Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Starts and Stops

After more than 30 years, my college pals and I still get together once a year.
Last week, my college girlfriends held our annual reunion. This year was special. We traveled to Cabo San Lucas to celebrate our collective 50th birthdays. The first night we sat out on the balcony of the seaside condo getting caught up on our lives. Wine flowed and laughter filled the warm evening air. After a while, one of the girls fished into her purse and produced a pack of Virginia Slims. Everyone laughed and groaned and began to reminisce about our college days.
    The exact moment I first lit up a cigarette still plays like a little movie in my head. I wasn't at a beer bust at the SAE house or drinking coffee in my dorm room to pull an all-nighter. I was alone, sitting on a scratchy, tweed Salvation Army sofa in the living room of my off-campus apartment. I moved off campus to save money on room and board. My roommate, Susan,  graduated the previous spring and secured a job managing the campus grill. We met during our work study assignment the previous year. I was a member of Chi Omega sorority, styled my hair with hot rollers and wore Polo shirts and too much eye make-up. She was a hippy chick with long blonde hair, who preferred the natural look and wore faded blue jeans and long cotton skirts. She said things like, "That's cool, man." She smoked pot and cigarettes and loved the Grateful Dead. I admired Susan's easy-going style and when it became evident that we were both looking for a roomy to share expenses, we decided our differences were a good fit. We moved in together the fall of my sophomore year.
   My Mom helped me move into the apartment. Her face clouded when she saw Susan's cigarettes and sniffed the odor of tobacco smoke that already hung in the air.  
   "I wish your roommate didn't smoke," she said quietly. 
   "Oh Mom!" I said in that awful defensive tone that teenagers use when they are trying to deflate parental concerns while knowing damn well that their parents are right.
   "It's a bad habit," she said. 
    "Yeah," I said. "But just because she smokes doesn't mean I'll take it up."

   A month later I sat alone in the apartment listening to Sting's "Every Breath You Take" playing for the 2-billionth time on Susan's stereo. My eyes were red and puffy from crying over the boy who didn't call, or the D+ I received on my French test, or something equally as tragic. Susan's Merit menthols were on the coffee table along with her lighter and an ceramic ash tray that was already half-full of butts. Many of my friends smoked, but I abhorred cigarettes. Had never even tried one in high school. I thought they were smelly and gross. I downright hated the things until the moment I slipped a Merit from the pack, placed it between my lips, lit it and inhaled.
   I sputtered and chocked and spit out smoke. Did people really enjoy this? I inhaled again tentatively. This time I didn't pull the smoke so deeply into my lungs. I held the minty smoke in my mouth and exhaled quickly. My head felt fuzzy and I lay back on the sofa and continued to puff at the thing, watching the glow wink and fade, occasionally flicking the ash into the ash tray. My stomach felt a little queasy. Why did people think smoking was so great?
   I inhaled too quickly and the smoke burned my throat and lungs. I coughed, expelling a noxious cloud. In a moment I inhaled again. I finished the cigarette, stubbed out the butt in the tray, lay down and closed my eyes. When I woke up, the room was dark, the apartment, quite. Susan was out with friends after her shift at the grill. I reached for her Merits and shook the pack until another cigarette tumbled out. I lay back and lit it, watching the tip's glow. I was alone. That's how it started.
   Soon I smoked at beer busts with along my friends, and I smoked over late-night cups of coffee and morning coffees too. I smoked after finishing a meal. I smoked after finishing a cigarette. For a long time I didn't buy my own. As long as I didn't buy them for myself, I wasn't a smoker, right?  I stole them from my roommate or bummed them from friends, and begged them from strangers. On holidays and other occasions when I went back to Little Rock to visit my family, I'd make up excuses to get out of the house. I'd take a walk or drive to the grocery store so I could have my fix. When I had to buy a pack, I nervously saddled up to the checkout counter and prayed that no one I knew saw me while I ordered up a pack and made the transaction. One day I bought a carton of cigarettes at Montesi's grocery store  and the cashier looked at me and said, "That's funny, you don't look like a smoker." 
   "I'm not!" I laughed. "I just ... smoke ... sometimes." 
   Deep down I knew the truth: I was hooked.

   Over the years, I quit many times. In 1990, I took a job with Turner Broadcasting and retired my lighter for a while. Ted Turner's father died of lung cancer and the infamous cable maverick instituted a policy whereby employees had to sign a statement promising not to smoke. Of course, I'm sure there were insurance considerations involved, too. Some employees (like those who worked in New York, where everyone smoked in the office) ignored the policy altogether. I tried my best to keep to my promise to Ted, but working for Turner was often stressful and I found myself alone in my apartment waiting for the phone to ring, or some similar anxiety and would prompt me to don my sunglasses and walk into the local convenience store to score a pack of Marlboro Light 100s.
   Before I became pregnant with Jack, I quit again. I thought this time it would be "for good." Throughout my pregnancy the mere whiff of cigarette smoke made me want to puke. After Jack was born, I felt great and was proud of myself for ending a very bad habit. 
   But being a parent is stressful. Once Jack stopped breast feeding, I decided there wasn't much harm having a cigarette now and then. I'd wash my hands, even shower before rejoining my baby to avoid exposing him to second-hand smoke. At first I only smoked at night after he was tucked in his crib. Then I started smoking when I took breaks from writing. My husband smoked too and we'd sit up late at night having a cocktail, discussing the day and smoking. Soon I was smoking again in the morning with my coffee (the best cigarette of the day!) I smoked when I was overly tired from lack of sleep because Jack was sick or cranky or just happy and being a baby. I smoked because we were selling our house in one city and moving to another city. I smoked because I had too much work. I smoked because I wasn't busy enough. You get the idea.
   Years ticked by and I continued to hide my habit from my son, who was now old enough to catch me in the act. I found myself perched in a corner of the patio behind our house puffing away to get my fix. If I heard footsteps or the backdoor swing open, I startled and tossed the lit cigarette under the porch. Often I sat outside late at night, smoking and staring up at the stars, waiting for something to change.
   When my life did change well that was stressful too. Separating from my husband and filing for divorce triggered all those feelings of insecurity and anxiety that first drove me to pick up a Merit. I was alone again after 15 years. And I was right back on that scratchy, plaid sofa, isolated and feeling depressed and overwhelmed.
   I sought solace in Buddhism. I was drawn to its practices but for one little hang-up: the Buddhist Precepts (sorta like the Ten Commandments) specified no intoxicants. You don't have to give up all toxins to practice loving kindness (BTW alcohol, caffeine and porn are all considered toxic) but I felt like a hypocrite as I drove to the Buddhist center puffing away on my Marlboro Lights. Slowly, I began to accept reality. I'd smoked on and off (mostly on) for 30 years—and I still didn't think of myself as a smoker. And I wasn't a smoker. I was addicted to nicotine. I was an addict.
   With almost the same trepidation I felt when I bought my first pack of smokes, I edged up to the pharmacy counter at Walmart to purchase my first nicotine patches and gum. They were expensive, but cigarette prices had gone up too. The economics of smoking went against my thriftier instincts—another indication of how hooked I was on the stuff.  But it didn't take me long to realize I could smoke while wearing the patch. Likewise, chomping on nicotine gum was satisfying for a while, but it didn't preclude me from lighting one up after I spit out the foul tasting chew.
   I moved into my new house and felt this was surely the time to replace bad habits for good ones. Although I was alone much of the time, I was in a new environment and I promised myself I would make a fresh start in every aspect of my life. Buddhist practice is about becoming aware of ourselves, our thoughts and motivations. And as I continued to grow in my understanding of my anxieties and fears, I started to see that smoking was a problem for a very different reason above and beyond its health effects. I once read a definition of addiction which went something like this: "Addiction is anything that separates you from the people and things you love." When I smoked, I physically removed myself from the presence of my friends and family. When I smoked, I took time away from my writing and work. When I smoked, I separated myself from my convictions and my spiritual practice. Yes, I had a physical craving for nicotine but the greater habit to overcome was my compulsion to remove myself from all that I valued.
    I became desperate enough to try acupuncture, but the stress of being used as a human pin cushion only triggered my urge to smoke. At last, I resolved to seek medical help. A few weeks before my 49th birthday, I went to my doctor and asked her for a prescription for Welbutrin.
   I'd been on Welbutrin years before. The side effects made me feel woozy and deadened my libido, so I stopped using it even though it had been effective in removing my desire for cigarettes. In truth, I didn't want to admit to my doctor that I smoked. And I certainly didn't want my insurance provider to find out I was a smoker. Ironic. Quitting smoking is the No. 1 positive change I could make to immediately improve my health, decrease the chance of heart disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease and lung cancer—and yet I was reluctant to quit because I didn't want to be penalized financially or stigmatized by my insurance provider.
  The Welbutrin worked. Yes, I felt like my head was going to spin off into space during the first week, but once the medication was fully in my system, it was as though someone had flipped a switch and I no longer craved nicotine. Welbutrin is also an appetite suppressant, as well as being an anti-depressant, so I didn't morph my oral fixation into overeating.
   After my three month prescription ran its course, I felt confident that I no longer needed or wanted to smoke. I'm happy to report that I haven't smoked since November 22, 2011, but the triggers are still there. I still want to smoke when I'm stressed out, or tired or frustrated or just having a bad day; or when I'm driving a long distance, or drinking coffee, or sipping wine or sitting out on a star-filled night, or find myself home alone feeling a little left out. And the old cravings still kick in after a big, satisfying meal, or when I'm hungry and don't have time to eat. The only difference is this: Now I choose not to give into the urge because I no longer want to separate myself from Jack or Jason or my friends and family or anything else that I hold dear.

  I sat on the balcony with my friends. More than thirty years since we met in college, there we were back together again, falling into our former roles and patterns. My friend placed a cigarette between her lips and lit the end. Immediately I was surrounded by the warm aroma of tobacco and. I remembered how the pleasant sensation of lightness crept into my brain. I could have easily reached across the table and taken a cigarette for myself. I was a little buzzed from the wine. I wanted to smoke! I really did! But I did not want to return to that unhappy place. I didn't want to fall back into the habit. Besides I wasn't on that scratchy sofa feeling forlorn and alone. I was in a beautiful place. I was secure and happy and surrounded by lifelong friends.


  1. i saw the link to this on tara's fb page and recognized the faces in the photo. this is great, Brigid. well done, on all fronts. you are still stunningly beautiful, btw, just as you were 30 years ago!
    beth boellner

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts once again Brigid. I always grin when I see your blog posts as I know it will be an interesting and entertaining read. And this time with such vulnerability. What a great legacy for Jack to understand life's struggles at such an age. I bet he's already once heck of a wise boy. You had me at Cabo San Lucas of course. Best, Greg Greenwood

  3. What a great article. I have always thought you were a neat girl/woman. This reinforces you have your priorities in order. Keep enjoying life in the present. Love, Tim Waters

  4. What a BEAUTIFUL post. So glad you shared.

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