you wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death

I am trying to quit smoking again.

I’ve been a smoker off and on (mostly on) since I was 17. One summer evening when we were really bored, my best friend S taught me to smoke. And by “taught me to smoke,” I mean she literally instructed me. She bought us a pack of cigarettes (she was a grade ahead of me so she’d already turned 18), and we parked on a dead-end street in her neighborhood and sat on the hood of her mom’s car while she handed me cigarette after cigarette. She lit the first one for me and told me to just hold it to see how it felt. She lit the second one and told me to allow a little smoke to get in my mouth, but not inhale it. She lit the third one and told me to inhale the smallest amount of smoke I possibly could. We went on from there and by the end, S had taught me how to smoke, and I never even coughed once.

The last time I saw S, 8 years ago, she told me how bad she felt for having taught me to smoke, but I’ve never held her responsible. I did it willingly. Hell, I probably asked her to teach me. That summer, S had a job at a water park in Houston, and she’d made a lot of new friends. I was jealous of the time she spent with them, they really intimidated me, and I was already so insecure that I was desperate for anything that might make me seem like I fit in. S would take me to these parties where everyone was drunk or high, and I’d stand there smoking my cigarette, watching one of S’s friends hold another girl’s hair back as she threw up into the swimming pool.

I started out just smoking at these parties or when I was with S, but then I made some other friends who smoked, and we smoked whenever we hung out in the evenings or on weekends. My senior year of high school I fell in with the theater crowd, and again I’d chain-smoke at parties while my acquaintances got drunk or did drugs or whatever. Cigarettes were my way of feeling like I was “cool” at parties without having to drink or whatever else. Drunk or high people from my high school didn’t usually let people walk around vice-free without comment, either, so smoking was my way of keeping them from pressuring me.

One of many photos of me where I'm clearly smoking but I've photoshopped the cigarette out.

One of many photos of me where I’m clearly smoking but I’ve photoshopped the cigarette out. (RIP green glasses)

I spent my freshman year at UT living in a dorm where you could smoke in your room (I KNOW, I’M SO OLD), and my friends across the hall both smoked, so cigarettes turned from a party habit into an everyday habit. After the smoking dorms at UT there was waiting tables, where everyone smoked, and then there was being an English major and hanging out with a bunch of writers who smoked, and my identity as a smoker was cemented.

I’ve always attributed a sort of romance to smoking. I did confine my smoking time to parties at first, but the majority of my smoking time in high school was spent with friends in little poorly-lit corners of parks in our neighborhood at night. We’d stop at the Circle K for cigarettes and sodas, and sit in the park for hours, smoking and talking about boys or our friends or what we thought college would be like. There was a newer subdivision next to mine that had a few little man-made lakes in it, and one of those lakes had a dock with a gazebo at the end of it. My two closest friends and I would spend hours in that gazebo, talking and laughing, singing whatever new radio hit we were obsessed with, and smoking.

Then there’s standing outside in the snow at night sharing a cigarette with your boyfriend. There’s you and a friend driving down the highway, smoking, singing an angry Ani DiFranco song at the top of your lungs. There’s going camping with friends and two of you waking up earlier than everyone else, sitting by the river as the sun comes up, each of you with your first cigarette of the day. There’s lighting a cigarette in your apartment building’s hallway and then running outside to stand in the wind as a cold front comes in and leaves whip around you.

There’s sitting on your patio with a glass of wine and a cigarette and your laptop, writing.

This is the first personal thing I’ve written in years without a half-full ashtray next to me. It’s weird and I don’t like it. I haven’t had a cigarette since 1:00 yesterday afternoon.

I’ve quit smoking once before. Throughout most of my twenties, I told myself that I would stop smoking when I turned thirty. In March 2008, two months before my 30th birthday, I came down with a terrible flu-like illness that left me weak and lifeless and uninterested in smoking. A week later, once I was well again, I decided to continue not smoking. Since I’d already gotten over the nicotine withdrawals, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to just go ahead and quit, right?

It was difficult, but not terrible. I kept half a pack of cigarettes in my glove compartment just in case, and somehow knowing they were there calmed me, made it easier not to smoke. I started listening to NPR on my commute instead of music, just to change up my routine. When I went out to bars I brought knitting with me to keep my hands busy. Things were okay.

I’d stopped smoking for three months when I went through the breakup of a bad relationship I’d had no business being in in the first place. The stress and general horribleness of the whole thing broke me, and I thought, fuck it, why bother with this quitting? I bought a pack of cigarettes on my way to a friend’s wedding in Fort Worth, and I’ve been smoking ever since.

Until yesterday.

I don’t think I really smoked that much. Maybe half a pack on a normal day? More when I went out or was stressed or traveling or it was nice out or I was doing yardwork or woodworking projects?

I liked smoking.

But I started to feel dirty inside. And I don’t mean literally, though I wouldn’t want to look at any pictures of my lungs at this point. I mean figuratively dirty, like there was something wrong with me. As I get older, fewer and fewer of my friends are smokers—they quit for health reasons or because they’re going to be parents or because dude, they’re not in fucking college anymore—and sneaking off to have a cigarette by myself lacked the aforementioned romance. When I met new people I tried not to tell them I smoked unless I had to, for fear of being judged.

And trapeze. When I do trapeze routines, I get tired and winded before everyone else. When I go to strength training class in the mornings, I have to take more breaks than anyone else. Sometimes my instructor sniffs the air near me and says, “Did you SMOKE TODAY?” Which is annoying, but also kind of adorable (I’m a smoker! Why wouldn’t I have smoked today?). Anyway, if I want to be able to do actual trapeze performance routines, I can’t also be a smoker.

Everything I hear about quitting smoking says that your life should be otherwise stable when you quit, so that quitting is the only stressful thing going on in your life. That obviously isn’t true for me right now, as I’ve got a breakup and a move to another state and my dad’s health problems to contend with.

But first of all, I got the quitting feeling (you former smokers will know about the quitting feeling), and it’s always easier to quit when I have the quitting feeling, so I’m going to do what the feeling says. Second of all, why the hell not add one more change to my already evolving life? If I can move to St. Louis and start my life there without smoking as part of my identity, more’s the better.

But holy hell is that 14-hour drive to StL going to be boring without any cigarettes.

10 thoughts on “you wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death

  1. It’s kind of a hokey site, but when I quit a while back, I used to track my stats. It tracks how many cigarettes I haven’t smoked, or how much money I had saved by not smoking. I found that watching those numbers tick up and up when I would log in a couple times a day was really motivating. I’d think “ok, I can make it to 100 cigs not smoked…lets see if I can get it up to 150,” etc…

    Good luck!

  2. You can do this Alison! It’s hard, but I actually think throwing the baby out with the bath water on this one, and by that I mean CHANGING EVERYTHING AT ONCE might actually be the way to go. I smoked from age 14-31, and like you, it was mostly social, but still, I was a smoker. My anxiety did get worse after I quit, but I really think it’s because when you’re a smoker, you spend at least 3-4 quiet moments alone with your thoughts each day, smoking is sort of like meditation in that way. I try to remember to take little breaks now, where I don’t do anything, I just breathe and exist. It’s hard to do that when you’re not smoking. It’s easy to sit outside and just take 5-10 minutes doing NOTHING when you are smoking. Anyway, hang in there, you can do it, and I also built in a failsafe which was I was allowed to smoke 2-3 cigarettes for each party. But at the end of the party I had to give the pack away to someone else. It became expensive to smoke those few cigarettes, and eventually I just stopped doing it. Cigarettes are now like that boyfriend that was really cute, but also a super bad fit for my life. Like, I still miss him a little bit and I sometimes romanticize him, but ugh, there was a for-real reason that we broke up and it’s because he was a dick.

  3. Wow, you really captured the feeling of smoking. I loved those moments you remembered. It made me miss smoking. Your writing is SO GOOD, Alison. Thanks for taking me back and making me feel that again.

    You and I have a very similar story. I started in high school and kept smoking in college. (I told myself that I’d quit at 18. Haha, totally didn’t happen.) I, too, loved it. It is romantic. Or at least it was when I was younger. I smoked for 11 years. I finally quit in 2004 at age 27 while I was in grad school. I had “the quitting feeling” and even though there was a lot going on in my life, it was the right time.

    Best of luck in the journey. You are strong and I know you can do it.

  4. I read recently that if you want to change a habit or a pattern, it is best to do that when your schedule has changed considerably. I think that is why people suggest you quit smoking while you’re on vacation for 2 weeks. Not only are you more relaxed, but your basic routine is different than normal so the regular time triggers aren’t there while you’re going through withdrawal. And it sounds like your basic routine has changed, and while the stress is there, it sounds like if you waited for life to be less stressful before you quit, you’d be waiting until you were 80. So, you feel like quitting, and you want to quit for good reasons, to make it easier to do things you like more. And that seems like the best reason at all. Good luck, lady. You’re awesome!

  5. Seconding what folks said above: a lot can be said for the meditative practice of controlling your breathing a few times a day, cigarettes or no. I’ve never been a smoker, but I always go outside for the smoke breaks with folks, because it’s a moment to step away from the party and have small little conversations out in the elements with people. You can do that, too. :-)

    Good luck!

  6. Ahh, smoking. For a while there, I always thought that if I had three wishes, I’d like one of them to be that I could smoke as much as I wanted without consequences, even though I was never a heavy smoker. It just comes in so handy, sometimes. That was when I spent a lot more time in bars, though.

  7. What worked for me was getting a few days of not smoking behind me, then a few more days, then more, etc. (I started when I was 18 and we’re the same age.) I haven’t had a cigarette in over two years. Not one! If I had one it would cancel out the last two years. But that’s the way my mind works.

    One thing I did do that I wish I hadn’t was get into e-cigs. It started with a disposable one, then I got into the fancy ones with tanks and batteries. I did that for about a year and then had to quit that. It was harder than quitting regular cigarettes because I could do it anywhere and sit for hours puffing on and off. A lot of people I know do that instead of smoking real cigarettes, but they’re both bad habits to me.

    I still want a cigarette at least once a day, but it seems like such a foreign thing to me (even with smoker friends around) that I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.

    Good luck. You can do it!

  8. Lovely post (classic bluishorange!). I started occasionally smoking because I like the initial rush of the nicotine hitting my bloodstream, AND the added benefit of making me look like Edie Sedgwick.

    The problem with quitting smoking is that it leaves your hands with nothing to do. If I feel awkward at a wedding or a party or a bar, I go out and have a cig just so I can have some socially acceptable standing alone time. How to be alone? Smoke. Breathe rhythmically.

    That said, waking up with your mouth feeling like someone used it as a latrine pit is a pretty good deterrent.

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