“Maybe you should just suck it up and go cold turkey. Time to toughen up a bit.” I sat on a cold exam table and shifted uncomfortably, trying to come up with a response. “Have you ever smoked?” I asked the tall, thin female doctor standing in front of me in the walk-in clinic. No, she replied, she had never smoked. “That makes sense, because that’s the kind of thing that only someone who has never tried to quit smoking would say.” She looked a bit sheepish, and, without even giving me a thorough exam, diagnosed my breathing problems as early-stage Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a lung illness associated with smoking. I walked out of her office and did what I always do when I can’t handle the stress around me; I lit a cigarette and called my mom. The fear of that diagnosis hung over me, and I responded the way so many smokers do — I smoked more.
A year later, I would find out that she was wrong, that it was an anxiety disorder causing my shallow breathing. I found out the hard way, after the inhaler she prescribed me raised my blood pressure and triggered a panic attack. My first major hospital bill was both caused and not caused by my biggest vice: cigarettes.
I smoked my first cigarette at the tender age of 15 in a suburban park near my middle-class neighborhood. My best friend at the time was trying to prepare me for my first pot-smoking experience: “It’ll make it easier for you to inhale.” I was so scared. It was one of the first truly bad-girl things I’d ever done, and I just knew that every grownup within a block was already calling my parents to tell them about my fall from grace.
A lot of people talk about how much they hated their first cigarette — it made them sick, it stunk; they coughed until their lungs burned. This was not my experience. I loved it. From the very first puff. It made me a bit dizzy, but the heat and the smell were intoxicating, and the dizziness was fun. I was hooked. Like so many young smokers, I wasn’t terribly worried about my new habit. I was young, healthy, and figured I would stop when I was “ready,” which for a teenager is really code for "old and boring." Before I knew it, I was up to a pack a day or more, smoking out of my bedroom window until my mother threatened to take my car away if I didn’t stop. By then I knew I was addicted, but I was also terribly rebellious, and the palpable danger of smoking and being an addict didn’t do much to deter me. It was fun. It felt good. So I kept doing it.
I did what I always do when I can’t handle the stress around me; I lit a cigarette.
There are still times when I light up and bask in the pure pleasure of smoking I felt in my teen years, when I still find the whole sensory experience satisfying. But more often than not, smoking feels like a chore. I’m not sure when it stopped being fun, but by college graduation in 2010 I knew that I needed to quit, as it was already taking a toll on my health and my wallet. Honestly, if you had told the girl in that park that she’d still be smoking 13 years later, she would have laughed at you. But here I am. Even though there is plenty of research about how hard it is to quit smoking, I think a lot of non-smokers or even occasional smokers believe that those of us who smoke simply don't care about our health, or that, you know, we just need to "toughen up a bit." And of course almost everyone's heard how addictive cigarettes are, but I don't think people really, truly understand it. The truth is that when I’m smoking, I think of nothing but wanting to quit. When I’m not smoking, I think of nothing but wanting a cigarette. There are so many emotions wrapped up in the whole thing — fear, shame, and varying degrees of hopefulness and hopelessness. Every day without a cigarette is a miserable, massive victory, and every time I fall off the wagon it feels like the wagon ran me over as it left me behind.
I have tried nearly every method for quitting that exists. My first attempt was at 22, when I tried nicotine replacement therapy. The gum gave me heartburn so bad that I could barely eat or breathe. The lozenges left sores all over my mouth. The patch not only wouldn’t adhere to my skin, it gave me angry red rashes up and down my arms; I actually started to wonder if I was allergic to nicotine. Yet I still didn't want to smoke any less. After that, I tried cold turkey several times and it was always a spectacular failure, with my cigarette-less time ranging from 30 minutes to six hours. I remembered these attempts when the tall, beautiful, smoke-free doctor suggested I try this tactic (as though I couldn't have thought of that myself), feeling both smug that she was so naive and embarrassed that I had failed so many times. Since 2013, I've had some degree of success with e-cigarettes. But I find them embarrassing to use in public and, after two or three beers at a bar, I’m ready to smoke a regular cigarette like a regular person, instead of some time-traveling weirdo who smells like strawberry cheesecake. They do help me smoke less — a valuable goal in and of itself — but they never completely satisfy my desire to smoke.
More often than not, smoking feels like a chore.
There is also a prescription drug, called Chantix, designed to help smokers quit. It has been recommended to me many times, and my parents both used it with great results. It works by reducing nicotine cravings while also making smoking less satisfying. But it also has adverse side effects, particularly for anyone with a history of depression. Given that I have bipolar disorder, every doctor I’ve asked has recommended that I do not use the drug. Another dead end. The only thing that sort of worked was reading a book that’s supposed to reprogram your brain to never want to smoke again. Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking promised that I would put the book down and have no desire to smoke. What’s strange is that it worked…at first, anyway. I was a “happy non-smoker” for a grand total of two weeks. I was telling everyone I knew, bragging about how easy it had been, and how confident I was that I would never smoke again. Then, one night at a bar, a man next to me lit up a Newport menthol — possibly my least favorite cigarette in the world — and the smell was so intoxicating I couldn’t stand it. I asked to bum one. It was incredible. All of the joy of my first cigarette came rushing back — the dizziness, the burning, the smell. It was so much better than the cigarettes I had smoked before I quit. Then I asked for another, and he obliged. I was ashamed; I had thrown away two weeks of work and disappointed myself, and everyone who was rooting for me. The next day, I bought a pack. I even read the book again. I’d read in a smokers’ forum that it sometimes worked better the second time. I made it a week after my second attempt. But working as a bartender and spending so much time around smokers, smelling them and watching plumes of smoke settle over their heads, has made my journey toward quitting feel, at times, impossible.
But the thing is, I still do it. I still quit all the time. Practice makes perfect, right? When people ask me if I plan to quit, I respond, “Oh yeah. I’m quitting right now. I’m always quitting.” Like a lot of smokers, I know how important it is to quit. In the two weeks that I didn’t smoke, I woke up in the morning and filled my lungs with air, enjoying the sensation that had replaced my hacking and wheezing. I went to the gym, and I could actually exercise for an hour without thinking I would have a heart attack. I could smell food, and it smelled incredible. I washed every article of clothing I owned, so excited to have a closet full of clothes that smelled like “mountain fresh” instead of “den where your grandpa has smoked for 30 years.” Looking back on how happy I was in those two weeks, I wonder what the hell happened. I wasn’t miserable at all, and I barely even missed smoking for much of that time. I have absolutely no explanation for why I started smoking again, try as I might to figure it out. I think that’s the worst part — that my life is ruled by this substance that I hate, and I have no idea why.
But the not knowing has not kept me from trying. I think it's important to focus on that. I have days when I smoke a whole pack, days when I only smoke three or five cigarettes, and even days when I don’t smoke at all. I haven’t been able to recapture the bliss of those two weeks; usually my smoke-free days leave me irritable and unable to think, like I left my watch at home but instead of my watch it’s the part of my brain that makes me feel normal and instead of home it’s the corner store. But I keep trying. Practice makes perfect. I'm quitting. I’m always quitting.