common room. It was such fun to have this added dimension to your day—the smokes, the lighters, blowing smoke rings, and then graduating to blowing smoke rings through other smoke rings. Gingerly picking stray tobacco leaves off your upper lip. Holding a hand of cards in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Letting the ash grow and grow, without ever flicking it off. Hearing the sizzle as you took a deep drag. Feeling the head rush. Feeling sated, feeling tight.

In the long march of cigarettes I smoked over the next 28 years, those first few months of cigarettes were among the best. Other highlights: smoking in the woods at our family’s place in the country, where my stepsiblings and siblings and I were dragged to every weekend in the summers. Smoking in my 1974 Fiat spider as it growled adorably down a backcountry road in the early fall. Smoking with my friends Shannon and Lizzie, in a bar in Baltimore, as we drank very cold dirty martinis and told each other hilarious anecdotes. Smoking in the army, in the quiet barracks, on my bunk by a dark, cold window while I read Stephen King novels about the end of the world. Smoking by a campfire at night, the fire crackling and the hoot owls hooting.

But over the years, I must have smoked a million cigarettes for no reason whatsoever and with no pleasure, with the mindlessness of a nail biter.

God forbid I should ever run out! If I ran out and couldn’t get more for some reason, I’d huddle over an ashtray, or even dig through disgusting, damp trash, fingering butts and judging their length and dryness. “Is this one long enough to get three puffs from?” And then I’d light the dirty butt, its end hardened like burnt sugar, the smoke dusty tasting and unsatisfying. I’ve stolen cigarettes from friends’ packs. With only five dollars in my pocket, I’ve chosen cigarettes over milk. I’ve humbly bummed cigarettes from people I despised. I’ve smoked menthols.

It’s hard to get off.

And even worse sins. I’ve given cigarettes credit where no credit is due, on this very page: I’ve given them the credit for the pleasure of sitting out by a campfire at night, the pleasure of road trips, coffee in the morning, drinking martinis in bars. I’ve given cigarettes credit not only for making time with friends more pleasurable, but also for being friends themselves.

Once, when he smelled smoke on me, Granddaddy said, “You’re just driving the nails into your own coffin.”

To quit, I think it helps to believe that. Yes, it helps to be really, truly, fully present to the idea of nails and coffins and death. What is death, anyhow, and is it worth putting off?