Unless watching Rachel Maddow every night meets the definition of an addiction, I don’t consider myself particularly prone to them. For a while I smoked cigarettes, probably a Level B or C addiction. How I put it behind me is a story worth telling because it demonstrates the unorthodox ways in which people decide to abandon activities that aren’t good for them. The path isn’t always the one prescribed in public health campaigns.
I didn’t start smoking until I graduated from my commuter college and left home for graduate school. Smoking was unimaginable in my family’s tiny apartment where I didn’t even have my own room to slip off to. My dormitory room in “that school in Boston” was no more inviting an environment for smoking than home was. I can’t remember whether smoking was expressly forbidden in the dorms – there were shockingly few barriers to smoking in those days – but indulging would have been exceedingly inconsiderate of my roommate.
What got me started was my anxiety at parties and other public events. I was suffering from a serious case of impostor syndrome; smoking was a somewhat futile attempt to convince myself and others that I was really grown up enough to be in those hallowed surroundings. Holding a cigarette between my fingers made me feel sophisticated. Before I knew it, the habit had expanded to times when I was alone reading or writing; the social excuses and justifications no longer held. Lighting up became a habit, an almost unconscious gesture to fill an idle moment. I didn’t think about it this way at the time, but I was becoming addicted.
When you watch TV shows or movies that were either made in the Sixties or set during that period, you can’t help but be struck by how much smoking went on. From our contemporary perspective it’s almost comical to watch, but we have to remind ourselves that the stigma attached to smoking was not in place yet. There was plenty of reinforcement for my burgeoning habit and for the habits of millions of teenagers who were keenly aware that many of their media role models were doing it, so why shouldn’t they?
Soon I was smoking at least a pack a day, a rate that was still affordable even for someone on a student budget in the time before punishing taxes sent the cost into the stratosphere. From then on, the smoking held steady for almost two decades through breaks between therapy sessions during my internship in San Francisco, through dissertation writing, through tense encounters in Mississippi, through fatherhood.
In the late 70s and early 80s, the drumbeat of warnings about the dangers of smoking grew loud enough to capture my attention. The conventional story line would be that at this point I made the informed decision to stop doing something that could actually kill me, but life is rarely a straight line between two points. On several occasions I did decide in fact to “stop” but these proved to be hollow gestures. In fact, I had only stopped buying my own cigarettes. Whenever I was in the presence of a smoker, I mooched from them
And now, dear reader, I have to reveal the true depths to which my addiction had driven me. It was the only time in my life I understood and experienced the degradation of the addict. When we attended a party or a dinner at a friend’s house, people were expected to toss their coats on a bed in the guest bedroom wherever that was located. When everyone seemed immersed in each other’s company, I would slip into the bedroom and rummage through the pile of coats until I found one whose owner had stashed a pack of cigarettes in their coat pocket, perhaps anticipating a smoke during the drive home. In the short window during which I still felt safe, I would extract several cigarettes from the pack and transfer them to my own pocket, never too many from one pack to raise the owner’s suspicion. Those cigarettes I would keep hidden until I was in a position to savor them undetected. After hearing this, can you ever think of me the same way again? The addiction-driven indiscretion may be minor compared to a robbery or a mugging to pay for day’s supply of heroin or cocaine, but they are born from the same destructive source.
We come now to the true story of my “smoking cessation,” as it’s sometimes called these days. If the photos of blackened lungs or the statistics about lung cancer among smokers didn’t do it, what did? In this period of the late 70s and early 80s, I was the teaching principal in a small- town New Hampshire school. In addition to my administrative duties, I taught a combined class of fifth and sixth graders. Our school budget for supplies and materials was modest, so if any freebies were on offer, I snatched them up. One I found particularly popular was a unit on the lungs provided by the American Cancer Society. In addition to the obligatory photos of diseased smokers’ lungs, there were lots of hands-on activities that, as I recall, involved inflating balloons and witnessing the effect of oxygen on candle flames – altogether more engaging than another dreary textbook chapter.
The message of the unit was not subtle. Smoking is bad for you. I knew that, but it hadn’t caused me to abandon my habit. What finally brought me to depart from my evil ways was the hypocrisy of preaching a healthy message to my students who knew that I myself was not walking the walk. I lived in close proximity to my kids. We shopped in the same stores, encountered each other on the same streets. They all knew that I was a smoker and that realization was unbearable; it was not the model I wanted to represent. The result was a Road to Damascus conversion. I stopped smoking cold turkey and have never returned to it. The only exception was years later when my daughter was cast in a part in her high school play that required that she smoke a cigarette onstage. She insisted that I teach her the moves, so I bought a pack from which we each smoked one and I tossed the rest.
My story seems so trivial up against the addictions that are not so easily shaken, like the thousands of opioid deaths that were front page news before being overshadowed by the virus, but it’s my one small window into the otherwise incomprehensible dark alleys into which alcoholics and drug addicts stray. Who knows what will motivate the lucky ones who emerge whole?