Citation: Senseless. "20 Years of Shame: An Experience with Tobacco (exp65299)". Erowid.org. May 25, 2008. erowid.org/exp/65299
I smoked for 20 years.
It was 20 years of total addiction and all that comes with addiction: stooping to new lows to get my drug, prioritizing obtaining the drug over everything else, lying to loved ones, begging, sneaking around and self deception. Described like that it sounds like heroin addiction. No folks, it's the legal substance known as nicotine.
I started in 1986. It was a few days after my 15th birthday and I remember it vividly. Up to that point I saw teenage smoking as a revolting act of conformity and peer pressure. For a long time I was above such impulses and scoffed at those other kids I saw sneaking around behind the school to puff at stolen cigs as if they were total badasses. In the world of 12 to 15 year olds in the mid 80's, I guess they were pretty badass. I was a proud non-conformist until 15, when the peer pressure got the better of me.
Smoking was viewed differently 20 years ago. Although there was a growing disdain for it, almost all the cool people smoked. Not just badasses, but artistic types, playboy types, rebels, and bohemians. Smoking was something that still had a certain aire of 'cool' to it. These were the days of Joe Camel. Tom Waits. You could still smoke in the subway. You could still smoke in many movie theatres. You could smoke on airplanes. My own parents smoked.
I was assigned a project in school with a kid I was not friends with. He moved in different circles, he was friends with the kids who were already smoking weed and cigs at 13 years old and generally living in a haze. I was an 'arty' type and generally bored with everything, and at 15 was seeking new experiences. If anyone could introduce me to new experiences, it was this kid. I had to spend the day with him and after watching him smoke several times I asked him for a cig. I don't know exactly what happened in my brain, perhaps the marketing finally sunk in, but I decided at that moment to become a smoker, the way one chooses to buy clothing to create a 'look'.
My first full cig. I inhaled it and saw blue stars explode in my vision. I was dizzy and high and LOVED it. I didn't feel sick and I didn't mind the taste. We pooled our money and bought a pack that we split when we went our separate ways that night. I still remember him saying something like 'I feel guilty about getting you smoking, you might get addicted.' That was 20 years ago. If only he knew how right he was.
I knew about addiction in a very disconnected, intellectual way. My own mother warned me about it, but at 15 I was cocky enough to believe I had control. I had knowledge of addiction but no under standing of it, and that is the downfall. I made plans to 'try' addiction for awhile to see what it was like. I figured that people quit all the time so I should have no trouble. I rationalized it this way: I was young. People don't get cancer until they have smoked for like 30 years, so I will quit when I go to college in 3 years.
Those first few months still had the high during a smoke. I would walk to schools, timing my cig just right so that a cool part in the song on my walkman (remember those??) would start just as I got that rush. I would try all kinds of brands just to see what they tasted like and as the marketers of Big Tobacco planned, determine the cool factor of various brands around my new friends, the other kid smokers.
After awhile though, I started to feel a closed fist within me when I went more than 4 hours without a smoke. Every cell in my body craved a cig. I could think of nothing else. Being an unemployed kid, I didn't have much money so I resorted to begging my smoking friends for cigs or stealing them from my parents. I would come up with odd jobs to do around the house to get money to buy cigs. As a matter of fact, it was smoking that made me go out and get my first job. I was running out of things to do around the house and it was starting to look suspicious that I suddenly needed money all the time. I got a part time counter help job and suddenly had the ability to buy my own smokes. This deepened the addiction.
Back then there was no serious thought to quitting. When I had cigs, I had to go for broke. I had to maximize my purchases, like a heroin snorter moves to shooting to get the most bang for the buck, I moved to filterless Pall Malls, cartons of them, the more I smoked the better. The harsher the smoke, the better. Filters just got in the way! By the time I was 17, I had a filterless two pack a day habit. I had long since observed a decreased lung capacity, a stink, yellow fingers and bad breath. My parents had long since learned of my habit, but as smokers themselves they couldn't do much about it. I had achieved the identity I sought.
There was a lot going on then. I was smoking shitloads of weed, being high in class, taking LSD and shrooms, and drinking like a sailor, but cigs were there the whole time. My parents managed to quit, so no more cigs to steal from them. I still didn't have much money, so I started to save my cig butts and roll them into full cigs. This was a totally disgusting thing to do, but addiction makes you do disgusting things. I had a huge pile of cig butts and just kept 'recycling' them, and when I ran out of butts to recycle and STILL didn't have money for more, I would recycle the recycled ones! This would be third generation tobacco. I cannot describe the revolting taste of these, but hardcore smokers know what I am talking about. Even if they don't admit it, they have done it.
Of course, when I ran out of double recycled butts, I would hit the streets and look in the gutters. Yes. The gutters. I would hit the ashtrays outside of office buildings, an act usually reserved for the homeless. I felt shame, but that closed fist inside me was calling the shots. I would pick up butts from the street, take them home, roll them up, and smoke them.
I managed to graduate high school with a pretty good gpa and went onto university. I was too busy to have a full time job, I lived with my girlfriend, and was surviving on student loans. I was poor as dirt. Cigs were getting expensive too, as a kind of 'Sin Tax' pushed them up to 8 dollars a pack. Instead of doing the rational thing and living up the to the promise I made when I started (I will quit when I go to college in 3 years), I reverted to the old ways of getting nicotine, buying unrolled tobacco and rolling papers, and yes, hitting the gutters and public ashtrays once again, guiltily looking around to make sure nobody saw me fishing for butts, and feeling total shame. There were times in this period where we were literally starving. We were dirt poor students without food in the fridge. We were losing weight, but if I came across 8 dollars, I would buy smokes instead of food and hide them from my gf (who is now my wife). I would buy smokes every day at the cost of food, and my gf wasn't even a smoker. I was hurting us both, but I didn't quit.
I tried to quit for the first time back then. I went for at least a month, but the temper tantrums, the sleeplessness and the sweating were not what pulled me back, it was the confidence that I was out of the woods when I wasn't. It was the belief that I could 'just have one occasionally' that got me into the cycle I now understand but didn't at the time.
University finished and I entered the workforce. I started to get stronger financial footing with each year, and this made smoking less economically difficult because I could now afford BOTH smokes and food. By now I was in my mid 20's and knew that smoking was killing me. I was worried about cancer. I was worried about heart disease. I felt foolish in a world where smoking was becoming less cool and sliding down into the realm of the under-classes. It was no longer artists who smoked, it was thin lipped mullets who drove Dodge Daytona's and white trash Wal-mart shoppers who beat their kids in the aisles. I hated having to go out every hour at work to smoke. I hated the weakness it showed. I hated to have to excuse myself at family gatherings to step outside. I mostly hated that I was addicted and some heartless corporation was benefiting from death and misery, but I kept on smoking.
I started a pattern of cheat-quitting. I would 'quit' but instead of buying smokes, I would go back to the public ashtrays and gutters. The stupid part was that I had money now, but I figured if I didn't buy them and got only the small doses that discarded butts offer, I would wean myself off. I was fooling myself again. It didn't matter how weaned from nicotine I got, even a single puff would set off those receptors and I would be back. I could go months at a time without smoking but the second I turned to a juicy butt I picked up in the street, it was all over. I set a kind of mental precedent where I would allow myself a puff occasionally, but then the puffs would happen more and more often until I was smoking again.
This involved deceiving my wife. It makes me sick that cigs led me to this. Experts call it 'closet smoking', smoking and hiding it from loved ones for a long time. Eventually though, it comes out. I could only hide it for so long and the addiction always gets deeper over time. I couldn't admit to myself that I still smoked, even though I did.
I quit and relapsed dozens of times between 2000 and 2006. It was always the same thing, 'I can have just one, I am over it'. In 2005 I decided that I would smoke cigars to get off cigs, it makes no sense but that is addictive thinking for you. I figured I wouldn't smoke as often and they taste better. The nic withdrawl was actually less intense with cigars but the tar was intense, I could feel my lungs turning black, and I was now in my mid 30's. My body simply doesn't bounce back the way it did at 15. Once again, I hid the cigar smoking from my wife who thought I had quit nearly a year ago. Another deception I am going to have to live with.
Finally, almost a year ago, I quit. I had quit and relapsed so many times that I finally understood the pitfalls and was able to keep one step ahead of the addictive thought. I have accepted that I will always be a nic addict, even if I don't actually smoke. My brain has been permanently, physically altered. I started smoking before puberty was over. I smoked for nearly all my adult life. I still get cravings. I can handle those, they pass. But sometimes I get the thought without the craving, and that's the most insidious. So far, so good.
I could go on about how much better I feel physically, but I won't. It's not what keeps me off the nic these days. What keeps me off it is that I no longer want to live an addict's life. I may never have shot smack up in a pool of my own vomit, or sold myself into prostitution for a rock of crack, but I lied, I stole, I sacrificed my dignity, I gave it priority over everyone important to me, and I might STILL die of complications from it. I will always be a cancer and stroke risk. Nicotine addiction is just as difficult and just and self deceptive as ANY addiction out there and some experts say it's also the hardest to quit. Don't be fooled by it's legality and place in Hollywood iconography.
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