Smoking is ritual, and in some ways a rewarding one.
There’s that moment just before you open a new pack when you tamp down the tobacco into the paper by smacking the top of the pack onto your palm several times in rapid succession.
Then you unwrap the cellophane, listening to the crinkling sound that it makes as you tear it free. Then you flip the box open and peel back the foil covering to reveal the cigarettes within. You pull one out, put it in your lips, and pull out your Bic or, for a more classic approach, your Zippo to light up.
You lean down at first, into the flame, so it catches the paper and the tip of the tobacco. Then you let go of the button on your Bic or slap the Zippo’s lid shut and lean back for your first long drag, which you blow out while enjoying the sudden rush of the nicotine.
Sometimes, a cigarette tastes pretty good. Usually, it doesn’t. But for some reason, there is that odd smoke that imparts a flavor that makes you know why you enjoy cigarettes so much.
I often said I could quit anytime, but I enjoyed it. That was bullshit rationalization, of course. I didn’t enjoy needing a cigarette at all, and the ten-minute coughing fit that started every day for me, during which I hacked up the crap that had settled into my lungs overnight, was certainly not enjoyable. And it tasted horrible. But like smoking itself or pinching a dip of snuff out of a can, it became ritual, comforting it its own way because it was expected.
After the coughing came the first smoke of the day, and on it would go.
I won’t deny that maybe smoking helped me to write. Perhaps it let me focus my thoughts. Beer released the inhibitions that would have made me doubt that the words I put down as useless and trite. But with a smoke and a beer, I could proceed.
Oddly, though, I was never able to write anything longer than a short story. I could never conceive of something so complicated as a novel, could never find in alcohol or nicotine the frame of mind necessary to “go the distance.” It was like that annual aerobics qualification in the Air Force: I could walk, but I couldn’t run.
Oh, I had ideas. Lots of them. And all fell into dead ends with nowhere to go. Well, that’s not exactly true: there was somewhere to go. I just couldn’t see the way.
Years of smoking took their toll. I would get winded without doing much, and I always seemed mired in some kind of anxiety that only cigarettes could stave off. But their effect only lasted for the few minutes I was smoking; the anxiety would rush back the moment I put out the butt. At some point, I began to think that maybe the cigarettes were causing the anxiety in the first place.
In my late twenties, I started having panic attacks. I stopped writing and felt miserable all the way around. I felt hopeless and trapped by my addiction to cigarettes and wanted desperately to quit. But my resolve to do so would be quickly overcome by the feelings of withdrawal, and I’d light up. It was a vicious cycle. A hopelessly vicious cycle. I might have thought Mrs. Roberts would be smug had she seen how accurately she’d predicted what would happen, but her intentions were doubtlessly more honorable than that. I think she would have been saddened.
(Just a quick aside about high school teachers, and several of mine in particular. Some are (or were) absolutely amazing human beings whose efforts stay with their students long after they’ve graduated from school, though some of those students may not have seemed worth the effort at the time. Within these teachers is more than a touch of faith, though the expression of it will be forever challenged by the inherent distractions of the adolescent mind. Their influences – some finding their full effect even decades after their lessons were taught – have a profound impact on their students’ lives. I was fortunate to have had what I would feel comfortable describing as the very best of these teachers back in the day. Mrs. Roberts, who I don’t do proper justice to here, was one of them. Oh, the inspiring stories I could share about so many of my teachers, and perhaps I will. Sadly, I am old enough now that more than a few are doubtlessly gone from this earth. Yet I maintain a debt of gratitude for them that will never be lost.)
Riddled with anxiety and incapable of any deep thought because of it, I reached my limit. I wanted a way away from this. Not lost on me at the time was the fact that I was a father. Perhaps the most defining moment in this malaise I lived in was an awareness, when I looked at the children I so dearly loved, that I was not a father they could be proud of. So mired was I in panic attacks – and the certainty that comes with them that death is at hand – that I had nothing to give to the most important beings in my life. There would never be enough six-packs or cigarettes to erase that simple and profound sense of failure.
As Huey Lewis eloquently and rhythmically opined, I needed a new drug.