I made the life-saving choice to quit, but man I could use a smoke break
It’s been 10 years since I quit smoking. I didn’t stop because I wanted to, but because my fiancé quit smoking and asked for my support in the form of solidarity. I agreed to quit but after finishing my last cigarette, I couldn’t sleep. Desperate for a hit of nicotine, I took a walk around the block. I saw a half-smoked cigarette on the sidewalk, picked it up, brought it home, snipped off the tip of the filter and took two long drags. That was the end of 15 years of nicotine dependence.
Though I no longer call myself a bona fide smoker, I won’t call myself a nonsmoker either. I still smoke occasionally — on my first night on vacation in a new destination, or in social situations that make me feel insecure, for example — but I’m not really a smoker because I don’t get a kick from it like I used to. I don’t crave nicotine, and I no longer go to bed hating myself for finishing two packs when I told myself I’d only have one. Now, even on days when I’ve given myself a smoking hall pass, I never light more than three sticks in any given 24-hour period. I don’t get excited the way I used to when I would anticipate my first cigarette of the day, and I usually feel icky by the time I’ve smoked a third of a stick. I’m now a social smoker — that person that real smokers look at as an interloper, and nonsmokers judge as wimpy.
Most of the time, I’m glad I’ve quit smoking. It makes me feel very grown-up, responsible, and righteous, like one of the strong ones who can hobble through life’s tangled web without a crutch. I don’t miss the metallic taste at the back of my tongue, or the phlegm in my lungs that needs to be dispelled every morning. My skin is clearer and suppler, my cheeks rosier, my teeth whiter, and my breath sweeter. It’s easy-peasy completing 50 Sun Salutations or running up 10 flights of stairs (okay, that’s an exaggeration — I still pant, but not as much as before).
But, despite all the benefits of being a nonsmoker, I still look at smokers with admiration and envy. I see them sucking on their Marlboros or Camels with impunity, noxious fumes billowing above their heads — fumes that I know will make their hair smell like an ashtray — and I feel deprived. I find myself wishing I was in the middle of their smoky cloud, flicking open the heavy lid of my gold-plated Zippo with a crisp clink and coolly dipping my head down to connect with the glory of that blue and amber flame through the slender white death stick hanging from my lip.
It’s not that I miss the cigarette and the effects of nicotine. What I miss and have idealized are the two psychological states I’ve come to associate with the rituals of smoking: identification with the subversive, and idle contemplation.
Without my little smoky tête-à-têtes, I had fewer opportunities to gossip, complain, flirt or plot revolts.
When I stopped smoking, I also stopped taking desk breaks. The smokers in the office had a reason to leave their workstations every two hours. With secret hand and eye gestures or head nods, they would let each other know it was time to convene outside of the office for a brief spell of authentic human interaction with moments of real intimacy. During the time they congregate outside the office building puffing away together, their corporate masks fall, and for a while, job titles, power plays, and petty grudges are forgotten — they are all proletarians enjoying their time in the sun, and occasionally complaining about the folks in senior management who aren’t smokers. I used to be one of them, but after I quit smoking, I no longer had a valid reason to be loitering around the ashtray-topped trash can near the entrance of the office building rather than working hard at my desk. Without my little smoky tête-à-têtes, I had fewer opportunities to gossip, complain, flirt, or plot revolts. By giving up smoking, I surrendered completely to the system and became the diligent-but-bored worker bee that I was raised to become. It wasn’t long before I became a member of senior management.
I’m not the first person who eschews the nonsmoker label. Actress Michelle Pfeiffer once said, “I will never consider myself a nonsmoker because I always find smokers the most interesting people at the table.” While I don’t believe that smokers are inherently more interesting people than nonsmokers, or that subversive individuals are more fun than obedient ones, I think smokers are made more interesting by their imperfection, evidenced through their inability or unwillingness to stop what is deemed an unhealthy habit. This translates to an inability or unwillingness to accept the status quo, abide by the rules, and follow the pack.
The iconic image of James Dean holding a cigarette in the poster for Rebel Without a Cause is perhaps one of the best metaphors for the relationship between the smoker and the world. “You’re tearing me apart!” the smoker yowls to his better-adjusted, more well-balanced fellows who have learned how to adapt to the way things are.
At a time when veganism and Vipassanā are cooler than Mad Men, smokers represent those who “can’t quite hack it,” outcasts or outliers who are clearly still working through their “issues.” There is something troublesome and dangerous about this crowd, and I so want to be a part of it.
I know it’s untrue, but still, I imagine that if I joined any revolutionary movement, or if I were to belong to a cabal of passionate poets or political dissidents, smoking would be mandatory. It would the badge announcing my own sense of disenfranchisement and discontent, and the seal that accords me the right to decry the powers that be. It would mean that I belong to the class of the wild and the free.
The second smoking-induced experience I miss is idle contemplation. I write for a living, and have often imagined the greats like Hemmingway swirling and sipping martinis or scotches when they’re stuck with a sentence or an idea. Following this train of thought, I felt that some of my best ideas wouldn’t reveal themselves to me unless I was smoking. So whenever I was in a creative rut — I was more often in one when I was a smoker — I often went out to the garden or into the bathroom to have a cigarette.
The rituals of smoking slowed time down.
Why? Because when I smoked, it felt as if my mind was being released from the act of focusing. When I smoked, I felt as if I had been emancipated from a psychological state of forced labor and was free to procrastinate and to be mentally slothful for as long as it took for me to finish my cigarette. When smoking, it seemed as if my mind’s only obligation was to observe and enjoy the sensations of the act, much the same way one savors fine wines. All I needed to attend to were the sounds of the clinking lighter and the crackling tip of the burning butt, the smart in my eye from the smoke, the heat of the glowing embers, the bitter-sour taste in my mouth after each drag, and the smell of the smoke and accompanying chemical compounds that had been released into the air around me. This sensory feast was like a massage for my tensed, overworked mind. As I became relaxed and hypnotized by the physical sensations involved in the act of smoking, my mind became flexible enough to latch onto random thoughts, to absorb impressions of reality, to free-associate, to daydream and to play, to do the mental equivalent of the chicken dance.
Smoking created moments for me. The rituals of smoking slowed time down, and because of this, images, sights, sounds, and feelings were more vividly retained. I could see subtext in the most mundane of things. Some of my most distinct memories were created with a cigarette in hand — watching the sunrise on the balcony of my old flat with a cup of hot coffee, a clean ashtray and the last stick in my pack; feeling the cold metal of a fire escape rail on my palms on a cold winter evening while taking solace in the warmth of a freshly lit Virginia Slims; soaking in a claw foot tub on a Sunday with Pall Mall menthols that seemed, at the time, the perfect complement to Eucalyptus bath salts.
Since quitting smoking, I’ve found other ways to slow down and smell the proverbial roses (now that my sense of smell has improved), but getting into this state of idle contemplation takes a lot more effort without cigarettes. Now that I’m not a smoker, I have to do things like put on my sneakers and go for long walks in parks, sit still and meditate, or take deep breaths — what a crazy concept! But these things can and have been done, and I suppose they’re worth it when I think about the advantages of a smoke-free life. Still, I sometimes wonder if becoming a smoker again might enable me to stop thinking for long enough to actually see what’s beyond my own noisy head.
My conclusion? Probably not. It was my defiant and uptight mind that made smoking seem like such a good idea in the first place. Despite my reveries about being a rebel or being “lost in the moment” when smoking, all I have to do is suck down one whole cigarette really fast and I’m quickly reminded of why I’m grateful to have gotten the monkey off my back. I am well aware that my romantic notions about smoking are not based in reality. Still, like Ms. Pfeiffer, I suppose I too will never consider myself a nonsmoker, because now and then, I will light up, just so I can pretend I’m more of a badass and dreamer than I really am.
Michele is the author of “Without: Stories of lack and longing”, and blogger at confoundingconditions.com and thefinickywanderer.com