Recently I was at a barbecue of full-fledged actual adults and their spawn, and was thrilled when it took less than a half hour to find my people: People who used to smoke and still want to smoke. Fun bunch. Not that we were going to smoke. We were as pure as the non-carcinogenic driven snow, secretly full of cigarette longing but outwardly spit-shined with smoker temperance—that steely willpower of the former addict who has moved on to healthier endeavors and lived to tell. And usually, it must be said, won’t stop telling.
Which is why to most people the former smoker is the most boring person in the room, and with good reason—hanging out with former smokers is about as fun as hanging out with former alcoholics. Did you know they used to smoke? And now they don’t? As such, everything is framed through passably convincing tales of fresh devotion to their new life, now filled with light, and living and growth, that is to say, working out, cold pressed juice, or meditation, the trifecta of new habits all former smokers are legally required to attempt at some point or another to cope.
But I like these people anyway, not just because I am sort of one of them—but because there is something always a bit restless, a bit far-off, a bit complicated just under the surface of anyone who nurtured a full-on addiction and then, one day, ghosted. We are happy to have saved or at least improved our lives, but we have not found a thing that actually ever really replaces the thing. We have sped recklessly toward the cliff’s edge and felt the thrill of knowing we could pitch ourselves off, only to turn hard last minute and ditch, unharmed enough to stand up, dust ourselves off, and walk away.
That’s why former smokers, specifically those old enough to know better but young enough to bounce back, are always just a little bit lost. And also why their essays are such a treasure to read. Every single essay ever written about quitting smoking is a thing of a tragic, complex beauty, an acknowledgement of pathetic lows and admirable highs, always tinged with a measurable sadness. It is the addict’s version of the Why I Left New York essay, in a kind of reverse: fall hard, aim high, exit stage, mope.
But there is a beautiful new one that has just entered the canon over at the New York Times. In “Farewell, My Lovely Cigarettes,” Awl editor Choire Sicha reflects on his years smoking as a teenager in the mid-to-late 80s, the way smoking provided the perfect prop for his self-loathing and alienation. Sicha writes of his 30-year smoking habit:
Smoking is one of the perfect solutions to being a teenager, right up there with Manic Panic hair dye and murder. Teachers and counselors must have felt like the Hubble telescope, peering across a vast gulf at a gaseous planet. My exterior was an opaque blue-gray swirl of carbon monoxide. No one could even glimpse the human trash can within.
My friend John remembers the first time he saw me: I was 18, sitting in the back seat of the Market Street bus in San Francisco, smoking out the window. He was disturbed. That was precisely what I wanted. I wanted to be off-putting, a cascade of macho and feminine, a vibrating range of all extremes. Cigarettes were just another middle finger.
I was also a teenage smoker, only in the rural South, which means my first cigarettes were someone’s mom’s Capri’s. But I soon realized that smoking was the perfect counter to what already felt like a terminal condition: Feeling so many fucked-up, disparate ways at once with no guidance or good outlets for it in such a hostile, oppressive place that all you could do to manage it was blunt it with high impact chemicals until it could be wrestled into submission or escaped. It is precisely in this way that for some people—and it’s safe to say this will never appear on any PSA anywhere ever—sometimes bad drugs can save your life.
But what first seemingly allows you to live soon comes to collect. You grow up, and you figure a few things out, and though the smoking often continues along with you, it’s no longer as dreamy or cinematic (or beautiful or interesting or resilient) to stay up all night smoking, talking, and listening to records. You start calculating how long you’ve got left to get away with it. I’ll quit before I’m 30, you think, so I won’t be a complete crust punk. A doctor tells Sicha he’ll be fine if he quits at 40, which then becomes 44, but he eventually realizes the jig is up:
The smoking party had ended and I was huddled out in the rain alone. “Smoker, party of one!” — something Carrie Bradshaw typed and deleted, probably.
And so shortly after midnight this New Year’s Eve, I left my 10 cigarettes on the lobby radiator on my way out of Max and Ari’s party, lit the 11th for good luck and smoked it out into the night. I tossed my lighter into a garbage can on the way home. It was not a moment of hope.
It never is, as this recent piece on quitting smoking at the Hairpin by Alexandra Molotkow illustrates:
5. Tell yourself you’ll quit when you fall in love, fall in love and realize smoking is to love what music is to parties and smoking is to everything else.
I quit smoking, as I’ve written before, when my daughter was conceived. Not to assail anyone who wasn’t able to quit through pregnancy, but for me, there has probably never been a more obvious choice in my life than to part ways with something I’d been doing since I was 15 in order to make way for someone I hoped would never need cigarettes the way I did. Certainly no choice has ever been easier. I’ve had a harder time figuring out which salad to order.
Luckily it was not possible, nor even desirable, to smoke anymore, anyway—not while beholden to such an assault on my hormones and general equilibrium, which is why I have no idea how you would quit if you had to remain in your same life as-is without cigarettes. I had a compelling motivator—the care and growing of a person. Later on, when the pregnancy was sailing along a little more smoothly, when I did want to smoke sometimes, I simply put it to myself this way: Hey cool girl, you can totes smoke this cig you want so badly, or you can be a complete fucking pile of trash-garbage who would smoke with a baby inside you. (Hey, it worked.)
But I’ve since done something else I didn’t think was possible either: I achieved a long-held dream of being able to smoke sometimes when I drink but without ever smoking again during the day or regularly. Yes, it’s tempting fate. Yes, people are like “WELL YOU DIDN’T REALLY QUIT DID YOU” but, please, those people can fuck off. You can have a drink sometimes, you can eat meat once a month, you can be Gwyneth fucking Paltrow and smoke one American Spirit light every Saturday night and that shit doesn’t have to stick to you. No, not everyone can pull this off. Yes, it takes a very specific pile of trash-garbage that I just happen to hail from. All hail genetics.
Still, more likely, you’ll just have to quit for good forever and end up like Sicha. After withdrawal subsided and his new life began (Equinox!), he grapples with what every smoker truly dreads—a world once in smoky Technicolor now drained back to whatever all the boring regular non-smoky colors are:
Quitting smoking is the khakis of existence. Quitting smoking is the Chipotle on St. Marks Place. I am totally not cool. I may as well be someone’s stupid Brooklyn dad. My hair is its natural color. Most days I’m just wearing whatever. I do yoga endlessly. What am I now?
Just another former smoker, unforch, soon to be huddled at a party of grownups, two beers in, lamenting your vice, not a cigarette in sight, not even an American Spirit light on hold in a utility drawer somewhere for just these special occasions, chirping on about how great that new juice place is in your neighborhood. But hey, say it with me: growth.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby