Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cold Turkey

            Sitting in my college dorm room, I try and think of my first cigarette. I remember smoking at the golf course across the street from my high school, and at band competitions, and in my back yard, but none of them have the feeling of being a “first” memory. I think as hard as I can, and I remember a time when I did not smoke, and a time when I did, but there is no clear line between the two.
If I was forced to estimate when and where, I will admit that it is a vague memory. It was after school in my sophomore year of high school. I was on the junior varsity golf team, and we would walk across the street from our school every day to practice at the local golf course. I remember that day the varsity team was there as well, and a couple of seniors had joined our group at the conclusion of their practice.
Same old story, the young kid wanting to fit in with the older ones; I asked Josh for a cigarette. Josh was a senior, and he was good at golf. He hit it long, straight and was an all around good golfer and I looked up to him. Josh had a hard time getting it lit, because he was using matches and the wind on the course that day was particularly harsh.
He and another player, along with my good friend Elliott squatted behind a tree to cover us from the wind and struck match after match until one lit, and continued to burn long enough to light the cigarette. Looking back now, I laugh at how four people could share a cigarette, but it seemed normal at the time. We all hit our shots and walked down the fairway, passing the cigarette between us until we were finished.
The rest of the year continued like this: one guy would get his hands on a cigarette, or better yet, a whole pack, and we would pass them out and smoke them. I got so attached to them, that I was soon asking the bums in the Claremont to buy me packs so I could be the guy who had them, and the guy who gave them out.
I would ask my brother or his girlfriend to pick me up a pack when they went to the store. They were so surprised the first time I asked, but after awhile it became common. Every Friday like clockwork, I would ask for a pack for the upcoming week. I would bring it to the parties we had that weekend, or tuck it into my sock drawer for the weekdays on the golf course. One pack per week was more than enough for me and my friends to survive off of.

My junior year was more of the same, except for the fact that I was now a legal driver. My increased independence from the parents only led me into worse and worse trouble. I kept a special jacket in my car so I would not smell like smoke when I came home from wherever I had spent the time after school. Knowing what I know now, I have no choice but to believe they could still smell it, but due to their liaises-faire parenting, they did not say much; or perhaps they believed that I was not smoking, and did not want to alienate me through constant interrogation, under which I surely would have lied.
During lunch breaks at school, I would go off campus, and smoke on the way to and from campus in my buddy’s car. I even got brazen enough to smoke on the driving range at practice, in full view of my coach’s un-watching eyes. I took to smoking at home, when my parents were asleep or away. Fortunately for me at the time, they were both very busy and as a result I had quite a bit of free time at home. Add the fact that my brother was a smoker, and I could explain away any errant cigarette butts they found, or the occasional stench of tobacco that lingered if I cut it too close with a secret smoke break.
As I got closer to my eighteenth birthday, I became less and less inconspicuous about my habit. I stopped using the smoking jacket I had in my car, and even started smoking in my car. My favorite spot to smoke was still the golf course, but I added other local spots to my repertoire. The AMPM where my friends and I spent most of our free time on weekends was a good spot; police came through, but only to use the bathroom and drink the free coffee they were provided inside, so they could not be bothered. Our favorite pizza joint became a nice area as well. Over the years, and through classes in school, my friends and I had become quite close with most of the workers there, who did not mind a kid stepping out the back door to have a cigarette. I am not quite sure if they knew what was happening and did not care, or simply thought nothing of it, but either way, I still came out on top.
About this time is when I got the job from hell. Everyone has their horror stories when it comes to less than enjoyable employment experiences, but this bordered on breaking the law. I worked at the local mall, at a kiosk. I was often alone for six hours at least, and I was not allowed to eat at the cart. The food court was so far away, that the bosses told us not to go there to eat, and just to bring food to eat on the bench that was in full view of the cart and cash register. For awhile, it did not matter much, but my patience and enthusiasm soon wore thin, and so I began to have increasingly more smoke breaks, just to escape the hell that was that cart.
Nothing ever came of it. My bosses were unaware of my growing habit, and did not notice that I was taking a ten minute break every hour to go enjoy one or two cigarettes outside the mall. If they ever showed up while I was on smoke break, I had the cart covered by a friend of mine from the cart across the courtyard, and I had the key to the register, so it was all kosher in their books. After all, my interview was conducted over a half a pack of menthol cigarettes.
By the time I graduated from high school, I had left the mall, and to some extent slowed down on the whole smoking bit. I had gone weeks without a cigarette and it was really no big deal at all. I never craved a cigarette. I never really had to have one. I was just a person who would smoke when I got my hands on a cigarette, and beyond that, I was indifferent. I was an escape smoker: someone who smoked to get away from being in the same place with the same people for too long.
I remember the first pack of cigarettes I ever bought by myself. On the streets of Maui, on the way to the airport on my eighteenth birthday, I asked my parents to pull over so I could exercise my new right to purchase, possess and ingest tobacco products. I walked back to the car with the pack in my hand, after not being carded in the store, to my dismay. It was the first time my parents had ever seen me with a cigarette in my hands. I got this look from them from the front seat of the car. Their eyes and mouths both hung wide, trying to get as much surface area exposed with which to best soak up the explanation that they were daring me to stumble over.
I played it off, I said that I was eighteen now, and I had to do it since I never could before. I was also going to buy lottery tickets and go to the strip club upon our return to California. I also smiled, winked and mentioned that I would be sending in my selective service card on the following Monday, which got my dad away from the subject, and my mom dropped it without saying a word as well.
Oddly enough, that one pack of cigarettes was the one that started it all. From then until the end of the summer, I steadily increased my consumption until I was smoking three packs a week. My friends were not even smokers anymore. A couple would enjoy the occasional smoke with me while we were drinking, but the crowd from the golf team really was not my primary circle of friends. Although they never were, I drifted farther and farther from them as I got older and closer with my group of friends. I was often smoking alone, and finally, the night before I was leaving for college, I handed a pack that I had just bought that evening to my good friend Elliott and said the smokers mantra for the first time in my life. “I quit.”
Two days later, I was sitting on the ground at UC riverside, locked in the smoking area with my neighbor sucking back cigarettes to no end. We rationalized because we met the other smokers and increased our social network, and besides, there was nothing to do in Riverside. You can only watch so much television. The fluctuation of consumption ranged from two cigarettes per day to two packs a day, and it all came to a head when I entered the Silverman Era. I quit again. For two months I averaged less than one cigarette per day, in utmost secret: only before showers and after she went home for the night. On days we did not speak I would not smoke for fear of her pulling one of her random show-ups which she was quite fond of.
After that crashed and burned, used my severance pay from two months of mistreatment about twenty times a day, and I used it for the next nine months or so in the same fashion and frequency. That Zippo went through hell and back with me, fueling my habit out of spite for a long while. One day before the life dance incident began, it ran out of fluid, and I ran out of replacement fluid for it as well. Added to this was the burnt out wick, and spent flint; the lighter had died. I bought my first lighter in months at the store and continued on with my habit like nothing had changed.
It was not the lighter’s fault that I kept smoking. It was not the town’s fault, for I smoked all over the United States: both coasts, the mid-west, dirty south and the islands contain the spent shells of my smoking frenzy. I was however raised catholic, and experiencing the first phase of the life dance, so I got bold. I called it, “the cold turkey project.” And it was exactly what it sounds like: I was going to quit cold turkey, for lent. Coincidentally, I also gave up beer, which I had recently formed an exclusive bond as my sole inebriant with.
This project was two fold. At the onslaught of the life dance, I had promised I could quit smoking, while drunk. This was a mistake, as it may appear, but I had to at least qualify it, so I did not seem like a complete liar. She laughed when I told her on a sober afternoon, as did everyone else in my life, with the exception of my supervisor, who, like all the others, knew I would fail miserably, but still congratulated me on my latest ploy for attention.
Fat Tuesday saw me with a pack of unfiltered lucky strikes as well as two tall cans of beer, as sort of a bon voyage party on the golf course near the university I attended at the time. The pack was burnt in a day, a step back up from my recent reduction to two packs every three days.
I had what was to be my last cigarette for forty-three days on the balcony at some random girl’s apartment, alone while she and a mutual friend hung out inside watching queen music videos. When I came in with the announcement, I was greeted with smiles and nods. It is likely that while I was outside smoking, they were running a numbers game with everyone I knew to choose the day I would break down and light up a cig.
The hard part about quitting is not the cravings, but suffering the snickers and whispers of those closest to you, and pretending not to notice them to avoid accusations of being “antsy,” or a “fiend.” However much it hurt to be the butt of everyone’s jokes, it was that pain that kept me going for the whole time period. After the third day, it was no longer about a religious sacrifice, it had turned completely into a fight for pride, and in the end I won.
It was during this time of complete cleanliness that I learned exactly what cigarettes did to me. For the first week, I would sleep all the time. Eight hours a night, and two to three naps per day totaling another three to four hours of sleep. When I was awake I was lethargic and time seemed to move ridiculously slowly, so when I did move it seemed like it took so much longer than I had remembered. I made no effort to capitalize on my newfound health by exercising regularly. In fact I snacked more and stayed indoors for most of the day.
The clincher was the rapid realization that my sex drive was almost unhealthily high when I had no cigarettes in me. This was probably another contributing factor to my seclusion, as I had no significant other at the time. I almost wanted to quit quitting so I could rest without the risk of injury while I slept. Luckily my resolve proved stronger and the first week went swimmingly.
I will admit it, I “cheated.” Since I quit smoking cigarettes, I took to smoking hookah and cigars. I figured a cigar every other day was so much less damaging to my body than two packs of cigarettes in the same time frame, and the hookah plain tasted like magic. I had been smoking hookah semi-regularly before the cold turkey project, but now that I had no cigarettes, I would always suggest bringing my hookah to a get together, as opposed to swinging by a liquor store and grabbing a pack of cigarettes.
The cigars were indeed closer to cigarettes, but fundamentally different in the way they were smoked, appearance and duration. People would stop me all the time and accuse me of cheating, and I was constantly defending myself in exchanges similar to this.
Self-righteous jerk: “hey, I thought you quit smoking!”
Me: “I did quit smoking cigarettes.”
Self-righteous jerk: “what are you holding then?”
Me: “this is a cigar.”
Self-righteous jerk: “Psh, cheater.”
            Each time the smirk on whoever’s face would grow, like they were inventing an original joke that I had never heard before. I took it in stride, I made no claims to stopping all intake of smoked goods, nor had I implied that my tobacco intake would stop completely. I bore no ill-will towards any of these people. I understood then as I understand now that people doing great things will always be hampered by those to weak to try. And while I do not see myself as a celebrity for halting my cigarette habit by any stretch of the imagination, the people who were attempting to outsmart me had no chips on the table, and were trying to put me down for the sole end of their own perceived greatness, and that is the most dishonorable thing any human can do to someone they remotely care about.
            Another facet of my cold-turkey project was the absence of beer. I had been drinking beer since somewhere around junior year of high school, but in the year or two before this project, it had also taken a larger role in my life than I would have liked to have given it. I suppose the downside to being an addict would be the general mindset. I could not drink beer because I had given it up with cigarettes. I no longer smoked cigarettes, I smoked cigars. It was fitting that the void left by beer would be filled with something that was not beer- also known as whiskey. And so began my love affair with whiskey, which, sadly did not die once the beer was allowed to return. Thanks to the new whiskey habit, I needed more and more alcohol to get drunk, which is, of course, the whole point of college.
            So along with my growing tolerance to alcohol, my increased tobacco intake during this period was troublesome. Instead of twenty filtered cigarettes every day, I would smoke between two and four cigars, unfiltered, and inhaled. The readers who are cigar smokers can empathize with me, because as they know, cigars taste noticeably harsher than cigarettes by an exponent close to if not exceeding one-hundred. So instead of twenty cigarette breaks, I would take the cigar breaks, which lasted about four times as long, and did about ten times the damage.
            About twenty days into the Cold Turkey Project, I realized that I was doing more harm than good, yet I did not change the pattern in the slightest. I embraced it and laughed about it, much to the dismay of some of my friends. Cigars were soon complimented by chewing tobacco, which is a whole other story which was luckily over almost as soon as it began. Interestingly enough, I quit dip with the understanding that I would receive a carton of cigarettes every other month for a year. The irony in that agreement was noted, but not explored.
            Easter Sunday was the break of the cigarette and beer fast. I set my alarm for midnight, and at that time broke open my carton of cigarettes that I had received as a souvenir from Thailand and smoked my first cigarette in forty-three days. It had no effect on me. It was just another night in a back yard under the influence of alcohol, with a burning stick in my hand.
            The quitting only increased my acceptance of the dependency to which I was enslaved. Instead of weaning myself off of the things to which I was addicted, I merely exchanged potency for frequency. This resulted in my need to immediately cut back on general intake of alcohol and tobacco. The first three days after lent saw me smoking two packs per day while drinking as much beer as my stomach could hold. Realizing my error, I began to attempt to curb both habits and with moderate success, I returned to my former lifestyle.
            Overall, I would assign the Cold Turkey Project a failing grade with mitigating circumstances. First of all, before beginning this project I did not consider myself an addict with regards to tobacco or alcohol, and as the project proceeded I was faced with insurmountable evidence to the contrary. Through this, I made the first step to an eventual self-intervention, by acknowledging a problem which was present and active. Secondly, cigars and whiskey are much more expensive than beer and cigarettes. Ignorance in this case was painful with regards to my wallet, and this fact only helped drive the point home that I was involved in a pattern of willful self-destruction.
            At the end of the project, as I said, I returned immediately to the habits which I was attempting to quit. Ironic as it is in the end, living for the forty-three days without a cigarette was symbolic to say the least. As much as my self-righteous (asshole) friends snickered at me behind my back, and sometimes to my face, I felt like that I was taking a semantic stand and at least I have the courage to stand up for the things which I have promised, and not the things that are assumed when certain promises are heard. I did not claim to quit smoking or drinking, just no beer and no cigarettes, and I accomplished that goal. I viewed the people who looked down their noses at my “cheating” as snobs who had never been addicts.
            The support I received from friends and loved ones during this project was amazing. While my “friends” made jokes while I burned cigars, my friends admired my persistence. My family understood as well, and I never heard a sour word from anyone. If I said I had remembered all those who helped, I would definitely be lying; however I remember the insidious remarks made, and every day I lived with the knowledge that those I held dear gave me no credit. To say that did not help would be an understatement, and to say it hurt would be obvious.

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