Camels and cowboys

I'll always be a smoker, even when I quit.

Published February 8, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When I write fiction, 90 percent of my characters smoke. I reserve the most descriptive words for passages of my creations alone with their cigarettes.

When I doodle, cigarettes hang from the lower lip of my stick figures. Sexy, smoky lines drift up to obscure their faces. I envy my characters incredibly. Oh, I'm still a smoker (I always will be), but I'm nonpracticing today. I'm back on the wagon. I know I'll always want a cigarette on some level. I'll always feel a tinge of envy when I pass a group of smokers in front of my favorite coffeehouse. But my family and friends, my instinct for survival, finally got the better of me.

I'd been saying I'd quit again since the moment I picked up a cigarette six months ago. My longtime friends knew I'd live up to my word -- they've seen me quit before, several times. The longer somebody has known me, the more times they have seen me give up smoking. My friend Liz (a nonsmoker) can't
fathom my ability to seemingly start and stop at will. And it's true, I don't have any trouble quitting the deadly addiction. I just can't quit starting again.

I don't really know why I started smoking again. I saw a full pack of Marlboro Lights lying on the ground outside my neighbor's apartment, and I just helped myself to one. I suppose I was lonely at the time, and the thought of one last rendezvous with an old friend held some appeal. I didn't smoke it immediately, but I kept it with me as I drove to the gym. I rolled it around in my fingers and put it in my mouth, pretending to smoke it. The thought of smoking a cigarette after so many months gave me a sexy,
bad-boy feeling -- almost like spying on the next-door neighbor, but it remained in my car, carefully placed in the glove compartment. It wasn't until a few days later that I came across it again and said, "What the hell?"

The euphoria was amazing. My body thanked me for the sensation it had so obviously missed. The world looked beautiful around me, and I thought about how much I loved my life and all my wonderful friends. Even my parents took on a sheen in my thoughts as the nicotine painted my glasses a pleasant shade of rose. That cigarette took me a long time to finish. That's the
thing about smoking -- the pleasant inhalation of the smoke, the almost spiritual quality of the early experience quickly gives way to a ravenous sucking to get as much nicotine in your body as possible. But that first cigarette was like a solemn prayer.

I waited anxiously for the addiction to kick in and, after a few days, I began to believe that perhaps it wasn't going to happen this time. By golly, I had kicked it, I realized as I incessantly thought about the sensation of that one glorious cigarette during the course of the next two weeks. I would never need to fear the compulsion again. I even told my friends about my newfound strength. "I can smoke," I exclaimed to their doubtful and disappointed faces, "and not be addicted."

The next month at work, overjoyed and confident in my ability to resist addiction, I bummed a cigarette from my co-worker, Lisa. The day was stressful, and I couldn't resist having just one -- one more, that is. She had a concerned (or pleased?) look on her face when she realized another person had fallen from grace, but I assured her I was capable of having just one. Within the span of two days, my one and only cigarette had become two, then three and four.

Over the course of the next month, I began to join Lisa and Roger and the rest of the smokers regularly. Roger and I talked about his wife and kids, his former jobs, his career trajectory. We were close for the first time since we began to work together. Of course, my bumming was irritating and it made it difficult for the others in the club to take me very seriously, so I began to buy my own -- only for work, only for the club. But like the pack left over from the college party, I began to smoke them, gradually incorporating them into my daily habits: two for the drive to work, one midmorning, one before and one after lunch, two in the afternoon and two
for the drive home. Those were only the official ones. Eventually, the club embraced me, and I became a smoker again. And that was that. I knew the cycle had begun again; I would smoke for as long as I needed to or until I couldn't handle it anymore and then I'd quit.

Addiction for me is strange; in the middle of it, it's like I'm in a tunnel. Quitting is unimaginable. The thought of it makes me feel lonely and jittery. But somewhere in the middle of the addiction, this dark tunnel (at a time when I strangely don't feel lonely), my body tires of the constant subliminal messages that are bombarding it. I can no longer bear the thought of myself dying of lung cancer, of my sick father, frowning as he wonders why I'm throwing away the health that he'd give anything to have
again, of my friends shifting their position to avoid the noxious fumes that emanate from my direction. My body just gives me an escape clause, a ladder is lowered, and if I take it, then quitting is fairly easy. If I don't quit then, I'm trapped again. Eventually, weeks -- maybe months -- later, another ladder is lowered. I wonder if everybody's body gives them these little escape hatches, times when quitting is so much easier and more imaginable.

Perhaps the human spirit doesn't like imprisonment -- because
that's what smoking is, a form of captivity. Perhaps humans are constantly struggling against the chains of addiction, and sometimes the human spirit prevails. I wish I could say our spirits always vanquish the darkness and lower ladders of freedom, but I know they don't. I've seen too many people
slipping dangerously close to death who continually smoke and make excuses for their behavior. Perhaps their spirit gave up long ago; the tunnel just too dark and deep with not enough oxygen to support a flame.

I can see how that happens. Smoking has crept into my life in so many ways. It makes me feel like a writer -- not because nicotine alters my brain chemistry, but because I feel like a beatnik when I smoke. I have never worn a beret, worn only black or joined a writer's circle, but I did take up smoking. When I first moved to Chicago after college, it just seemed like the right thing to do. I would sit on the dirty old furniture at the neighborhood coffeehouse, and sip espresso and smoke cigarette after cigarette as I wrote in my journal. I like who I am when I smoke; I like the jittery sensation when I smoke too much; I love that I don't need to eat.

And when I smoke, I don't feel like doing anything else. Working out seems too arduous a task to even consider. Why spend hours pumping iron when I can sit on my deck and get the same stimulation while I read? Even sex begins to lose its appeal -- not quite, but it begins to get lost in a haze.

In college, my best friend and I would sit in our dorm room watching movies, camp out at Denny's for an all-nighter of studying or even just sit quietly on the white winter quad and smoke one cigarette after another. I don't understand why cigarette companies spend their advertising dollars on giant billboards portraying cowboys and cartoon camels. Westerns aren't cool anymore,
and the camels may be a clever idea to entice kids, but what person between the ages of 13 and 80 really cares about them?

Cigarette companies should spend their advertising dollars on the experience of smoking, reinforcing the idea that smoking is their friend, that it makes them into people they wouldn't be if they didn't smoke. Cigarettes helped my friends and me bond; they actually strengthened our friendship, or they seemed to. Rather than cowboys and camels, I'd respond to an arty, black-and-white billboard showing a group of friends sitting around a table, talking and laughing with their coffee and cigarettes. Or imagine an advertising campaign designed to stop people from breaking their habit; a group of laughing friends standing around while a man with a patch on his arm watches from a distance -- alone.

When I thought about quitting this time, I felt like I was giving up a friend. The mere thought of abandoning my habit made me feel hollow and empty. And in truth, I did give up more than just the cigarettes; I also gave up all the people with whom I gossiped around the fountain during work hours. I was giving up all the discussions about how we -- smokers -- were the only group that it was still politically correct to discriminate against. We wore that discrimination like a badge of honor, but I couldn't help feeling
ashamed as I walked into the office, the scent of stale smoke clinging to my clothes. And I noticed the others too, going into the restroom to wash their hands or spraying the mist into their mouths. We all knew it was disgusting, but that didn't mean we could quit.

It took me nearly six months this time, but the ladder was lowered, and I chose to use it. Things have reverted back to the way they were in my pre-smoking days. Roger and I are back to saying quick hellos in the hall. Lisa and I haven't had lunch since I quit. Sure, we can tell ourselves it's the holidays or that we're busy at work, but the truth is, I'm not in their club anymore. We don't have anything in common. I suppose I could stand out by the fountain with them and enjoy my breaks from work, butI didn't really need the breaks for rest; I needed them for smoking. It's too dangerous to be near them. It feels false. Eventually, I'll ask them for a cigarette. I'll think I've kicked the addiction and the whole mess will start again.

But have I really kicked this addiction, or have I just replaced it,
splintered it up into a million subaddictions that can almost replace the thrill of nicotine? When I put down my last cigarette, the things that nicotine suppressed immediately came rushing back in to fill its cavernous wake. I eat much more food than I did as a smoker, or even before I became a smoker. Nothing seems to fill me up. My new favorite snacks are Triscuits with cream cheese. I can and do eat them one after the other until nearly the entire box is gone. I find that I focus not only on the hunger, but also on the texture of the crackers in my mouth, on the sensation of eating. My caffeine consumption has increased; I've
started drinking hammerheads (two shots of espresso in a cup of coffee) for that extra kick.

I also work out more. I'm more focused on my workouts, and I leave the gym sore -- but drugged adequately. The endorphin rush that accompanies muscle breakdown is the closest approximation I can find to nicotine. In the past I've argued that I'm just more able to work out when I'm not smoking, that my lung capacity had increased. Now I see working out for what it is -- a stimulant.

Incidentally (or not so), I think about sex constantly, can't get enough. And if the real thing isn't available? Well let's just say that I've spent more on renting pornography in one week than I ever did on cigarettes in the same amount of time. Finally, worst of all, I'm drinking more than I did a month ago -- two or three drinks per night. It's a different buzz, but it's a buzz. So if I don't change my behavior yet again, I'll be an overweight, nonsmoking, sex-crazed lush. Thank God I had the strength to
take that ladder.

By Tate Gunnerson

Tate Gunnerson is a writer in San Diego.

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