Up In Smoke: A Meditation on Addiction
UP IN SMOKE: A Meditation on Addiction
When I told my eldest grandson, hereafter referred to as EG (for Eldest Grandson) to protect his privacy, that I had smoked my first cigarette in over 40 years the night before, he was, I think, somewhat taken aback. EG is now a college student, and is fascinated and knowledgeable about the use of substances, and their physiological and psychological impact on individuals and cultures. He is also one of the least judgmental people that I know.
Though he’s never known me as a smoker, he’s well aware of the fact that I was a three pack a dayer (a habit I could no longer afford at today’s cigarette prices!) from the age of 15 until well into adulthood, and that one of the reasons that I’ve not let tobacco pass my lips in 4 decades is because I never want to have to go through giving it up again. I had, over the years, semi-jokingly shared with my kids and grandkids, as well as my internist, who felt the same way, that, at a certain age, I was going to begin smoking again. That age came and went at the time vapes became popular, and EG bought me my first vape that Christmas, along with a bottle of no-nicotine menthol flavored (my favorite) vaping fluid. This was not tobacco, not nicotine, but it served until the warnings about vaping made headlines, and my Elder Son had a heart to heart with me about vaping, asking whether I wanted to spend my later years on a ventilator. Then COVID happened, and anything pertaining to lungs felt scary, so I limited myself to one or two hits per day on the no-nicotine vape. Then last Saturday came and, after an altercation with Spouse, I stomped onto my porch to have a cocktail with a friend and neighbor who is a smoker, and asked her for a cigarette. She, knowing my history with tobacco, was as taken aback as EG, but rolled me one. I inhaled and coughed. I inhaled again, and I was home.
A bit about my smoking history. Like most adolescents in the late 50’s-early 60’s, I had my first cigarette in the high school bathroom. I inhaled and coughed. I inhaled again, and I was home. A former Commissioner of Addiction Services for NYC, the late Dr. Marie Nyswander, described an addict as a person who was normal on a substance. I don’t know if that rings true for all addicts, but it sure was true for me. With a cigarette in my hand, I had no social anxiety; with an ashtray on the piano, no performance anxiety, at my typewriter, words just flowed.(I still need that hand to mouth movement when I write. Now, I eat peanuts.) I didn’t feel high; I just felt the way it seemed I ought to feel, or maybe the way I once felt. Comfortable. At ease in my body and my world. What felt normal on a substance. I don’t know whether it was the nicotine, the many rituals around smoking, holding something in my hand. I just know that nothing else has ever made me feel that way. EG described it as “like putting on an old sweater”. That comes pretty damned close.
So, I smoked through the years that smoking was considered unladylike, but not unhealthy. In college and graduate school I carried portable ashtrays to class, as did my classmates and professors. My boyfriends smelled of tobacco, and it was sexy. I smoked on airplanes with ashtrays and the balconies of movie theatres. And, I smoked through two pregnancies and pneumonia, because nobody thought it was bad. Even my doctors smoked.
And, then, the information started to come in. Smoking and lung cancer. Smoking and heart disease. Smoking and other kinds of cancers. Worst of all, smoking and wrinkles! First, I handled it with massive cognitive dissonance. Yes, I knew the information, but so what? Then I tried to cut down, and my entire day became about when I could smoke. A few times I even tried to stop, but fell short. Finally, when my mother (a non-smoker) died, the reality of death came in on me and, with the help of hypnosis, I stopped. I was convinced that I wasn’t hypnotized, but the psychologist was a nice guy, so I pretended.
Until Saturday, I didn’t smoke again. I craved cigarettes, but the connection between my desire and my hand seemed to have been broken. Plus, as I said, I never wanted to have to stop again, and I was terrified that one cigarette would send me over the edge. And, maybe it will. But last Saturday, I decided to smoke one. I decided to smoke one because I was angry, because I wanted to, and, maybe, because I’ve reached an age when death from something is on the horizon, and I may not have time for all the bad things to happen from smoking.
So, I had my first cigarette last Saturday. It felt wonderful. It felt like putting on an old sweater. It felt like home. It’s Tuesday, and I haven’t had another. Maybe I will, and maybe I won ‘t. Maybe I can control it, and maybe I can’t.
But, here’s the thing that nobody talks or writes about with addiction…or, at least no non-addicts do; the sheer joy of indulging in the substance of choice. The sheer pleasure, until it’s not. The feeling of being one’s real and best self. It doesn’t last long, but when it’s there, it’s there. And nothing else can be like it. The playwright, Romulus Linney, wrote a piece called “Love Drunk” (an addiction doesn’t have to be a substance), that was unique in that it did explore the pleasure of addiction, rather than just the consequences. As EG would say, “the hook”. The first one’s for free, and you may or may not want more.
I’ve drunk…I can take it or leave it, done a fair number of drugs…same. Nicotine is my substance, and I’m not sure that I want to spend the rest of my days without it.
In fact, I just sent Spouse out for a very expensive pack of American Spirit. I guess we’ll see. And, EG and I are talking about co-authoring a paper on addiction.