I was cool. I was a rebel and I was tough. Or so I thought.
At 14, I rode a skateboard and hung out with loud punk rock boys who drank and smoked and broke things.
They kept me around because I could keep up with them. I played ultimate frisbee in Doc Martins and skateboarded down over-parks in the dark. I rode on the back of my boyfriend’s Bultaco motorcycle that was held together with wire and duct tape. I went to concerts in basements that smelled like teenage sweat and old beer and I spent four hours a day at the ballet studio.
I was a dancer.
We were weighed regularly at the studio. Evidently young male dancers were never expected to lift over 100 pounds. I was 103. The studio director told me to lose three pounds if I wanted partner roles.
The older girls ate alfalfa sprouts with sunflower seeds and lemon juice by the bowl full, smoked cigarettes by the pack full and popped pills by the handful. The girls told me that if I took the little black pills and smoked cigarettes I would never be hungry. They were right.
I lost those three pounds but the girls forgot to tell me that 15 years later I would nearly make myself crazy trying to figure out how to live without cigarettes.
When I was 16, I quit ballet following a weigh in and a scolding for not having shaved my legs that day. The dirty loud boys with motorcycles and skateboards could care less how much I weighed or how hairy I was so I emptied my locker and walked out, a cigarette in my hand and a pocket full of the last little black pills I would ever take.
Smoking made me feel older and tougher and in charge, not to mention, all of the guys smoked and I wanted to be “one of the guys.”
The idea of quitting then or any other time in my teens never occurred to me. I was rowdy and reckless and never expected to live long enough to encounter disease. Back then the future was next week.
The first time I really thought about a down side of smoking was when I was 21 and found myself pregnant. It was easy to quit for someone else. I just did it. Two hours after the plastic wand I had peed on turned pink I quit. Just like that. I didn’t want a cigarette again until my daughter was over a year old. I was only going to smoke one, but the next day I smoked another and later that day, another and then another…and then I bought a pack.
Habits are funny that way.
I was in publishing throughout my 20’s. I spent countless hours in a darkroom or in front of a computer racing the clock to beat deadlines. Sometimes, I worked 18 or 20 straight hours. As long as it took to get the job out the door and to the printer. In those days, I survived mainly on coffee and cigarettes. My breaks to smoke and walk down the street for an espresso were often the only time I took away from my desk.
Those breaks were my salvation. Cigarettes were my best friends.
My boss had smoked for years and years. She wore bright pink lipstick that would, by afternoon seep into the wrinkles around her lips, reminding me of the women in a Toulouse-Lautrec painting. I would picture her dancing in the Moulin Rouge in a dirty, ruffled petticoat with blond hair piled on top of her head and those pink lips mouthing the words to whatever song was playing in her head.
I never wanted those tell tale smokers wrinkles so I swore that I would never smoke past my 30th birthday.
I was a midwife and an herbalist. I was a vegetarian and a mom whose daughter never ate sugar or drank soda. I hiked and worked out at the gym and smoked a pack of cigarettes every day. I was a walking, talking hypocrisy.
Nine times I tried to quit but I had a hundred reasons not to. The best one was—I like to smoke. I like it. I didn’t actually like it. What I did like was not failing so I stopped trying to quit entirely.
Eight weeks before my 30th birthday I was diagnosed with first stage ovarian cancer. I had a tumor removed that was the size of a large grapefruit. No, they said, smoking doesn’t cause ovarian cancer, yet 80 percent of women with my type of tumor had been smokers at one time or another. Curious.
I spent six nights in the hospital wearing nothing but a blue and white backless gown, knee high ted hose, a wrist ID band and a nicotine patch. The last three of those nights a brown paper bag sat on the stand next to the head of my bed, “specimen” written in black magic marker across the front. It looked like a lunch bag, the kind I carried in grade school.
I tried to imagine it filled with delicious treats but it was far from full of treats. It contained what was left of my ovary, fallopian tube, several lymph nodes and a grapefruit sized cancer tumor all conveniently vacuum packed in formaldehyde. I had asked my surgeon to save it for me. I had never seen cancer. I needed to see it and touch it. I needed to understand it—to own it—It was my intention to keep it around for a while as inspiration to live a healthier life and then to bury it and plant something beautiful over it.
I went seven days without smoking. On the eighth morning, I lit a cigarette. To this day, I don’t know why I did it. Perhaps it was because smoking reminded me of my normal, pre-cancer life. Ironic as it may be I think smoking made me feel healthy. As I inhaled deeply it was as if I was in the embrace of my best friend after years of absence.
I exhaled with a long, grateful sigh.
My 30th birthday looming I cherished every cigarette in the weeks that followed. At 11:50 on August 14th, I lit what I knew would be the last smoke I ever had. I savored every drag trying to make it last. At 12:00 I burned what was left of the pack in a fire pit I had dug just for the occasion. I went to sleep that night a 30 year old non-smoker.
Letting go of a 15 year habit is hard work despite the fact that ultimately it comes down to simply making a decision and sticking to it. I knew this and I had always been good at commitment and follow through. I always finished what I started, even a bad book whose ending I already knew.
Without a doubt I had to stop smoking and never ever start again but after a few days I wanted a cigarette so badly I could taste it and smell it and feel it on my lips.
I found a pack and held one. I walked around with it and brought it to my mouth as if I was smoking. It felt good and natural in my hand and I wanted it as much as I had ever wanted anything. I wanted that cigarette more than I had ever wanted food or sex or money.
Embracing the willingness to fail, ignoring commitment and reason I chose to give in.
My intention was to sit on my favorite stump by the pond—alone with my habit and my shame but somehow, barefoot, at dawn with a cup of coffee in my hand, I walked across the deck to the chest freezer out back. I reached inside for the paper bag. I didn’t go to the pond, instead I rubbed a walnut sized mass of the silvery grey tumor as the frozen formaldehyde thawed between my fingers.
They say 80 percent of women with my type of ovarian cancer had at one time or another been smokers. Curious.
I laid down the unlit cigarette, clutched the bag to my chest and exhaled with a long grateful sigh.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise