I am quitting smoking. Again. Every since I got back from Burning Man and started drinking raw juice and taking yoga classes and trying to be happier, I’ve been wanting to. But in New York it’s always seemed futile. Everything is a trigger: Finishing a meal at any of my favorite restaurants, going outside, walking to the train (the perfect distance for a cigarette), seeing other people smoke, smelling it, drinking coffee, waking up in the morning, sitting at my desk and writing. Two drinks and I’ll lose all self control. I won’t buy a pack, I just know I’ll wind up smoking. Sometimes I’m too good at getting what I want for my own good and I probably won’t even have to ask. Cigarettes in New York are as much as $14 a pack and smoking strangers are notoriously defensive of giving them away. Doesn’t matter. I’ll be talking with some guy at a bar and he’ll set his cigarettes on the table. All it will take is a look at the pack, and at him. I probably won’t even know I’m doing it, silently begging for an invitation to join him with my eyes in that flicker of a glance. He’ll be more inclined to offer if I look like I’m restraining myself. The guys I tend to talk to at bars revel in corruption, each “no” turned to “fine just this once” a victory. The only thing that doesn’t make me want to smoke is sex—I always thought it too cliche.
This will be the third time I’ve tried to quit. The first time I was a junior in college and I did it for a guy, for almost two years. He didn’t ask me to, I wanted him to fall in love with me and knew he didn’t smoke, so for the first time since age 15 I became a non-smoker. My commitment to this persona faded with my commitment to him. One night we were at a party; his tie matched the piping of my dress. and I caved to a casual request from a friend from class I was enjoying talking with outside. When he saw me smoking, he stormed off. We argued, I cried. He told me his grandmother died of lung cancer and he loved me too much to think about that happening to me. We made up, but he winced when he kissed me the rest of the night. He became more controlling, and I smoked more to break away.
The next time I tried to quit, I had strep throat and couldn’t smoke for a week. It’s the first four days that are the worst, when all the nicotinic receptors that your body has created realize they’re not getting their neurotransmitter prize, and send a distress signal on down the pathway. So I figured what the hell, and just stopped. I only made it a month, and then the earthquake struck Haiti. The thought of my family being buried under crumbled cement sent me right to the bodega to re-up on my adult pacifiers.
The first time I smoked, it was New Year’s Eve and I was 15. Two of my best girlfriends and I smoked a Newport 100, and it made me want to vomit. Why would I smoke another one then, you might wonder? When I smoked my second cigarette, it wasn’t because I enjoyed feeling like I was going to vomit in and of itself. I was reeling from a fight with my mother, and I wanted to hurt myself, because indirectly it would hurt her. As I smoked more, the feeling of control I got from knowing that I was slowly killing myself in the only form of rebellion that I could truly master at that age became stronger and stronger of a reward as the nausea diminished. Eventually, in my brain, it transformed into instant anxiety relief, which was much needed in my life at the time.
As I’ve continued to smoke over the years, the neural connections have melded with all kinds of other rewards: The secret conversations you get to steal away with interesting strangers by virtue of being a smoker, the image it gives you as someone not to be fucked with, the distance it affords you from people too uppity to stand. Non-smokers will never know the satisfaction of blowing smoke in an enemy’s face during a heated conversation.
Along the way though, I’ve stopped to consider the fact that when I started smoking, part of me wanted to die, but that isn’t as true anymore. I never thought I would make it out of my teens, so I rationalized smoking by thinking to myself that it didn’t matter if I did, because I wouldn’t be around for the consequences. Now, I want to be around, and I don’t want to go through the consequences, or make anyone I love deal with them. Which is why, this Christmas when, for the first time in 23 years, I was surrounded by loving family at Christmastime, I just didn’t smoke. I didn’t decide to quit, but after days of not smoking, of not wanting to subject them to the thought that I was hurting myself, it just kind of happened.
Now, 11 days later, I’m jumping out of my skin. I’m on a flight back to NYC, thinking about the carton sitting on my shelf, waiting for me when I get home to my empty apartment, thinking about all the ways I’ll slip and how all this confusing anxiety will be for nothing.
There is a teenager sitting next to me who I am using far too much restraint not snapping at. The second he walked up and saw I was his row companion, a big dumb smile spread across his face and my jaw clenched as he greeted me with an astounding “HI.” I am Dr. Grant when Timmy gets in the Jurassic Park car. I’ve been pressed up against the window for four of the five hours of this flight from Seattle. There is no escape. If I face forward, his elbow conspicuously brushes mine every 10 seconds. If I angle myself facing slightly to the left, I can see all of the flashing cartoons on his tablet out of the corner of my eye and his head bobbing to an Alvin and the Chipmunks song. If I angle myself to the right, he could look over my shoulder with ease, which he’s been trying to do ever since I opened my laptop. I’ve settled with my gaze to the left and every time a movement distracts me from what I’m writing for a split-second, I want to slap the tablet into the middle of the aisle and yell at him. I feel like a monster.
All I want right now is a cigarette or a vallium. If anyone has any quitting smoking advice, it would be welcome right about now.