A couple weeks ago, I published a piece at Deeper Story. It was about addiction and my desperate reach for grace. My awkward stance in the dark crook of debauchery and sin and struggle. I wrote it a full month before it was published, and almost immediately after I finished typing, I heard a yearly voice. An annual summoning from the base of my heart. Quietly, it said:
And I would’ve batted it away had I not blown past a startling number of stop signs this year. Friends have confided in me their concerns about my health. Two of them dreamed I died from it. My mom reminded me of the Lung Cancer in our family history. My brother, gently, informed me of the newly discovered danger of “Third Hand Smoke”– i.e. my smoky smell was toxic- especially to babies- i.e., his son. And sometimes I feel chest pain. Or a sore throat. And let’s not even talk about the money.
I spent a month thinking about how to go about this. I ended up improvising.
A week ago, I got an electronic cigarette, a device that imitates the look and feel of a cigarette, but without the smoke, just vaporized nicotine instead. Like the gum or the patch, but a million times better. I am not so smart about the movements of the spirit- but my God, I swear this stuff is sacrament. Almost immediately, it made a dent in my cigarette intake. I went from half of what I was smoking, to then one-third. Ever dwindling, oh so fast.
One day my quota was set at five real cigarettes, and around 8pm, I had had my third one. Glancing into my pack, I saw only two left. I decided then, that that was the last of them. Forever. Starting the following day, I would be smoke free. Clean slate. Voila.
But quitting smoking is the same as Chinese water drop torture. I woke up the following day thinking about it, immediately puffing on my e-cig to stave away the crave. I distracted myself with a good book, and then a hard jog, and by evening time, my family was throwing me high-fives, everyone so proud. In the living room, my dad pointed to my brother Aaron, asked if I was too stressed out, because I could totally hit him.
I was stressed out.
Achingly so. Brutally so. My mind spastically skittering on the edge without the cigarettes to hold it back.
All I could think of was smoking. Smoke. Smoke. Smoke. A broken record spun round and round my mind. My mouth watered. I needed a cigarette. My body tensed up with all the anxiety and none of the cure. I reached into my pocket unconsciously- out of habit, and then I felt a wave of loss. Like a death.
Because that’s what we’re dealing with here: loss.
It sounds so weird and dirty to say, but the truth is, smoking has been laced up in my identity since I was seventeen. It was what I turned to when I was anxious. When I was depressed. When I was overjoyed. When I was lonely. When I was bored. When I just needed it, it was always there. Instant fix.
And this is just the top layer. Let’s go beneath it to the rituals.
Take coffee, for example. The first time I combined those two addictions, I thought to myself, Wow! I haven’t really had coffee until THIS. And so it was. Coffee and cigarettes, fused forever. What was first merely a sweetener, quickly became a trigger. I could always have a smoke without coffee, but I could not have coffee without a cigarette.
The same happened for meals. For the first half hour after I woke up. For reading. For the last five minutes before I went to sleep. For writing. For long phone conversations and definitely in person conversations. For minutes after I clocked out of work. For insomnia. For years and years and years, simple everyday things, times, decisions have been deeply knotted to smoking. And every attempt to do them smoke-free provokes every violent craving.
If you’re wondering why I’ve been absent this past week, it’s because writing does that to me. I am used to writing half a page, taking a smoke, drinking the coffee, writing again, repeat, repeat, repeat. And so writing now, without it, right here, typing this thing out, my head feels like it just might burst through the roof. My mouth feels dry.
The day I was supposed to be done for good, I went to my brother’s house, continuing to plow my way into all things distracting. We watched a show. I sat on the couch sucking on my e-cigarette like a straw, until it ran out of battery and I panicked even more. An avalanche of thoughts. I reached out to a friend who said: “You are so close. Don’t give up.” And truly I was. It would be the first full smoke-free day in years and I would’ve tasted the nearness of that if my skin didn’t feel like it was vibrating and my throat didn’t feel so thirsty for tar.
At 11:30 PM, I stopped at a gas station. I stopped at a gas station and bought my damn marlboro’s. I asked for a book of matches, but the cashier said they didn’t carry any, but hey, she was headed out for her smoke anyway and wouldn’t mind lighting up.
And there I was. Beneath the gas station neon lights smoking with a stranger, telling her proudly that this was my first of the day, because I was quitting.
She stole glance at my shaky fingers dangling the white smoldering stick, and then exhaled to the sky: good luck with that. I smoked another.
The following morning, I couldn’t bear lying to my puffed-up-proud folks, so I told them. I told them I felt like a miserable failure. Like this would never end. I would never be done.
“You’re too hard on yourself.” They said, and there wasn’t the slightest cringe or disappointment in their voice. They echoed my twitter followers the night before who rejoiced in the fact that I didn’t have a smoke until 11:30 PM. What a feat! What a win! A month ago, what an impossibility.
Grace catches us like that. All it needs is for us to speak the lie out loud: I feel like a failure. This feels impossible. And in our cannonball dive we hit a trampoline. We bounce back up with the truth. With the reminder of our own tendencies to tear ourselves apart. With realizing the HUGE victories that were wrongly got categorized as defeats, as not enough, as failure.
And so I’m back on the slow and steady, going at one-third of my usual, supplementing it with the e-cigarette, moving a few feet forward every day. And no, it’s not cold turkey. It’s not a clean breakaway. It’s not goodbye. But it’s working for me. For now. I am in progress, albeit slowly, but moving nonetheless.
Quitting is hard work, and it feels a little fragile, requiring more perseverance than anything I’ve done before. But it’s working, and I can feel it. Every day, I am stronger.