I smoked my first cigarette when I was 16 years old, in Kernersville, NC, in the bushes of Harmon Park. My dad kept a carton of Marlboro Reds in the laundry room for my Grandpa, who lived in Massachusetts. For weeks I had been eyeing them with curiosity, until one day I finally snuck out a single cigarette, carefully replacing the cellophane where it had torn and re-taping the carton closed. I drove myself to the park, then climbed inside a grove of bushes, just in case someone I knew walked by - it was a very small town. It took me three matches to get the cigarette lit, and I remember the dry choking as smoke first entered my lungs. I barely took three puffs before stubbing it out in the dirt. I couldn't believe that people actually did this thing on purpose. I drove home, disgusted with myself, where I washed my hands over and over, trying to take away the pungent smell.
I smoked my second cigarette one year later, at the Dixie Classic Fair. I was standing in a tight circle with five or six new friends, and when someone passed around a pack of Camel Wides, I took one. As I took deep drags, my legs went weak, and my head euphorically dizzy. It was the closest thing to being high I'd ever felt, and it felt good. Good enough that I wanted to feel that way again. Two days later, I bought my first pack at the gas station by school that didn't check ID's.
But smoking cigarettes wasn't just about those things of course - it was about me too, about how I have the thing inside me that some people call an "addictive personality." Different addictions run through my family history, and I think my brain chemistry is just wired to become easily dependent on substances. I am not someone who can smoke "one cigarette." I smoked for nine years, and there was hardly a day in those nine years when I didn't smoke a full pack. When I had the flu, I smoked anyway. I even smoked the day that I got my wisdom teeth taken out. Or rather, because it was physically impossible for me to smoke, I actually had my little sister light cigarettes and blow the smoke into my mouth at two hour intervals all day. I almost missed countless connecting flights, because I insisted on having a cigarette, even when it meant having to drag my luggage and myself through security all over again.
The 48 hours after my final cigarette were a waking nightmare. I felt inhuman. Every pore of my body screamed constantly for a cigarette. My head throbbed, and I felt insane. Every minute seemed to stretch on into infinity - an hour felt like days. I thought repeatedly that there was no way I could survive it.
For anyone who has never been addicted to anything, withdrawal is a difficult sensation to explain. It's an extreme claustrophobia that descends over you, taking over every sense and every thought - there are actually no real thoughts in your head, just the incessant, constant chanting, cigarette cigarette cigarette cigarette cigarette cigarette CIGARETTE CIGARETTE CIGARETTE!!
I had to work every day that week, and I remember running frantically at one point to the herb shop across the street. I basically screamed in the woman's face, "I JUST QUIT SMOKING - PLEASE HELP ME!" She sold me a bottle of licorice tincture, which tasted awful, but I took frantic little shots of it straight out of the dropper a couple of times an hour every day that week.
It got better, of course. If it hadn't, I would definitely still be smoking cigarettes. But slowly, I relearned how to live each day without them, and in the end, my life is better for the transformation. But I have also never forgotten how humbling the quitting process was - the way I felt so vulnerable, so helpless.....to a dried plant.
It's amazing to me now that I had no idea how addicted I actually was, and going through the intense withdrawal period was as unexpected to me as it was terrifying. Going through that gave me a small window into addiction, and as a result, I have the greatest respect for anyone who has struggled with addiction of any kind, and has managed to come out free on the other side.
I can easily say now that I don't miss smoking anymore. But it took awhile - it's only been over the past 6 months that I finally stopped wishing for a cigarette ever so occasionally, after a couple of glasses of wine, that I finally stopped having the same recurring smoking dreams a couple of times a month. Now I realize how important it was for me to go through the nightmarish process of quitting - the fact that it was so incredibly difficult is the biggest reason why I never started smoking again.
Because starting again is easy - tobacco is legal, and for somewhere between $5-$15, you can buy a pack or a pouch of it almost anywhere in the world. Year after year, not ever smoking tobacco is hard. I've seen so many people I know yo-yo back and forth over the years, which seems like a form of torture. Although since the day I quit, I have partially consumed tobacco products twice. The first time, I drunkenly smoked part of a cigar at a wedding, and the second time, I (again, drunkenly) smoked a few puffs of a clove with a friend while Nick was out of town. Both of those times were turning points in which I almost went back to smoking - even after ingesting just the smallest amount of tobacco, I would crave cigarettes all over again for weeks.
The last time, when I smoked the clove, is the thing that I think finally got me "over" smoking for good. Because honestly, that clove was DELICIOUS. I felt high again, just like I had at the Dixic Classic Fair when I was 17. My friend left me two more clove cigarettes on my coffee table "for later," and when I woke up the next morning and saw them lying there, I briefly entertained the idea of smoking them before tearing them up and throwing them in the trash can while thinking, "No way, I'm not doing this again."