The first time I smoked a cigarette, I was in the grassy square in North Carolina, in front of Salem College, a school I had attended for two years and was leaving to transfer to Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. My best friend and I bought two packs: one Winston, one Salem. We thought somehow that this was a fitting farewell to the school and to the city.
Having grown up with parents who smoked inside the house and in the car, most times with the windows up, I hated cigarettes and was surprised by my own willingness to try them. I thought, of course, that I would hate them more after tasting ash, and assumed this would be an isolated incident. However, the nicotine got the best of me and I smoked for three years following that, sharing cigarettes on the slate rooftop of my dorm, in the gnarled tree outside the back door, in the gothic archways all over campus. I smoked in Philadelphia, on fire escapes and street side, in concrete backyards and in graveyards. I smoked in Ithaca, New York, in below-freezing temperatures, bundled up on the porch beside Six Mile Creek, frozen over for winter. I smoked in New York City until I visited a hypnotherapist, whose guided visualizations somehow turned my desire upside down: when I left, I wanted a smoothie.
Since that time, I have quit for years and then started again, usually as a result of personal stress. I saw another hypnotherapist in Philadelphia, but the results were counterproductive: I sobbed through most of it and smoked a cigarette immediately after paying an arm and a leg to be traumatized.
Most recently, I quit for a year, and when I bought my first pack of cigarettes in so long, it no longer felt glamorous (as though it ever really was), but like a true obsession that controlled my life. I have been struggling with this particular stage for months, quitting over and over again, always just long enough for the nicotine to leave my system before succumbing again to the ingrained habit.
Anyone who starts smoking in their 30s is an idiot. That’s what I always thought. And while I did not technically begin at this point in my life, my inability to control myself in this way has done a number on my self-esteem and on my ability to cope with everyday stressors in any meaningful, productive way. I try patches and become irrationally annoyed by the adhesive’s minor itching. I try cold turkey and attempt to replace my impulses with stretching, with visualization and breathing exercises, with food. I beat myself up constantly because my father died four years ago of a gruesome lung disease. I talk to my father during each “last” cigarette, apologizing and making proclamations about my strength and resolve.
I have engaged in worse behavior, have treated my body more poorly than this, but somehow the cigarettes are the thing that bother me most, and that haunt me most. I actually have pretty impressive willpower and have put more personally problematic habits to rest with much less strife. Lately, smoking has become a point of contention in my relationship, and I do it shamefully but compulsively. My shame leads to solitude and subterfuge, which leads to more self-loathing. I shower nonstop, scrub my hands clean, brush my teeth four or five times a day.
Part of getting through it is coming clean about it, and I have vowed to myself not only to quit, but to be open with those around me about my progress and my slips. It is my hope that talking about it and admitting to it will erase at least the stress of silence, which makes me feel dishonest and also like quitting is an insurmountable task. It is hard to support someone who is making bad decisions. I get that. But the decision to quit, no matter how circuitous the process, is a good one. I am trying to rework my thinking to be patient with myself, and I am hoping others can do so, too. After all, I am human and that means I make mistakes, am vulnerable to addiction, and also that I need other humans in my corner.