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Martha Patterson

On Quitting the Habit


     Four months ago I took a leap of faith -- I tried to quit smoking cold turkey.  And I tried again, and again, and again.  But it’s like sitting through a tortuously boring movie when you have no popcorn, or watching paint dry when you end up not even liking the color you painted your walls.  In fact, it’s much worse than those things.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, "Quitting smoking is easy -- I've done it hundreds of times."
     “Why do you smoke?” an acquaintance impatiently asks me. “It doesn’t make sense.”
     “You shouldn’t,” other friends warn with wagging fingers.  “It’s so bad for you.”
     "Forgive it," I say to them.  But I look back and try to "get it."  I feel endless guilt about harming myself with cigarettes.  So why do I continue such an unpopular habit? 
     The first time I smoked was for a play.  I was 24, pursuing a career as an actress in California, and my character in the play was supposed to smoke.  I felt rather outrageous puffing away onstage, but I wasn’t addicted and stopped smoking when the show closed.  
     But no, even before that – I had smoked at the age of sixteen, as an apprentice in summer stock theatre.  My roommate offered me cigarettes, and it was a little forbidden and a teenage thing to do.  But I only did it twice.
     And when I was five, my mother gave me a puff of one of her Salem cigarettes, just to make sure I’d never want to smoke.  Inhaling, I coughed and was disgusted, which left my mother satisfied, and she herself quit smoking a few years later.  
     So perhaps those were the origins of my habit, but I don’t think so.  I think, rather, it was the pressure and neurosis of growing into adulthood that led me to smoke as much as I do today. 
     Smoking is bad for you - everyone knows that.  It makes your clothes and apartment smell, you sometimes burn holes in your clothing, it causes cancer, it's expensive, it's offensive to others. But to those who indulge, it brings extraordinary relief and peace of mind.
     When I was 26, living in New York City, I worked as a secretary at a travel agency for rock & roll bands, where the agents smoked all day long.  They’d offer me cigarettes, I’d accept, and before I knew it I was hooked.  I forgot about how “bad” it was, because we were overworked and stressed out and, after all, it was only the wild and unpredictable world of rock & roll.  In the 1980s you could smoke in offices, and I always had an ashtray on my desk.  I was not thinking about the future, health-wise.  Smoking probably calmed all of us down and made us feel in control of our crazy jobs.  A former heroin user whom I had a date with told me quitting smoking was harder than quitting heroin, and he knew.  He’d been addicted to both.    
     A couple of years went by, and I developed an anxiety disorder, having to do with another job, a bad relationship, and a bad trip to Europe.  I turned into a mess, paranoid and unable to work half the time, and not trusting even people I knew well.  I went to therapists for my problems.  They probably meant well but they didn't help much.  Drugs - medication prescribed by doctors - did. Drugs prevented dopamine from flooding my brain under stress. And all the while I kept smoking, because it calmed me down.
     But at age 35 I quit.  I was hospitalized for anxiety, and, as I watched the luminous sun set every night through the windows of the Common Room, I thought God - in my semi-psychotic state I imagined the sun to be His representative - blamed me mercilessly for harming my body.  Instead of hanging around the other smoking patients, I occupied myself in my room by sketching with colored pencils and doing deep breathing exercises.  Strangely, I didn’t find quitting that difficult, because my guilt was so strong.  And after three days of going cold turkey, I didn’t miss cigarettes at all.  
     Being a quitter was a revelation: that I could get through a morning without a butt accompanying my cup of coffee, and, once I was out of the hospital, that I no longer got repulsed looks from passersby on the street when I smoked.  And I saved money, my clothes didn't smell, and I didn’t have to constantly empty an ashtray.  During this time I did needlepoint to keep my hands busy, and produced tapestries I have today of which I'm still proud.  Part of the pleasure of smoking is just the way it takes up time and employs your hands.  But it's also about that sudden drag of nicotine into one's lungs, that inhaling of pure smoke.    
     So being a quitter felt good to me.  However, a year and a half later I took up the habit again.  Still more or less a basket case because I had never really gotten over the evil things that had happened to me, I was re-hospitalized, again with anxiety, and I felt excruciatingly lonely after dinner when the other patients departed for the Smoking Room to socialize.  So I got hold of some cigarettes.  
     Smoking in the hospital was communal and provided me with friends.  I felt like a social participant, someone who shared a habit with others, instead of a pariah with a mental disorder.  One of the nurses called the Smoking Room “the Death Chamber,” and it did smell awful: putrid and stale.  But I had lots of company from my fellow inmates.  I felt at peace again.
     A friend tells me his 96-year-old mother - who died last year - was a pack-a-day smoker her whole life, and she never had cancer or suffered ill effects.  She simply died of old age.  She worked into her 90s, believe it or not, as a real estate agent, and in 2020 recovered from the coronavirus, despite her age and addiction to smoking.  She probably had good genes.
     I'm sorry to be a smoker.  I know I don’t have much control over my habit – but it feels like nirvana when I’ve gone eight hours without a cigarette, trying once again to quit, and can suddenly suck in that delicious, wicked smoke.  It seems to help me focus and think.  I do it when I’m on the phone, when I’m writing my myriad manuscripts, when I sit on my patio soaking up the sun, and when I go to the bodega down the street for groceries.  
     I get around the high cost of Marlboros, at ten bucks a pack, by buying Double Diamond mini-cigars at a quarter of the cost - a real savings, and my neighbor says he prefers the smell of cigar smoke to that of cigarettes, so he's not much bothered by it.  And I feel such relief - as if I’m halfway to Heaven - whenever I light up. For some reason it gives me an alternative to pain.
     Despite the public disapproval of cigarette smoking, many people support legalization of the use and sale of marijuana.  I have friends who smoke pot every day, though they don't smoke cigarettes.  The hypocrisy of approving of marijuana while disapproving of cigarettes doesn't escape me.  If smoking weed is okay, why not ordinary tobacco?   
     People who don’t smoke cigarettes don’t always understand the cerebral pleasure the habit provides.  I tell them it’s legal, and one of the few luxuries I can afford.  It brings an almost erotic, meditational peace of mind after so many years of struggling with neurosis.  It soothes and relieves me.  Lots of people suffer from anxiety without knowing how to diminish it or get rid of it altogether.  I smoke because it brings me peace of mind when sometimes little else does.  And with the much-vaunted nicotine patch I’ve managed to cut down drastically.  I ration my cigarettes now - if I can go a day on half a pack I feel I've made headway.  It's a battle I face all the time.  But I've never murdered anyone or molested a child - how "bad" a person am I, really?  And after all, there will always be folks who smoke, and it may well be a flaw in their characters, as well as an annoyance to others, but, for Heaven's sake, there’s a reason why tobacco has been around practically since the Dawn of Man.  

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