Playing with Fire

Playing with fire

Last week I shared that I do not have any “iron clad” resolutions for 2016, though many would say that quitting cigarettes should be one.

Yes, in this day and age, in 2016, as a person who embraces wellness and was able to quit drinking, I still smoke (!). Many people quit smoking after they quit drinking, for the two basically go hand in hand, but I haven’t. It’s not that I don’t want to, don’t yearn to, it’s that I can’t seem to shake my one last “vice.”

I heard somewhere that quitting cigarettes is harder than quitting heroin, and though I’ve never done the latter, I can believe it. It’s more than the nicotine, it’s also the habit, the comfort, the familiarity. Pour a cup of coffee, light a cigarette. Get in the car, light a cigarette. Feel uncomfortable, light a cigarette. So what do you do?

In my endeavor to be gentle with myself in 2016, it is my hope that my addiction to cigarettes will prove to be what I already know it is:  a faulty method of relief. In the spirit of this hope, I decided to write cigarettes a letter:

Dear Cigarettes,

My love affair with you began ten years ago. Ten years! I was never planning on smoking for that long, in fact, I never planned on smoking at all. When my boyfriend and I first started dating, way back in high school, he smoked cigarettes and I hated them. I would grab the pack out of his hand, dumping its contents into the toilet or crushing them underfoot. He would jokingly wrestle me to the ground in attempt to snatch them away, me clutching them behind my back or throwing them out into the rain. I somehow eventually succumbed to the allure of cigarettes; most of my friends smoked, my boyfriend smoked, it was something to do at parties when I felt nervous or out of place and didn’t know what to do with my hands.

What a hypocrite I am. My boyfriend quit smoking over five years ago and here I am, ten years later, still smoking. I left you, cigarettes, for three months near the end of 2014, do you remember? What I thought was the final break was unfortunately just a hiatus. Why did I come back to you? How did I cave after three months of no cigarettes cold turkey? Well, I could say any number of things. I came back to you because of stress from school, because of coffee, because I was drinking and then I was not drinking and I seem to always want a vice to soothe my nerves. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s that I still need a crutch, something to do with my hands when I feel nervous or out of place.

I can’t deny that I felt so much better without you. I still can’t believe that I succumbed to you once again, that I couldn’t hack it for longer than three months. I felt healthy and calm without you, even though you calm me in moments of stress. I replaced you with working out and meditating, yoga and trying to stay centered via avenues other than nicotine. And then I cracked. I thought I could handle smoking one cigarette after work with coworkers. And then one turned into two. Two turned into three. And so on.

It was so easy to let you back in my life. You have been there with me for many difficult moments. You were there for me when we had to put my cat to sleep, when my boyfriend and I fought or broke up, when my grandparents died. But you know what? You are controlling my life, and, if I keep this relationship going, you could end up killing me. How can I keep using you if cancer runs in my family? Even if it didn’t, you are proven to cause it all on your own. You cause yellow teeth, cancer, death. You make my clothes stink, you arouse disapproving looks from nonsmokers around me. You upset my family and my boyfriend, who don’t want me to die. We all die, but not necessarily an excruciating death from lung cancer.

I try to reason with myself about the reasons I smoke. I try to play down the side effects of smoking for a long time — there’s people who smoke for sixty years and don’t die from lung cancer. There’s people who get lung cancer who have never smoked a cigarette a day in their life. Everyone dies. But if I want to live a long, painless-as-possible life, I know I have to stop. It’s counterintuitive to everything that I do, to what I believe in. I believe in eating healthy, yoga, meditating, being gentle with yourself.

So why is it so hard to do what I know is good for me? It’s not like I have a lack of discipline — I quit drinking; I used to work four days a week and take sixteen units per semester simultaneously; I am independent and strong, as I have learned to be over the years. Wait, maybe I just figured it out. Maybe because I exact such discipline in my life is why I feel so powerless when it comes to smoking.

So, cigarettes, what am I going to do with you? I know that I need to throw you away, of course. I always say that maybe when I quit working at the restaurant I will finally say goodbye. But it’s always something, always some excuse, stress, occurrence, problem, what have you. When is enough enough?

I try to recall and sustain how and why I was successful for those three months when I quit cold turkey. I had been thinking about quitting for a while and one night I had one cigarette left in my pack to smoke on the way home. I thought to myself, Why can’t this one be your last? So I smoked on the way home and the next day I didn’t leave myself time to buy another pack on my way to school in the morning. After school I went to an Ayurvedic institute with my sister to use the steam room, sauna, and soaking tubs. We sweated and relaxed, soaking and breathing in steam. Maybe I sweat all of the nicotine out of my system that night. Whatever happened, it worked. Not to say that it wasn’t hard for the next few days, which are the hardest, but how I started my attempt proved to be successful. This no-smoking endeavor lasted for three months, three months in which my lungs cleared, a friend said my skin had brightened, and I abandoned the perfume and breath mints that I constantly use to mask the smell of smoke. I felt freer, healthier, happier. So what changed?

It all started with one cigarette. That’s all it takes. My boyfriend and I got into an argument, the worst fight we’d had since we got back together after a year of living apart, and I caved. I was proud of myself for not drinking heavily that night, as that was what I usually did when I was upset, but I needed something. So I bummed a cigarette off of a friend and smoked it to the filter. It was about a week before I smoked again, and then it was only one after work, but it didn’t matter. What I started was a slow decline back to what I knew, to what was comfortable and comforting. Working at a restaurant does not help, that’s for sure. The only way you get a break is if you smoke, almost everyone else smokes, and the stress is so high that even nonsmokers would want a cigarette after a busy night.

I guess the only way to quit is to commit to never smoking again, not even socially, because if you think that you can do that then you are kidding yourself. I thought I could just smoke here and there, at parties or after work, but that proved to be impossible. That’s the power of nicotine.

Cigarettes, you are an all-consuming, never-satisfied lover. You are bossy and controlling, toxic and tainted, and you take more than you ever give. You promise freedom and escape but offer nothing but decay and death. I feel stupid that I ever let you charm me, that I threw my values out the window after a few casual encounters with you on the back deck at parties in high school. My dalliance with you has seeped into ten years of my life. I thought I escaped you, I thought I had you beat, but your insidiousness ensnared me like a siren’s song before I even knew what was happening.

Though what I say is true, playing the victim is not going to make you go away. If anything it will only help you win, because blaming you shifts responsibility from myself. You are strong, stronger than I ever imagined, but you are not as strong as me. People quit addictions every day, like I already have. It will not be easy. But how can I live a wild, free life if I am still tethered to an outside substance in the hopes of finding relief?




I wish you a wild, free (and cigarette-free!) life.



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