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I was recently reading the comments on a meme depicting a conventional 80s living/TV/family room replete with floral loveseat/sofa set, clunky, boxy TV set, and so on.
“What’s missing from this picture” the meme prompted, aside from a few nostalgic insights:
“Tacky metal TV trays,” “doilies,” “ferns” (check, check, and check, born in 1982 in the PNW, my surroundings were as 80s cliche as it gets).
The predominant theme was “ashtrays,” “cigarette butts in ashtrays,” “big heavy glass ashtrays,” “my dad smoking,” “I can smell this picture from here,” and “ashtrays, ashtrays, and more ashtrays.”
Trailing behind at a distant second was candy: “candy dishes,” “ribbon candies,” “butterscotch or peppermint candies,” “glass containers filled with cigarette butts or sweet lozenges.”
And this is why I still struggle with an oral fixation and quick fix impulse.
This is not news to me and in fact just reaffirms what many of us already know. In spite of the constant nostalgic glorification of the 1980s-90s, the deadliest decades will never be mistaken for the healthiest.
At 40 years old, I’m still constantly uprooting the toxic associations with life that I soaked up like a little, nicotine-laden sponge as a child.
It’s been years since I gave up sugar and caffeine and many, many years since I gave up nicotine for good aside from a few cloudy, regretful slips, but as a health conscious, wellness centered, 40-year-old woman, I experience a haunting sense of [email protected] or a sort of stimulant Stockholm Syndrome, which has as much to do with the feels and the vibes of that mostly enchanting time known as childhood as it does the actual physical dependence formed early on which is also a real thing.
When all of your early childhood memories are iced like a Pop-Tarts, sprinkled like a Dunkin Donut, rainbow-colored like a heavily marketed children cereal, and thick with the stale, musky, familiar smell of Marlboros or Winston’s or GPCs, it’s no easy task to divorce those sense memories buried deep in your central nervous system (CNS).
How stark and bland and colorless life without copious amounts of legal, mood-altering chemicals felt initially. How awkward to socialize without sparking up one overpriced paper stick of carbon monoxide after another, how glamorous and sexy my mother and aunt and totally radical teenage sister seemed, huddled up with their long, skinny accessories turned appendages as I sat sucking on candies and sometimes even candy cigarettes from the kiddie table during the Holidays.
The Holidays, for the 80s child, meant a time of televised Holiday specials.
And it was special. Special red and green sugar cereal, special red and green M&M’s, special Coca-Cola polar bears, and special limited edition Muppet toys in your special, happy meal.
These marketing ploys are as integral to my Holiday memories as my grandfather’s banana pudding or my sister’s skill for perfectly perfect gift wrapping.
Every year, as the Holidays wind their way back around and I create my own traditions sans alcoholic dysfunction and taste bud numbing, bank account siphoning cancer sticks, I can’t quite shake the feeling that something is…missing, like half of my now deceased relatives—yes, but not just that, the essence of them, of my youth.
Santa smells like Winston 100s and crisp winter air in my grandpa’s fleece-lined denim jacket and the buzz in the air as the typically catty women in my family pass the peace pipe or pack of Camels or Newports or Marlboros as they gossip about nonrelatives and beam with the flush of boxed wine and non subtle 80s Holiday makeup.
Magic is just a pit stop at 7-Eleven or Dairy Queen (DQ) away. It’s quick and it’s easy and it will, for a very brief spell, make me feel like everything is all better. And hey, at least it’s not crack, or even coke; it’s just your friendly neighborhood self medications. They’ve always been there—to put a little extra shine on your parties, to add a touch of glamour to your date, to curb your appetite, to distract you from your feelings, to keep your mouth busy.
Gesticulating and writing, cigarette in hand feels classy and European, whereas bumming a cigarette off the neighbor because you already spent your meager paycheck on carbon monoxide and carbs and you’re a nicotine fiend feels more Jerry Springer. But to those of us who spent our childhoods celebrating dad’s promotion in a smoggy Denny’s or celebrating birthdays strung out on all you can eat sheet cake and processed mystery meat and spending your allowance on the maximum amount of nickel and dime Mike N Ikes, Laughy Taffy, and assorted colorful cavities, these harmless coping mechanisms can be surprisingly entrenched.
I’ve had to learn to celebrate, to grieve, to socialize, to speak, to be, without shoving something in my mouth like a pacifier to break the tension and distract myself from the moment. I have a seizure disorder and postictal, not unlike postcoital, a cigarette beckons to cap off the moment perfectly, be it intense pleasure or pain. I grew up learning that there’s no wrong way to plug myself up.
Unless there is. Unless I don’t want to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) like a terrifying amount of people who grew up in the 80s or the bumper decades surrounding it, or die young of lung cancer like my father, or old of lung cancer like my grandparents, or destroy the few good teeth I have managed to salvage after a maybe well-intentioned childhood walking around with a mouth full of metal fillings that left my teeth frail and translucent, or because I’m on a mission for inner peace and loading up on stimulants is counterintuitive, or because I just don’t want to be addicted to mind- and emotion-dulling substances anymore, even the legal ones.
But there is more than unfulfilled sugar cravings that come with that. When these habits became rituals and these props became iconic crutches, it’s a bit like burying tradition itself with the mood-enhancing ghosts of the past, tragic in its own way, but not as tragic as the mouth and lung cancer, the emphysema and obesity and heart failure that haunted these ghosts through the thick walls of sweet smoke that blinded us to the pure beauty of fresh air, nature, fresh ingredients, movement, and vulnerability, and so much more that I’m still uncovering as I forge a path less toxic and far sweeter in its newness.