I’ve smoked off-and-on for the better part of four years, with the habit gaining consistency over the last two years. Many smokers hear this and kindly ask if I’d like a bonnet for my Quinceañera. And it’s true; most people who smoke seem to start in their early or late teens and carry it well into their forties, around the same age it becomes a casual thing to quit drinking (because alcoholism has a minimum age of 28). However, I’ve recently begun a drawdown from my 20 cigarettes a day to a measly five.
Doctors will tell you that smoking is bad. They will tell you that, at ten cigarettes, I am still consuming the potency necessary for a chemical addiction. They will tell you smoking can give you everything from lung cancer to collapsed testes. They will tell you that smoking menthols actually makes it harder to quit because the experience is more pleasurable (which says a lot about the experience as a whole). And as I keep telling myself through clenched fists, gritted teeth, and a mentality which best resembles the cognitive functions of a dried kitchen sponge, they are right.
Smoking is such an odd behavior. It is an incredibly luscious pleasure to wrap up any experience, be it to fend off hunger or nightcap a fantastic meal, calm the nerves after an emotional fight or add a twist to glorious sex. I had one before bed and when I woke up, on the way to places and when I got there. However, there is not a smoker on the planet who can claim ignorance to its dangers. And despite the allure of the Boomer mentality which states this is a fairly recent discovery, it has been known for centuries. Consider Charles Lamb’s epic 1805 ode to tobacco in which he muses: “For thy sake, TOBACCO/I Would do any thing but die/And but seek to extend my days/Long enough to sing thy praise.”
Is there more significant proof against the soul’s existence than addiction? Many drugs render the user incompetent enough to realize what it is doing to their life, and nicotine is not one of them. Nicotine is the most productive drug there is, yet all alike fail to both consume and emulsify, breaking down free will into proteins and neurons. It fuels tired waitresses as much as it fuels wealthy tycoons. They’re sold within walking distance of Beverly Hills and East St. Louis where you can buy Pyramids or Parliaments. They are fitting to nearly any lifestyle, forgiving of any accompanying sin.
In a famous scene on the ever-inhaling Mad Men, the sage Bert Cooper criticizes silver wit Roger Sterling for smoking so often:
Stop smoking so much. It’s a sign of weakness. You know how Hitler got Neville Chamberlain to give him everything at Munich? He held the conference at an old palace that forbade smoking. And after an hour and a half of not smoking, Neville Chamberlain would have given Hitler his mother as a dance partner.
Sterling quips back “All I can get from this story is that Hitler didn’t smoke and I do”
Quitting smoking is as absurd as smoking. My girlfriend is quitting smoking. She’s been smoking since she was 15. She’s 33, which means her body has had nicotine longer than it has not. However, since we were both at a pack a day, it still only takes 3 days to exit the body. 3 days! I’ve spent more time playing Just Cause 2 than it will take to quit an obnoxious, filthy, smelly, expensive, organ-destroying habit.
The first step is fear. Fear of physical pains, of anxious dwellings, of what the hell to do with your hands. Then, it’s planning. A drawdown, thinking of which cigarettes you need and which you don’t. Well, I can give up the post-lunch smoke and the post-work smoke but NOT the post-dinner smoke or the post-drink smoke or the other post-drink smoke. The final, most important step is endurance.
Let’s go back to those 3 days. 3 days of headaches, stomach pains. Basically, you’re going to be sick for a bit; this is why it’s best to quit on a Friday. Suffer through the best day of the week followed by two days to do nothing but hate your life. Quitting smoking is like having an emotional breakdown: after that, you can move forward.
However, the rest is mental. The rest is ignoring the temptation, fighting through, rebuilding a life without smoking as well as your lungs. Perhaps the biggest irony of going without cigarettes is that you cough more. Your throat and lungs are refilling with tissue and cilia and mucus. Suddenly, you can smell. Suddenly, you can taste the full flavors of all the foods you love. Sure, there are metabolic reasons for the weight gain associated with quitting smoking, but I think this is the key. The bitter, burnt flavor of smoking is to your mouth what living next to a waterfall is to your ears: after a while, the conscious effect is minimal. However, remove the waterfall and suddenly your ears are reaching for some stimulus: songbirds, whistling grass, your own blood rushing past your eardrums. Quit smoking and you can taste your own natural, untainted spit, let alone the fullness of pulled pork BBQ or herb-encrusted chicken or even the simple majesty of a banana. The simple, unfiltered, soft wholesomeness of a just-so-ripe banana.
And this is the way to make it work. Smoking is joyful. I love smoking. And in the same way you’ll miss millions of stars moving from the country to the city, you must find other appreciations. My uncle (a smoker) likes to say quality of life is dependent on choices, the number you have and your incentives to make them. As long as you have choices, your life is better than it could be. Money provides choices. Technology provides choices. Living in a free country provides choices.
My girlfriend and I have been talking about the money we’ll save from smoking. Smoking is inseparable from its own financial cost. A pack a day in Pennsylvania is $150 a month, give or take a brand coupon. In New York City, that doubles. As it is with any financial decision, one is forced to relay the collegiate idea of opportunity cost. Smoking and the unavoidable addiction to follow is the worst opportunity cost decision millions of Americans make every day. For moments of mere pleasure throughout every day, we give up thousands upon thousands of luxuries. A Netflix monthly fee can be paid for with two days without smoking. A night of drinking? Four days. A three-day Groupon to Las Vegas? One month. That patio set at Home Depot? two months. Within one year, I will have saved enough to revive my 1994 Oldsmobile to a brand-new condition, complete with shocks, rebuilding the engine, and resurfacing the transmission.
That is why I have refused any gum or lozenge or e-cigarette. What I put into my body and what I spend my hard-earned money on must be my choice. I don’t merely want to be rid of cigarettes; I want to be rid of nicotine. Being an adult is primarily about self-control. Your finances, your work ethic, your dietary intake. They are all decisions you make every day. And giving that control to someone or anything else diminishes you as a person. And so I tell myself: You are powerful. You effect your life. You and you alone are responsible for the immediate future.
And that is the central point of quitting smoking, Quitting is so hard, it’s scary for most to approach. Not simply because of mental and physical withdrawals, but because it becomes a part of who we are. Dozens of decisions every day are based upon this awful, torrid, expensive habit. Addiction is not really an illness. It is a choice. You do not decide to get the flu. You do not decide to contract herpes. However, from the first puff onward, you have decided to be addicted to nicotine.
And now, as I find out how much I was relying on a stimulant to make life possible, screaming at inanimate objects and having violent daydreams about the woman in front of me digging out exact change, oversleeping and clenching my jaw, screaming at my neighbor that those better not be asbestos shingles on his wall or I will fucking kill him, I WILL FUCKING KILL HIM, I need to remind myself that life will be good again. I’m at once foggier and clearer, tired and more sprightly than I’ve been for years. I’m tired of emptying ashtrays and tasting filters and specking my dashboard with tiny specks of cancerous death. This choice is mine. I will be happier. I will be healthier.
And goddamn you – man, woman, child, or Philip Morris – if you get in my way.