I started smoking when I was fifteen. It was my cousin who gave me my first cigarette. She was about a half-year younger than me, but totally rebellious with this devil-may-care attitude that I envied. The kind of girl parents would call, "a bad influence." As a follow-all-the-rules straight A student who was a founding member of the "nerd herd" I wanted to see how the other half lived. So I said, "What the hell?" for the first time in my life, pinched the cigarette in my fingers, and took a long drawl.
It was a Virginia Slim, the old lady of cigarettes, that she had stolen from her mom. As you might suspect, it tasted like the inside of a chimney, and sent me into a gut-roiling coughing fit. But there was something else as I was bent over my knees retching, a sort of euphoria, the nicotine buzz that made me light-headed and tingly. It sent me and my cousin into fits of giggles. We rolled back and forth on my grandmother's guest bed laughing, and for the rest of that family vacation, my cousin and I would sneak away when ever we could to have a couple of drags of a cigarette and then revel in that post-smoke haze.
I thought when I got home, I would return to my non-smoker, rule-following, nerd herd status, that the deviation I'd taken from normalcy had only been a part of the trip, something I'd left behind the moment I stepped onto the plane. But when I told my best friend about the tingling, light-headed, first smoke experience, she wanted to try it too.
We shoplifted a back of Marlboro menthols from the gas station. As my friend hacked and coughed and choked after her first drawl, I took another one, already immune to the burn, like I had been smoking for years instead of a few stolen cigarettes over a week.
When the school year started, I was still smoking, and the first time I went to sneak a smoke between classes behind the 300 building, I found I was not alone. There was a club I'd never known existed, a magical place where everyone came together. Jocks, cheerleaders, stoners, the punk kids, the theatre kids, the art kids...people who did not associate in real life. But here, huddled in the shadows, watching for spying teachers, we were all bonded together as one thing...Smokers.
With the glowing end of a Marlboro pinched between my fingers, I had bought myself passage into a new identity. I was no longer the straight-A semi-friendless nerd. I was that smart girl who smoked cigarettes and listened to punk rock. That girl was much cooler. That girl went to parties and dated boys. That girl was popular. And I had my dear, sweet cigarettes to thank.
I continued smoking into college. Practically everyone smoked in college, even people who had previously glared down upon smokers, calling it "a disgusting habit." The moment you turn eighteen, you do two things: you buy a pack of a cigarettes and a lottery ticket. Because you can. My sophomore year roommate and I would lie awake in our twin beds at night, talking about guys while the glow of our two cigarettes filled the dark room. Our dorm room smelled like a dive bar on a Saturday morning, and we didn't care. Truthfully, the stale smoke covered the odor of moldy cheese and dirty socks.
When I turned twenty-one, the smoking got worse. This was before bars and clubs had banned smoking, and it was before smart phones. When your girlfriend left you alone to go to the bathroom, you couldn't keep yourself occupied with Candy Crush while you waited; you smoked. And the more you drank, the more you smoked.
At the beginning of the night I'd go out with a full pack of cigarettes and come home with one lone smoke rattling around in an almost empty box. Truthfully, I would have smoked that one too, but I had enough willpower to save it. Because I knew the moment I woke up the next day, my body would start aching for its next cigarette and I'd be too sick to go out and get more.
When bars did ban smoking, I was almost grateful. I wasn't sure my lungs or my wallet could take the chain smoking anymore, and I was tired of waking up the next morning with ashtray smelling hair. The smokers were part of a secret club again. Not the ones who hid behind a building, but the ones who stood in front of the bar, sucking down nicotine. We even had our own hand signal. Two fingers pressed to your lips in a tight V was the international sign for, "Wanna have a smoke?"
At first it was a large group, maybe ten, twenty people outside, all laughing, all drunk. Strangers could meet strangers with an easy conversation starter. "Do you have a light?" or "Can I bum a smoke?" A few years later there were only a handful of us. A few years after that I found myself alone, my hood pulled over my head while I shivered in the misty, dreary thirty degree weather feeding my addiction while I sadly watched my friends laughing and drinking inside, toasty and warm.
I was still in the club, but it wasn't the cool club anymore.
I remember when I was sixteen and my parents caught my smoking. My dad said one thing to me that stuck, "You'll always be a slave to them. For the rest of your life, every minute of every day you'll be thinking 'when can I get my next cigarette.'" I laughed it off at the time, but sometime in my early thirties, I realized he was right.
I made a couple of sad attempts at quitting. They lasted days, sometimes hours and then I wouldn't try again for years. I had in my closet Chantix, nicorette, e-cigarettes...every tool known to mankind to help you quit smoking, and they sat there collecting dust. I always had an excuse like, "I can't possibly go to that party and not smoke," or "I'm just so crazy right now, I can't handle the stress." True, those were genuine concerns, but those weren't my worst fear. I was afraid to quit smoking because I was afraid of losing my identity. For almost 20 years, all of my adult life, I'd been a smoker. Who was I without the cigarettes?
I had heard that quitting before you're thirty-five greatly reduces your risk of cancer so I had set that as my goal, but even as I neared the deadline I knew I could push it if I needed to. Was thirty-six really that different from thirty-five?
It was two things that really pushed me to the edge. One, my son. He has asthma and my smoking around him was not helping, and two, while I was on maternity leave, I watched daytime TV, and at the time they were running the most terrifying anti-smoking commercials I had ever seen. I keep meaning to thank someone for those. They literally saved my life.
When I set out to quit, I never really set out to quit. I was only going to switch to the e-cigarettes. I had a couple of long-time heavy smoking friends who had done it so I thought, why not give it a shot? The e-cigarettes were nowhere near as satisfying as the real thing, but they showed me one, extremely valuable thing. I could survive without cigarettes. And if I could survive with a paltry, plastic substitute, maybe I could break-up with nicotine for good.
Gradually I eliminated the e-cigarette from my life, but I occasionally snuck a real cigarette here and there when I was really anxious or out drinking. Other days I crawled into bed hours early, avoiding the cravings by sleeping through them. December of last year I was at a party and pretty drunk and itching for a cigarette. It had been months since I'd had one. I thought, what could it hurt? Excited for it, I lit the end and took a long drawl. I almost gagged. It was disgusting.
That was my very last cigarette.
For the longest time I'd kept an emergency pack in a drawer, untouched but still there, like a crutch. I came home from that party, took the pack out of the drawer and tossed it in the trash. I was no longer a smoker.