Almost a year ago today, by some yoga-teacher-training miracle, I gave up nicotine. Since then I’d bummed a smoke now and again when out and about, but my brain had firmly reversed course, closing down the synapses that had fired relentlessly for “pack-a-day-smoker” these past 8 years, and re-opening the cracked and broken avenues of childhood, the decrepit synaptic pathways of “non-smoker.”
It all began with a girl, of course, and a desire to share something with her. In time the girl faded, but cigarettes? Yeah, me and my monkey, we got along famously — if it were just a dirty habit we’d still be together. Make no mistake, I won’t lie to you: I loved smoking.
I had no tattoos and no piercings; as Tom Waits once said, cigarettes were my “artist’s jewelry,” part of my identity, the self-destructive mask of how I saw myself as a poet. More than that though, way, way beyond aesthetics or emulating old heroes, cigarettes became my teddy bear, an escape from crowded rooms, an ever-reliable steam-release valve for any and all anxiety. Finding a quiet place to sit and smoke was my faithful friend through all the times that I was lonely.
And then I was home alone in my rooftop shack in Taipei, having trouble breathing, probably from smoking my way through another chest cold. In time that fear grew into a blossoming panic attack about emphysema and lung cancer and dying in a hospital bed with only my own idiot choices to blame. I don’t know how to describe this kind of anxiety, except that it’s physical, and unbearable, and it demands more than anything an outlet. The way I dealt with that unbearable anxiety, of course, was to go outside and smoke a cigarette. I knew as I was doing it: this was fucked. I was fucked.
So some 3 years later — it took 3 more years — the stars aligned and I found myself truly ready. I moved into vaporizing, wrapping my own coils, twisting my own wicks, then another year tapering the nicotine down, then finally, on the first day of yoga school, I quit the beast altogether. The last exhale was, for this humble addict, something of a miracle.
For the next year I was free. It was cool, I could bum one now and again when I was out, no big deal, no tailspin, nothing. My machinery was re-wired, I went running, sat through the credits of movies, regained my sense of smell, it was good. Then last month, cold turkey off meds and returning to the world, I had a suddenly powerful urge to smoke a cigarette.
With no-one around to bum from, I drove to the store and bought a pack and smoked one. I’d been on a successful kick of don’t make a thing of the occasional square, and it won’t become a thing. But something felt immediately different this time, maybe it was having 19 more of them there in that familiar little box, maybe my stars had fallen out of alignment, I don’t know. Wrestling with myself the whole way home, I eventually threw it out the window as I passed a bar.
The next day, as I was moving into my new place, I bought another pack. It just happened. With a pack in the pocket it was like the last year had never existed, my brain tore the police tape right off the “smoker,” synapses and lo, they had been impeccably maintained: first thing in the morning, again with coffee, after every meal, last thing before bed, every hour on the hour and not even physically addicted yet.
There was more to this than just a re-lapse, (smoking starts as symptom, not cause) but I told myself I would finish this pack and that would be that. The sooner I went back to the mental state of “non-smoker” the easier it would be to believe. The new housemates had no idea that me sitting outside in the morning, shirtless, smoking cigarettes, was me in crisis. They thought that was just me. And I suppose, to some extent, it was. I smoked that pack down in two days flat and that was that.
There is an intersection on the way to my apartment, where you turn right to go home, but if you go straight you’ll come to a 24-hour gas station. The next evening I found myself sitting in the car at this empty country intersection, engine idle, light green, listening very carefully to the sound of the turn signal:
Tik-tik, damnation said.
Tik-tik, I said to damnation.
Tik-tik. Tik-tik. Tik-tik.