April 9, 2006. 2 a.m.
That’s the exact time and date of my last cigarette after a 25-year habit that briefly, in my late twenties, peaked at a staggering three packs a day. Seriously, I don’t know how I found the time. I do remember negotiating with the man who wanted to hire me at that time for a smoking office. “Either I get to smoke in the office,” I told him, “or I don’t take the job.” An occasional smoker himself, he relented. I felt like a winner, even though no one else in that tiny office was a smoker.
When I think back on that now, I feel like a loser. My smoking habit was never about anyone else, though. It was about me and my addiction. It was completely self-centered, like any addiction. Nearly every photograph of me between my late teens and early 40s shows me with a lit cigarette in my hand. Which is just as well, because those cigarettes were an extension of who I was.
They were part of my identity.
My cigarette addiction started stupidly enough, like most smoking habits. I was a teenager being egged on by another teenager, who had been egged on by yet a third teenager. It was cool. This was never actually an explicit verbal statement, but it was very much implied. My ultra-cool older sisters both smoked. My mother smoked. All the cool kids at school smoked. My high school even had two sanctioned smoke breaks a day for students. All you needed was a parental permission slip, and we all forged those easily enough. The bad kids weren’t the ones who went on smoke break; they were the ones who smoked joints instead of cigarettes during smoke break.
After trying our first cigarettes together in a girlfriend’s car in the Krystal parking lot, my best friend and I bought our first pack the next day and made ourselves sick for a week learning how to blow smoke rings. I spent my lunch money on cigarettes. We forged our permission slips and joined the other kids in the small outdoor courtyard twice a day between classes. Such a thing happening at a high school now is absolutely unimaginable. Thank God.
My cigarettes got me through a lot of emotional crises, bad break-ups, sleepless nights and creative blocks over the years. They were a social crutch, even though they increasingly turned off a lot of people over the years, and I loved-loved-loved them. (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still sometimes crave a cigarette. Stupid, I know, but what about smoking isn’t stupid?)
By 2 a.m. on that sleepless April night in 2006, I had finally had enough.
Fear about the damage I was doing to my body had been building up, and it finally won. I’d like to tell you that the noble goal of better health was the real impetus for quitting, but the ugly reality is that I was finally scared enough to just flat-out quit.
I hadn’t planned it beforehand. If I’d remembered to buy another pack of cigarettes earlier that day, I’m positive I would not have quit. At least not that night. But it was dark and cold, and I was exhausted and had to be up early the next day for work, and I just didn’t feel like driving the three miles to the nearest open market to buy a new pack. I thought, I’ll just try to quit right now. If I decide on the way to work that I need a pack of cigarettes, I’ll just buy them on the way.
On my way to work the next morning, I thought, I’ll just try not to smoke this morning. If I absolutely have to have a cigarette, I’ll walk across the street to the Tiger Mart and buy a pack. And so on. I talked myself through kicking the habit an hour at a time. There were no patches or pills or public declarations. I warned my boyfriend not to expect any lasting results. He was very supportive; he’d been hounding me for years to quit. I reluctantly told other people little by little that I was trying to quit, and I warned all of them, too, not to hold me to it. (Apparently I perform better when there’s no pressure for a certain outcome.)
I think I issued that low-expectations caveat for at least the first year.
I sometimes laid in bed on sleepless nights and mimed smoking a cigarette, holding the imaginary lighter and blowing out non-existent puffs of smoke, flicking ashes that weren’t there. My non-smoking smoke breaks were so deeply imagined that they lasted as long as a real cigarette would have. I frequently had dreams in which I smoked, and I would wake up so angry with myself that I had cheated after all that hard work — and then I’d remember, relieved, that it was only a dream. I still get those dreams now when I’m really stressed out.
I guess I reached my personal bottom with cigarettes and found that magic combination of fear and desire that somehow made an impact on my decades of nicotine addiction. I know the health fears are still very valid, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be out of the woods on that. But I won’t go back. I don’t smoke socially at parties, and I can’t have one just once in a while like some people can. I’m an all-in or all-out kind of gal.
I won’t insult any of you smokers out there by telling you that if a hard-core smoker like me can quit, then anyone can. Because that might not be true; everyone’s journey is different. I failed at quitting many, many times before that night in April. I once quit for almost an entire year before falling back into it.
But I will say that anyone can try. And if you tell someone else in your life — really, it could be almost anyone else in your life — I bet you’d find them to be very supportive. And if they’re not, just call me. I’m on your side.