More than you ever needed to know about my smoking habits

I love smoking. 

I used to hate it. My dad would chain smoke More Menthols in our small, two-bedroom apartment when I was growing up. He’d have a cigarette hanging out of his mouth when he was cooking, or folding laundry or keeping box scores during Cubs games. The smoke would get in everything (to the point where my high school teachers assumed that I smoked). I also had asthma, which wasn’t helped by it. My brother started smoking when he was a teenager, but I stood resolute, vowing to never start.

But I’m anxious and kind of fidgety. Large groups of people and prolonged periods of socializing make me want to flee into a dark corner (or hide under a pile of coats, which I have done before at parties). And I’m a naturally obsessive personality who also happens to hate routine as much as I love it.

When I started smoking in college, it felt like I had found a lost piece. It gave me something to do with my hands while sitting outside drinking or waiting for a bus or walking somewhere. It gave me the opportunity to be alone for a few minutes at a time when I’d get overwhelmed socially: a ready excuse to stand by myself and not be bothered. It allowed me to create and destroy smoking routines on a whim, to help create a feeling of variety when I would be feeling trapped. It facilitated my meeting a lot of excellent people because we were the “smokers.”

Most of all, when I would start feeling anxious about pretty much anything, I could grab my cigarettes and go and stand outside, stare at nothing, think of nothing. They were miniature meditations that would always drain away the worst of my anxiety so I could keep on with whatever I was trying to do before, be it having a conversation with someone, being in a difficult social situation, writer’s block, failed experiments, work frustrations, depression, etc.. It works to abate pretty much anything.

Cigarettes have been my steadfast crutch through the worst years of my life.

Despite my love of my glowing, smelly little friends, I’ve quit before. I’ve quit a lot, actually. I quit at least a few times a year. The only year I didn’t try quitting at least once (I started smoking when I was 20), was when I was 29 and I decided that I was going to give myself permission to smoke for the entire year with reckless abandon and, for once, not entertain any feelings of guilt. It was a magical year. It also served to reinforce why I kept trying to quit.

When I’m smoking, I’m always a little bit wheezy. I can’t spontaneously go running since I need to give my lungs at least a day to clear out (SIDE NOTE: I started running again while I was still smoking – I had a whole system worked out about when and how much I could smoke during the week to make sure I was able to get my miles in). It makes me sleep like shit since it makes me all wheezy, so I wake up a lot during the night. It’s a giant cash suck (I probably spend $80-100/month on cigarettes right now). When I’m flying, by the end of the trip I’m just about ready to hulk smash everything and everyone around me. I hate the way it makes my hands and my clothes smell.

And I get so fucking sick of the constant background radiation in my life that I like to call “cigarette math”: I have this many cigarettes left in this pack, which will have me running out right in the middle of my commute home, so that means I need to find a time at lunch to go to the gas station to pick some up or else I’ll have to stop at that shitty gas station by the highway that has a crappy parking lot and charges an arm and a leg for a pack, or there’s a 7-11 that’s a little out of the way has the 75 cents off deal, so I should get three packs to get through the weekend, unless I’m sharing in which case…

I’ve never had a problem quitting. I always quit cold turkey – three days of hell is so much better for me than dragging out the discomfort and cravings for an entire week or more. In fact, I’ve quit so many times in the past twelve years that I make miniature games out of the withdrawal symptoms (for me: a headache that feels like someone shot your inflamed sinuses full of helium, slight tunnel vision, sore throat, raspy voice, MORE wheezing, ravenous appetite and insatiable cravings for random foods). I like to see how long I can go before taking any Aleve for the headache, or seeing how long I can hold out to a food craving. 

I do have a problem staying quit. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard to just not do something. But in my case, quitting smoking means giving up something that helps me cope EXTREMELY EFFECTIVELY with my anxiety. And the determining factor for when I’ll start again is how well I can cope with anxiety as it flares up.

But I’ve been doing better with my anxiety lately, to the point where I think I might be able to manage not smoking for another good stretch before my resolve cracks (I’m hoping for six months, but we’ll see). And it’ll help me stop actively hating and avoiding going for a run (which is an awesome alternate coping mechanism, but requires more planning than a five minute smoke break does and can only be accomplished once a day). Someday I hope to just not smoke at all anymore, but telling myself that this time I’m quitting for good always makes it worse. It feels like inviting all of the future anxiety – all of the terrible things that could possibly happen to me and the people I love – down on my head at once, and taking away the only thing that helps me cope, moment to moment. So I always tell myself I’m just quitting for now so that I can get my running mileage back up and clear out at least some of the effluvia of stress that’s accumulated in my alveoli over the past few months. And if I need to start again to help cope with something overwhelming, that’s fine too.

I had my last cigarette about 14 hours ago and I’m well into the headache, sore throat, raspy voice, tunnel vision, ravenous hunger bit. But I’m feeling pretty good about it this time. We’ll see how long this time sticks.

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5 Responses to More than you ever needed to know about my smoking habits

  1. skzb says:

    My experience is not unlike yours in many ways. Once I quit for 18 months. The trouble is, there is a reason one smokes. If the reason is still there, it is hard not to start again. I wish you all the best.

    • Kelly says:

      My anxiety isn’t going to ever magically go away, and there are a lot of hard things coming up that I know are gonna be triggery for me, but hopefully one year soon I’ll spend more time not smoking than smoking. And thanks!

  2. Bean says:

    Wish you the best, Kelly…hope it works out!!!!

  3. Fran Wilde says:

    Go Kelly! Rooting for you.

  4. Liz Coleman says:

    I wish you luck. It sounds like you’ve got a good handle on how you function and what works for you.
    In my own life, anxiety is the Gilligan to my Skipper. Never going to go away, but I can occasionally whack it on the head. I’m also stuck in the paradox of having both anxiety and ADHD, and the stimulants for the ADHD make the anxiety worse, but the ADHD alone makes the anxiety unbearable.
    Sometimes, anxiety can be useful for me, as it was when it was telling me to get the hell out of the shit career path I was on. Other times, like now, I just need to remind myself I’m full of shit, and I can’t run away yet. Cookies are my cigarettes. So is going for a walk, but you can’t walk forever, and mint milanos are on sale right now…

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