I wasn’t going to fall for that again. So when I moved on from Pixel People to Township and saw there were opportunities to speed up factory building and product manufacturing, to smooth over all the other inconveniences of virtual farm life, I was like nah. Maybe it should take 14 hours to build a textile factory, you know? As I advanced through the game, thwarting off ads starring friendly farm animals, I was confident that my internal logic would protect me from mistakes of pixels past.
Then I quit smoking.
Ever have an addiction? Intentionally or not, society tends to place addictions on a spectrum, with socially acceptable vices falsely mapping to socially acceptable addictions and addicts. Coffee addict? Quirky. Cigarette addict? Gross and dated, but as long as you stand 50 yards away from everything, they’re your lungs. Meth addict? Please stop petting my dog.
The way we assign different levels of stigma to different addictions distorts the way we addicts see ourselves (as if we needed help on that front). Those of us with legal or mainstream addictions can easily convince ourselves that we have a choice in the matter; we just happen to be making the wrong one. In my case, I was choosing wrong anywhere between 15 and 20 times a day, for a little over half my life.
I had quit cold turkey once before and stayed smoke-free for four years, so perhaps I was especially arrogant when I decided to quit again. I anticipated cravings, moments of weakness. I did not anticipate the unique hell of depriving my brain a powerful drug I’d been feeding it for years. My hormones raged in ways even my teenage self would find Extra. It became normal to wake up crying each morning. At the end of my second cig-free day, I abruptly left a small gathering of close friends and turned off my phone for almost three days to prove to myself that no one would notice or care. I considered moving away without telling anyone. Why not?
I also ghosted my then-therapist for suggesting, on Day 5, that I start smoking again until I could get on antidepressants and quit a second time. (Don’t suggest this to someone on Day 5.) I visited message boards to make sure this complete loss of control was normal. (It was.) I grappled with the realization that I had been self-medicating with nicotine for so long that I had no idea what I was working with. Who I was working with. I didn’t know myself as a nonsmoker and was, so far, displeased with the factory model.
I was choosing wrong anywhere between 15 and 20 times a day, for a little over half my life.
Months later, I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. She had quit a couple vices and addictions the previous year, she explained, but each time she quit one thing, it was subconsciously replaced with something else. So then she had to identify the new, replacement addiction and quit that, too. She was currently working on Diet Coke, which we both agreed was progress.
When she left that night, I thought about my own trajectory. It’d been eight months since my last cigarette, I was proud to realize, but it struck me how little had improved. My life had changed, sure, but mostly from a physical health standpoint. I was still fairly withdrawn compared to the person I used to be: watching more TV, smoking more pot; I hadn’t been on a date in a literal year. Was nicotine so critical to my identity and happiness that without it I was a tired, sad couch-person? And mostly fine with it?
In truth, my nicotine addiction wasn’t to blame for the rut I was in. My version of Diet Coke was.