December 15, 2013

The last time a Cigarette Made Sense to Me Was a Month Ago.

Warning: naughty language ahead!

The last time I had a cigarette was a little over a month ago.

Disclaimer: I will not be talking much about the health benefits of not-smoking and the health detriment of smoking. I am aware and informed probably to the same extent as most people on the matter, so I am therefore assuming that this is shared knowledge and it need not be explained in detail here.

Let me give a little context of the period of my life that I am in: I am 25 years old. I have been smoking off and on—but let’s be real, it’s been mostly on—since I was 16.

It started with two nightly cigarettes that I’d steal from my mom’s pack when I would sneak out of the house. I never snuck out to party or have sex with boys or any of that stuff that gives moms nightmares.

No. I would take two of my mom’s cigarettes, my journal and a pack of markers, and I would drive up to the top of a parking structure in this totally random strip mall (and I mean random—this strip mall had absolutely no other meaning in my life except this is where I would sneak off to), and I would smoke and write and smoke and write. Sometimes I would put my best friend in the car and we would do this together.

All it ever was, was just thinking about life.

It was time I took to sit and do mostly nothing, and just talk to myself about myself—I became my own subject and my own study—and I would smoke and write and smoke and talk and smoke and think.

At the end of these nights, I still felt uncomfortably teenage, but there was a greater sense of peace…like things had been resolved.

I’m not sure cigarettes were ever a really strong physical addiction for me.

Of course that’s a bunch of bullshit, because was I physically addicted? Of course.

I wasn’t an elitist smoker who could simply stop smoking and have no feeling about it whatsoever. The physical craving definitely tore its way in after meals, after sex, while drinking coffee, while driving, while drinking, when walking past other smokers.

But I think more than the physical addiction, it was the ritual aspect of smoking that had the biggest grip on me.

In the life of a smoker, the ten minutes spent with a cigarette are a ritual.

First of all, smokers have to find a place to smoke. We all are relegated to small areas, which means that unless the balcony is empty, there are other people in a small(ish) area, all doing the same thing. All of a sudden, there is community. Even if there are zero words spoken between people, there is community because there is shared experience.

I’ve met people while I was in the middle of the activity of smoking.

I mean like, I’ve shaken people’s hands and exchanged names during a cigarette and they became really, incredibly important people in my life. They sweep in and become huge and take over and spit me out someplace completely different. The people I’ve met while I was smoking have been game changers for me.

My aforementioned high school best friend is an example of this. We are still best friends, the kind of friends where I see absolutely no foreseeable obstacle to us being in each other’s lives exactly the way we are. The kind of friend where forever is implied because you know you were just put here on this planet to be a part of this person’s life for always.

I met someone else freshman year of college at our dorm room’s smoker’s bench.

We were the only two people out there at eleven at night, and it was that awkward moment of realizing that we lived literally next door to each other, like I shared a wall with this person, and it was almost February (seven months after we moved into school), and we had not talked to each other yet.

I don’t even know how we started that conversation. I remember feeling uncomfortable. But somehow it happened that we smoked the rest of our pack of cigarettes and at the end of our conversation that spanned—minutes? Hours? Decades? Lifetimes?

I looked at her and said, Lauren, I think you may be the closest person to me in this world. 

The person I ended up living with most of my second half of college had a smoking ritual with me. It included our balcony and hot cups of tea and conversations that meandered through alternate universes, chemistry, women’s issues, current events, childhood memories, boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, wish-they-were-boyfriends, eww-don’t-make-me-think-about-him-that-way-boyfriends, daddy issues, class-loads, work, religion, love and most of all, laughter.

As far as I can tell, other smokers share this sort of secret, almost magic, bond with other people they’ve met while smoking.

But, I don’t think any of these relationships are dependent on cigarettes. But what cigarettes gave us was brilliant. It gave us ten minutes where we easily justified doing only these things: gripping two fingers, pressing something against their lips, and inhaling and exhaling for ten minutes. And somehow, this became a useful way to spend our time.

It’s hard for me to justify spending my time making a hand gesture and breathing, but add a cigarette to that equation and all of a sudden, my time is so easily justified. Somehow, in this whole convoluted mess of picking up a smoking habit, the activity of smoking starts making sense.

I have quit three times, I have said I was going to quit and then didn’t three times, and now I’m here—having not smoked for a month without any real conversation with myself about it.

I quit the first time after my freshman year of college. I was smoking reds at the time, and this smoker guy who lived across the quad came and asked me for one and as I pulled out my pack and he laughed and said, “Oh, never mind, I don’t want to die.”

That scared the crap out of me.

But since that silly little nonsensical exchange only scared me into quitting, of course I ended up smoking again.

Scaring someone into doing something is not sustainable.

It lasts only while the fear is potent, but that level of fear cannot be sustained for long periods of time. Eventually, the fear fades and the cigarette is justified again because it is two drinks into the night and I’ve decided nothing counts past this point anymore.

Smoking still made so much sense to me. Smoking still made me feel good. Like, really, really good. Like, when I go outside and smoke, suddenly my thoughts are a little more lined up and I like myself just a little more.

(Could I have provided myself these experiences without cigarettes? Sure. But I didn’t, so I’m going to forego talking about something that didn’t happen.)

Every other time I quit was like that. They were these little declarations of quitting that were so poorly rooted. I quit for guys, I quit because of the smell, I quit because of the cost, I quit because yogis don’t smoke, I quit because I was embarrassed to be a smoker.

Those are all fine reasons to quit or to think of quitting, but none of them helped me stop making sense of smoking, which is really why I kept coming back to it. Because somehow, even after all those conversations with myself, lighting up a cigarette and taking a rotund inhale off that squishy filter would feel freaking amazing. It would feel so good.

If something feels really good to me, then of course I’m going to keep doing it.

I don’t think this is because I’m selfish (whatever that means), I think this is because I’m human and I have internal programming that guides my behavior sometimes to do things that I decide feel good to me.

Smoking has always, since I first picked up a cigarette, made sense to me.

But, the past few years with smoking has been a huge internal struggle.

I started a yoga practice three and a half years ago, and I have been teaching a yoga practice for three years.

It feels like my life has been fuller since I came to yoga, and I don’t think that’s because more things are happening in my life, I think it’s simply because I’m paying attention to more things.

For me, yoga is 10 percent asana. I don’t know if that’s more or less than it should be, and I don’t care. I love asana, but the thing that keeps me coming to practice and coming to teach is that the other 90 percent of yoga, to me, is simply a way of viewing life so that I may feel more love.

The entire time I’ve had my practice, I have felt guilty about smoking cigarettes. The entire time, I have believed smoking to be antithetical to yoga.

Of course I had physical issues as well—I had a feeling smoking was keeping me weak. It wasn’t beating me down and smacking the crap out of me; but it was the little plastic weight thing holding down my helium insides. I had this feeling that if I were to stop smoking, I would feel so much lighter and stronger in my body (which has happened, by the way).

The irony is today I am thinking—after having not smoked a cigarette for a month—that it’s possible to both be a smoker and be enlightened. I think that’s totally possible. I say, why not?

But I still felt bad about it. I hid it from my teachers, from my students, from my friends, and friends-of-friends who knew me as the yoga girl, or from anyone I wanted to have a working relationship with.

It wasn’t really the smoking—it was the lack of integration that drove me crazy. The smoking itself was just an inconvenience of having to actually get out of the car and go give someone 11 dollars (yes, they cost 11 dollars in Chicago).

The lack of integration made me feel heavy…at a certain point, too heavy.

It became so hard trying to manage and juggle all these different perceptions—like I was in control of how other people perceived me, and I wanted to manage it completely.

It was very important that people see me as a non-smoker, even though I smoked about five cigarettes a day.

Divulging the information that I smoked was like a confession that only happened several months into knowing someone, and it usually was told only because I just got tired of keeping it a freaking secret all the time.

So about a month ago, I smoked my last cigarette, and until today, I kind of didn’t know why.

I have half a pack of cigarettes in my freezer that I put there in case I needed one, and sometimes I go over and look at it and feel…nothing. I don’t feel anything when I look at them–not an impulse to grab one and smoke it or grab the whole thing and flush it. Nothing.

This doesn’t mean that I haven’t experienced cravings. I’ve experienced cravings mostly linked with heightened emotional moments. And I have gotten very close. I’ve gotten all my winter clothes on and sat down and thought, yeah, I’m totally okay going out and smoking one cigarette right now, but then what? What happens after that? I just walk back inside and pretend nothing happened? What happens later when I want another one? How will that conversation go? This seems like a whole lotta work for a little cigarette, girlfriend. 

It’s stopped making sense.

Right now is really the first time, in a month, that I have sat down and talked to myself about smoking. I think I was scared that up until this point that if I sat down and just casually mentioned to myself, hey, so I noticed you haven’t been smoking in a while, what’s up with that? I would realize how much I missed it or something and I would be back at it.

Because I’m at that point in the quitting cycle where if I were to just pick up a cigarette, it would kind of make sense. Like, other people would look at that and say, of course she started again, she was only a month in.

We smoke only because it makes sense for us to smoke. And until smoking stops making sense, we are going to do it.

I honestly think it’s that simple. I think the thing that isn’t simple is: how do we get smoking to stop making sense to us?

I’ve spent so long feeling bad about the fact that I smoked.

I was scared of it all the time: you’ll die young! you’ll age prematurely! you’ll definitely get cancer! you’ll be undatable!

But all I was doing was what was making sense to me at the time.

In that way, I’ve always just been doing the best I could.

There’s no, well, you could have done better and just not smoked.

No. I couldn’t have. I did exactly and only what I knew how to do and what made sense to me.

Now other things are making sense.

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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photos: elephant journal photo archive


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