Cigarettes, the Wonderful Gift


Oh my God, I do not want to admit this!

About a month or two ago, a friend of mine in New York offered to send me some cigars. I, like many bears, enjoy a great cigar from time to time. Who am I kidding? If I really enjoy something, I rarely enjoy it “from time to time.” I will do something until I run the wheels off it. It just seems to be the way I am built. Everything I do, I do hungrily.

I was a nicotine addict for years. By the time I was in high school, slipping away for a smoke became one of the myriad ways I “managed” the horrors of being so mercilessly bullied. When drinking came on the scene, which it did at about the same time, they seemed to go together like peanut butter and jelly and I rarely drank without smoking. If it was at all possible, I rarely smoked without drinking. In a peculiar way (and only some of you will understand this) these two crutches saved my life. If I had not been able to sneak behind the gym and inhale a few clouds of rage-stuffing gray, I don’t know that I wouldn’t have just offed myself then or at the very least become one of those school shooters– to go in packing heat and blow away the jocks and rednecks who were making my life a living hell certainly crossed my mind more than a few times. One time, when I’d slipped away across the street to the Junior College to quiet my nerves with a smoke, one of my most vicious bullies, Randy Crump, son of the local Toyota Car Sales Mogul yelled out to me as exhaled a long, gray cloud of relief, “Stop blowing your AIDS everywhere!” (This was during the early days of The Plague.) As people laughed at his torturing me, I just melted in shame, wanting to die, and wondered if there would ever be a place I could truly hide.

For the next twenty or so years, smoking–

Oh my God, I am so bored with this. I refuse to give an entire history of my dance with nicotine. I’d rather lift that template and place it on a relationship in a blockbuster film.

Cut to the chase: So from about a month or so ago, I had been smoking the cigars. The nicotine was in my system. As with every other addictive substance the frequency had ramped up from that first “fine cigar.” The rationalizations come easy. They were a “connection to New York” when I so desperately want to get back there. I don’t actually inhale the smoke. Surely these aren’t as bad as cigarettes. But anytime I introduce and mood-altering chemical into my system, the phenomenon of craving develops. Beyond the physical addiction there is a powerful psychological addiction that flips on like a light switch as soon as I swallow, sip, poke or smoke that first one. When I am up against unpleasant feelings (and you all know how much I’ve been up against a lot of unpleasant feelings lately) the prospect of “sitting with those feelings” or of dealing with the matters and hand rather than do something to postpone those unpleasant feelings– well, you can guess which one usually wins.

When I got to Utah a couple of weeks ago, one of the first things we did was go to family wedding. I love my Utah family. They are actually Adam’s family but they received me so openly when I first came into Adam’s life and because I became so much a part of the family while we lived here, I have maintained contact since the divorce and they are still very much a part of my life. Just the blessing of having my little cousin Max in my life (he’s like a son to me) would be worth all the pain I had to go through in the marriage and subsequent break up.

It was great to be around the family again at the wedding. But naturally thoughts of Adam quickly bubbled to the top. I still miss him a lot and think, at least on some level, I’m still “letting go.” To add a few clouds to the gathering perfect storm, one of his more nasty relapses with alcohol was at a wedding and in retrospect I think I might have been having some flashback to that fiasco when I found myself at the wedding the other night. Social situations are also often difficult for me. I think that would come as a surprise to many people who have been in those situations with me because my fantasy is that I pull it off pretty well. I don’t think most people know how much I’m quivering inside because I’m pretty good at putting on masks. Also, although it has been years since I had the desire to drink, situations where there’s a lot of drinking going on can become very uncomfortable very fast. I’ve always felt like an outsider and if everybody else is engaging in something that I’m not, it fuels the fire of alienation. I can always order a tonic with lime so that I don’t feel ridiculous without a “drink” in my hand. The only problem with that is, I drink mocktails like I once drank cocktails and quinine poisoning is no happy alternative to social anxiety.

I’ve not been a regular smoker for a couple of years now. For a couple of years before that, I was basically a non-smoker but when Adam would show up smashed or I would catch him in some “indiscretion” or lying about either, I would go buy a pack of cigarettes. It was my little (hmm, interesting diminutive adjective) way of “relapsing” without going out and buying a bottle of Jack or trying to score heroine. I’d quickly get hooked and soon go through the painful process of quitting again, usually about the same time Adam had made a solemn promise to do better if I’d only promise never to leave him.

For at least the past year or so, I have crossed the street to avoid even having to smell a cigarette. I hate them that much. I have been, for the most part, a CrossFitting fool and am still convinced that it might be possible that the “best shape of my life” is still ahead of me.

Here is the incredible gift that cigarettes provide; here is the “gold.” Even given everything I’ve just told you about this decades-old and difficult relationship to this powerful killer, I find myself smoking today. I get up in the morning and smoke a cigarette first thing which makes me feel like I’m literally dying. I have chest pains, I stagger up the stairs like an old man to find the coffee. They affect me so much more than they did right before when I had quit. Here’s how it happened:

Someone at the wedding made a comment about stepping away to have a cigarette. I wanted to be “away” too, not away from the wedding but away from the feelings that were coming up. In that moment a powerful demonstration took place. I have deluded myself into thinking that I “have a choice” as long as I’m not actively using an addictive substance. In essence, if I don’t “pick up that first one,” I am somehow powerful over addiction. That’s just not true. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a huge difference in the level of “choice” I have once I have put the whatever-it-is inside my body but in fact, as the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous says, there comes a time when I have no mental defense against the first drink (smoke, poke, or whatever).

This is a powerful reminder to me that, no matter what form the addiction takes, it’s the first one that’s the killer. I take the first one this the first one takes me. If I ever think I might be able to drink or drug again, I hope I remember this terrible foray back into the disgusting world of nicotine addiction and make a better choice.

I experienced this moment at the wedding. I had no “mental defense” against that cigarette. I actually thought, contrary to aaaaaaall my experience with it, that I could have just one cigarette. Even as I was putting that first one out, I thought, “Jesus, that was awful! At least I don’t have to worry about starting that shit up again.” Then I bummed another and smoked it in the hot tub that night. Within two days I had bought a pack.

I don’t want to punish you too much for reading my blog and I’ve already kept you for 1200 words. Tomorrow I’ll wrap up this thing about the smoking. And tomorrow will be my first day without them.

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