Monday, January 13, 2003

It’s not so much that I miss them in the concrete . . . it’s more that I miss them in the abstract. It’s really the idea of the cigarettes that I miss. You see, I quit smoking for about the gazillion-umpteenth time the week before X-mas. I decided to get an early jump on things and avoid the whole quitting smoking for New Year’s cliche, particularly since there was one year when I actually fell off the non-smoking wagon after a two-year ride while attending a New Year’s Eve party--thus prompting my partner-at-the-time to wryly comment, “You’re the only person I know who actually takes up smoking for the New Year’s.”

Like I said, I’ve done the quitting thing a number of times now, and I think that I’m finally getting good at it. Well . . . better at it, at any rate. And it’s true, everything I’ve read has indicated that it takes most people a number of tries to finally overcome the smoking habit. It’s been something that I’ve been working at for the last six years, and during those past six years I’d say that, cumulatively, I was a non-smoker for well over three of those years, and even during those times when I’d fallen off the wagon, I made absolutely sure that I never actually smoked a cigarette inside the house.

The very first time I quit smoking was terribly, terribly painful. It was one of the most dfficult things that I’ve ever done. It lasted for three weeks, I felt upset and angry the entire time, and I gained about ten pounds. Each time that I’ve quit since then, however, it has become a little bit easier. Yes, there were the inevitable false starts and stops, and sometimes a quit might last only a few days, or a week, but bit by bit, I have started to feel more and more like a non-smoker or, if I’ve been having a setback, a non-smoker who’s in the midst of a lapse.

What I Know:

Now I know that when I quit smoking there will be a minimum of three nights when I will not be able to sleep. Moreover, I will wake up in the middle of the night suffering from intense anxiety and sometimes full-blown panic attacks. This used to be a sticking point for me, because I would be so disturbed by the anxiety and the panic attacks that I would immediately start smoking again. For me, nicotine obviously works as a narcotic . . . I would frequently have a cigarette to calm myself down, and to cope with negative emotions such as anxiety, frustration, or anger. Of course, one ends up in this strange physiological push-me pull-me cycle where the chemical changes linked to stress, anxiety, or anger are completely tied up with the physical craving for nicotine, so that the desire for the cigarette is not only physical, but psychological, as well. Now that I know that the night-time anxiety and sleeplessness are part of my body’s reaction to nicotine withdrawal, I find that it’s not nearly so stressful or upsetting, and I plan accordingly by quitting at a time when I can get away with three-four nights of minimal sleep. I also help myself out by picking a time to quit when external stressors can be somewhat minimalized for at least a few days.

The first time I successfully quit smoking for a substantive length of time . . . two years, in fact . . . the worst part was that I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to write again without smoking. I realize how stupid this must sound, but all of you who write know how you have these little habits or strategies to get yourself started, to push yourself along, and to keep yourself going. Well, smoking was so intimately tied up in my writing process that I literally felt as if I didn’t know how to write if I wasn’t smoking. All throughout graduate school, when I was working on my M.F.A. in creative writing (and, as a result, forming and developing a lot of my writing habits and processes) I did all my writing on an electric typewriter set up on a card table, and I chain-smoked incessantly while I wrote. My friends could tell if my writing was going well by the size and thickness of the cloud of smoke hovering above the typewriter when they came over. It sounds appalling, now, but that’s the way I did it. And it was really difficult for a long time to find a way to do it differently. But I did. I also know now that arrogance is my downfall, and will fuck me up but good each and every time. There is no such thing as “just one cigarette” or “only a few every once in awhile” for me.

What I Miss:

I miss the languid curl of smoke lazily spiraling upward from the tip of a cigarette and how it signals those few minutes of absolute, quiet contemplation. I miss playing darts at a bar with a cigarette dangling out of the corner of my mouth because it feels so, well . . . pleasingly unprofessorial. I miss that sensually-charged moment of placing my hand over another woman’s hand and leaning into the brief flicker of flame when she lights my cigarette for me. (And granted, I likewise enjoy lighting other women’s cigarettes for them as well, so there’s that, but it’s not the same if one is a non-smoker because then one is either craving a cigarette that one can’t have, or feeling oversensitized to all the smoke as all former smokers invariably are and feeling annoyed by any additional smoking in one’s proximity, which really kind of takes all the fun out of it, don’t you think?) I miss being able to tilt my head back and exahle a mouthful of smoke in that mix of relief and pleasure. I miss sharing a cigarette after sex. (Hell . . . I miss sex, too . . . but that’s another post in and of itself.) And yes . . . this is hopelessly juvenile . . . but I miss the perverseness of doing something that one is not supposed to do. I miss feeling like a little bit of a Bad Ass. Admittedly, one is not so much of a Bad Ass when one is smoking a cigarette through a hole in one’s throat or holding up the voice box to one’s larynx to speak like the guy from South Park. So, yes. I know that. Intellectually, I know that.

What I Don’t Miss:

I don’t miss the smell. Or the taste. Or the way that cigarettes make me just a little bit more tired, and just a tad more depressed. Like I said, for me nicotine functions as a narcotic, and as such, it is ultimately a depressant over any length of time. I don’t miss feeling as if I really need to have a cigarette, and then having to go through the inconvenience of figuring out where and when and how I can have one . . . during a layover at the airport, for example. I don’t miss the expense.

Which brings me back to the notion of missing cigarettes in the abstract, and not the concrete. I think, if I remember correctly, that poet Billy Collins has a poem about the last cigarette being the best cigarette . . . a poem about the idea of the cigarette. And yes, I think that if I miss anything, here at the one-month mark, it’s the idea of the cigarette, or perhaps the fantasy of the cigarette, as opposed to tangible physical concrete things such as tastes, textures, and smells. And I’m okay with missing the fantasy of the cigarette and leaving it at just that . . . because like so many other things, I think I’ve finally come to realize that in this case, too, the fantasy is infinitely more satisfying than the reality.
Posted by Artichoke Heart | 11:49 PM |
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Books by Artichoke Heart
Beyond Heart Mountain
Year of the Snake

Poems by Artichoke Heart
Songs for a Rainy Season
Toothpick Warriors
Snake Wife
Happy Hour
Girl With A Bowl On Her Head

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