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A smoking year

January 15, 2009
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I quit smoking 11 days ago. Although I only smoked for 16 months, it has been a strange and hard 11 days.

The first two days were easier than I imagined – really, I was excited,  like a test (common with any new challenge), but I was still confused as to why I was quitting. I really didn’t want to quit. I felt I had been had: I told my parents a week before and they were (reasonably) disappointed; Erica quit while she was out of town (remarkably with no sign she’d pick up again); and the idea “I can quit anytime” was something I had not heard myself say in a long time. When I first started smoking I not only could count how many cigarettes I had a day, but I recognized weeks and months as they passed. And as I hid my habit, I even hid it from myself and never considered myself a smoker. But when it came time to quit, it felt like I had waken up and been a smoker this whole time. For the first time, I was surprised I was smoking 10 cigarettes a day (which now, I think, is my surprise that I had started smoking at all).

There was something about the third and fourth day that was incredibly hard. For the first two days, I was out sick with a head cold, which was the only true stress of quitting those first few days (“I’m home alone, sick, can’t I just have a goddammed cigarette?”). But I stuck through it and actually looked forward to returning to work, thinking that with something to do other than being sick, I would have my mind off quitting and I would breeze through it by the end of the week. The first day back to work was surprisingly miserable. I wasn’t stressed at work, although I had a mounting headache from caffeine deprivation (I had to drop coffee at the same time), and actually had plenty of busy work to do. But no matter how much work I had, I could not take my mind off her – this long and lovely lady I was now leaving. I know that sounds a little far fetched, but I spent so much time even before I started smoking romanticizing cigarettes that quitting was actually heartbreaking.

And the effect was noticeable. I was sleeping in late, eating like an idiot, and just a mess. How I appeared on the outside (had anyone seen me) was true of the internal struggle that was wrecking my brain. I went back and forth between angry at and grateful for my parents pushing me to quit (which I quickly had to battle out when they had told my brother – I went from “How dare they?” to “Kelly’s on my side now, this is good.” in a split second). I thought of all the ways I could lie about this – I had, after all, kept it secret for more than a year, and that was half of the fun anyway. I even remember consoling myself that someday I’ll smoke again, when all the people who love me and depend on me drop dead. I love all these people, but that was a genuine promise that I thought I needed.

Even with shit to do, I did myself a favor and stayed inside that first day off (still day three). I wasn’t afraid that I would buy a pack (or the proverbial carton I promised dad I would buy if I ever thought I could afford to smoke  just one pack), but the truth is, I didn’t know what to expect. It was an honest fear I was facing, just how starnge and different the world was without the guarantee of a cigarette. I mean, there was the uncertainty of going to a gas station (and there were at least two dozen on the drive back from work the previous night), but I was really just trying to reanalyze, well, everything. My schedule was different, I had to listen to new music (for all the association I had with so many albums) and wear different clothes (it was odd to find that I had associated smoking as a fashion accessory, I mean, my god). I just wanted some coffee but knew I couldn’t (god, I was nervous about my first cup of tea the other day). Orange juice tasted like what I would imagine LSD tastes like. All of this culminated to me at home wondering who I was – and ultimately asking myself, who the fuck do you think you are, Sean?

The second day off came a bit easier and I went into town. Naturally the girl at the gas station asked me if I needed anything else when I paid for gas, and to the tune of “You need cigarettes?” and it felt so great to tell her no, really without thinking. I found that small victories like that were critical in those first days and I reveled in every one. Just listening to Sly and the Family Stone (completely different than my cigarette albums) meant a lot and really helped me drive across town when I really needed to. I felt alive, even when I ended the night lying on my back, sobbing and listening to music. I let go that night – of all the guilt I had carried, lying to my parents, drifting away from the responsibility of self. Yes, I knew what I was doing was wrong, but it certainly didn’t feel that way, and part of me was angry that this was wrong. I wanted it to be a vice I had, but not something I was ashamed of.

I think that was the first day I started questioning why I started in the first place, and really, why I had associations with so many things – music, fashion, film. I remember I started smoking when I had a short-lived and ill-advised reenactment with my ex-girlfriend last year, but it’s really a blur as to whether I started with her or if I had discovered it on my own and she just happened to smoke when I called her again. I secretly bought a pack last summer when I was working on a story and the main character had a cigarette for the first time in years after some trauma in his life. I know now that this was just an excuse, maybe something excusable, because I was curious about smoking already. But by the time I was dating my ex-girlfriend again, we were both smoking and drinking coffee like we lived in Seattle, ’92 – and considering my connection of cigarettes and music, that was very real at the time. But by my second day home alone I had all my cigarette albums shelved, collecting dust for a day I’m more stable to listen to them. By then I felt I was at a point I knew I could not return on.

And I also knew by then that the reasons why I started were not enough to start again: It was all a fantasy, man. It had a good, solid run, sure, but I wouldn’t say it was a good part of my life. And this idea that I might smoke later in my life when no one needs me, I mean, c’mon! Who wants to live like that? I started because I wanted to either be a rocker or a poet, or because I knew I was young and I thought I had the right. But by the fourth and fifth day, I knew it would never be the same and I could never return. That I didn’t want a fantasy to lead my life was enough to never smoke again, and that I knew it would never be the same was just reassurance.

When I couldn’t come to this on my own, like in the days before, there was my family. I thought mom and dad telling me how I could do this was just staple and it really took me sometime before I allowed that confidence to be mine. My brother just listened and I discovered most of what I’ve written here in my dialogues with him. I took comfort in Ryan Adam’s struggle to conquer drugs and alcohol, and read an article that just mentions Jeff Tweedy quit smoking and celebrated with him. The irony is that I shared not only a lyrical passion for tobacco as they did, but also the same brand. And I was already reading Richard Lewis’ memoir on his drinking problem (The Other Great Depression), and just as I was quitting I was getting past his early life and into his problem and all the people who wanted the best for him – and how much better he realized he was out of the shadow of his addiction.

My dad reminds me, even today, that, unlike alcoholics, I will not have the struggle of daily temptaions once I get this behind me. Once I accepted that, and reanalyzed the reasons I even started the habit, I still had the fear of not smoking, which was very real, even if fantastic – the outright denial pissed me off and I felt like something was stolen from me. Then I read something Richard Lewis wrote: “I inexplicably felt that there was so much more to me than this fear I was having about not drinking, ever again.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 17, 2011 5:56 PM

    Good post man. Honest.

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