I thought I would always be a smoker. For very nearly 20 years, I sucked back over a pack a day and, honestly, I enjoyed most of them. I loved the lung pinch, the head rush, the instant stress relief, the distinct smell of the first drag, the familiar flick-tap knocking the ash. Most of all, I loved the social lubricant smoking provides. The instant camaraderie with other smokers. Even the disdain heaped on by non-smokers gave me something to puff up and fight against.
I also loved the time smoking gives you: The 8 minute break every hour or so that I used so often to gather my thoughts, to calm down, to work shit out. There are even micro breaks. Those moments in a conversation where you need just a couple seconds. Take a few moments to light up, to take a drag, to stub it out…whatever. Those little breaks helped me hide just how socially awkward I really am. They let me sift through what I had heard and formulate a response that wasn’t weird or dumb or creepy. Every person I have successfully conversed with in a smoky bar, break room or bus stop owes the cigarettes a debt for ensuring that they left the conversation without thinking “Damn, what a tool.”
I envy the people I know who still get to smoke. I miss it. I need it still, and it’s been very close to 8 months since my last smoke. Once or twice a day, I absent-mindedly start a smoking ritual. I get up from my chair and start drifting toward an old smoking spot. I roll down my car window as soon as I get in. I reach for my pocket when I walk out of a building. Occasionally, when I stop myself, I have a moment where I can smell that first drag. I can taste it, too. That first one is more acrid than the rest. When this happens, I get a craving that sits in the bottom tips of my lungs. It begs for the pinch. That rolling sting that billows down the front of the lungs and pours into the bottom, forcing that small, lovely spasm. I exhale long and strong when this happens. The kind of deep exhale that pushes from the deepest section of the chest. Up the backs of the lungs, richly through the throat and funneled gently up the back of the nose. Out the nostrils as my head pushes back, neck arching, eyes closed. I even get the beginning of the head rush, only to have it stop short, replaced by a sense of disappointment so acute that I just bit my lip now as I wrote about it.
My fingertips are twitching like crazy. My lips itch, missing the dangling filter.
I’m not even close to convinced that I’ll ever get over all the addiction symptoms. I don’t imagine I’ll ever find anything else as effective at supporting me in the specific ways I require. I don’t get angry more often than I did when I smoked, but I have discarded the only way I knew guaranteed to take the edge off, to begin the calming process. I don’t stew in stress constantly, but I do waste more time using inferior relief methods. I don’t totally botch every conversation, but I don’t leave the good impressions I used to.
Three years ago, a friend of mine invited me on a short, uphill hike. My wife, my 1 year old son, my friend, and I set out on a hot, late July day through a dappled mixed cedar/bamboo forest. We crossed a small creek and, at that point began a relatively steep climb. There were steps carved into the trail in steeper areas and plenty of handy, graspable trees for support. Within a minute, I was dripping sweat, but so was everybody. Within another minute, I was wheezing.
I’ve always prided myself on being able to keep going despite physical discomfort. I’m a really fat man and, at that time, I was the kind of guy who never went anywhere without my current pack and a backup pack of smokes. Despite these impediments, I had never really been unable to get where I wanted to go under my own power. This day was no different. I got up that fucking hill. When I got to the top, however, I thumped down on my ass and gasped as I fumbled to get a smoke lit. My head was throbbing so hard, my vision was trembling with each pulse. My eyes were being punched from behind. My teeth felt like they were gonna fall out. The smoke helped, but it was ten minutes before I could get to my feet again.
The hike lasted another 90 minutes, and I made it alive, on my own two feet. My friend carried my son, though. I needed everyone to stop for me three more times while I recovered with more smokes. When we got back to the parking lot, I swore I’d never even consider it again.
8 months ago, I was diagnosed with bronchial asthma (for the second time). I was pretty much constantly choking and coughing up slime. I started on inhaled steroids and quit smoking. I didn’t *decide* to quit, I just couldn’t physically smoke. My body took the choice away from me.
For 6 months, I felt virtually none of the positive physical effects that quitting smoking should bring. I got my medication increased, though, and I now feel like breathing isn’t an issue. I’ve also been walking an average of 4000 steps more a day (according to the pedometer on my phone) than I had been prior to this April.
Today, my 4 year old son, my 2 year old son and I parked in the same lot I’d sworn never to revisit. We set out to reach the first place I collapsed last time. The day was hot and humid, and I still soaked my clothes with sweat in the first minute. No wheezing, though. We destroyed that hike. Up and down in no time, with plenty left in the tank.
This marks the first time I’ve been honestly glad I quit. And the first thing other than my own resolve preventing me from chasing that lung pinch. Knowing, as I do now, that my kids like to hike, I’m gonna need to maintain this whole easy breathing thing.
July 25, 2012