July 23, 2012

A Plea from the Bottom of the Ashtray.

by Jill Shropshire

A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?  

~ Oscar Wilde

There is a familiar scene in those two-tissue films in which the beautiful heroine, usually while in  her lover’s arms, coughs.

No ordinary cough—it is usually very deep and requires a lot of chest heaving, which can be a real advantage if the heroine’s breasts are exposed. The audience knows that this frail star is about to spend the next 25 minutes valiantly fighting for her life, a battle she will lose while remaining perfectly gorgeous in her paper gown and IV accessories.

I wish that my cough was accompanied by violins and impulsive marriage proposals and fat, sassy nurses, but it’s not. I doubt that my classmates felt much compassion during my recent coughing fit, as it drowned out the healing Tibetan gong CD during savasana. Who am I to deprive these overworked, superfit yogis of their previously recorded healing?

I’m a smoker—that’s who. A few weeks ago, I was an ex-smoker, a title I was really beginning to get used to. I’d been off the sticks for three whole months. This is a real victory for someone who’s been in a committed relationship with RJ Reynolds for the past 20 years. I truly believed that I was healed. Cue gong.

My ego was in full blossom because I’d defeated the fire-breathing dragon and now could perform my own breath of fire without gasping. My morning phlegm count was down, and my cardiovascular health was on the rise. Finally, I could go to yoga class without having to wash my clothes and hair and mat free of the cigarette smell beforehand.  I will never go back, I told myself. Never.

by Jill Shropshire

Never is a short time, apparently. A few months later I’m standing in line at the gas station asking for my beloved yellow pack and matches. What began as the desire for just the one, quickly became just the one before bed and just the one while I write. It was just the one 20 times a day. Lots of breath mints and showers and shame.

For those of you who are about to post a response at the bottom of this blog, something along the lines of have you seen the people who have to talk out of the holes in their throats—I know. Smoking for 20 years gives you a  private tour of sinus and ear infections, bronchial flare-ups, and out of breath moments on stairs. I’m fascinated by the smoker’s lung pictures on Web MD, but nothing on the internet can compare to how awful I feel when I’m regularly smoking.

I’ve even seen the slow, merciless death of my aunt who was a heavy smoker. Though she died from a brain tumor, it was her lungs that I smelled each time she coughed in that hospital bed. Cigarettes had raped her and pillaged her teeth, throat, heart, organs all. She’d been setting her body ablaze for 30 years, attempting to cover it up with Chanel perfume. As strong as #5 is, it’s no match for the smell of organs that have been suffocating for three decades.

It was with her that I smoked endless packs while drinking wine and talking about art and literature. It’s she that I think of fondly when I see a weary smoker on a work break during the coldest days of winter. She would have braved any cold or heat, any amount of dirty looks or raised insurance rates to smoke her sticks. She was also a New Yorker, and when the city banned smoking in all public areas, she said that for the first time ever she was considering moving. I suggested the South, the haven for the unhealthy and proud.

She taught me almost everything I know about culture and art and history, and she did it while puffing on two packs a day—knowing full well what the outcome was going to be didn’t stop her.

Several years before she died, the all-night coughing fits became more dramatic. She’d grasp at the air around her and get up from the bed to go empty another pack. I knew, with the certainty of a movie audience, that this wasn’t going to end well for my heroine. And so, I did what I always do to deal with stress and grief: smoked.

So even with the surgeon general warnings and a strong spiritual foundation, I find myself fighting and losing. Fighting and losing. True, it is partly my addiction to toxic nicotine. More than that though, smoking has been a huge part of my life–one of the major players in my own drama. It’s been an element of my most painful and most joyous moments. It was, for better or worse, the smell and feel of an evening with my aunt.

That last savasana got me thinking about another familiar scene from the movies. The heroine is met with a great challenge. She has neither the skills nor the confidence to meet this challenge. She trains at gyms, hair salons, ballet studios and recording studios. She finds that one person who believes in her unconditionally, who coaches her to victory. Cue Eye of the Tiger.

I’ve been met with the challenge to quit smoking for good. My training gym is a lovely lavender scented yoga studio. I meditate and breathe and sweat and cry and pray to Ganesh, my heavenly coach, the great ass-kicker of obstacles. The one who helped me survive the pain of my aunt’s brutal death. The elephant god who can help me live a long, oxygenated life. This blog is a plea from the bottom of the ashtray.

Get it on, bang a (healing) gong. Sorry about the cough. Namaste.


Editor: Brianna Bemel


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