Riding Shotgun: Cancer vs. Cool, Refreshing Flavor

This column is brought to you by Camels, the #1 choice of G.I.s going “Over There.”

It started with the flu — that nasty little bug that was going around right before Christmas, filling up hospitals, wiping out vaccine supplies and wasting a lot of NIH scientists’ time with calls from reporters asking if there was a “superflu” on the horizon. Anyone who’s read The Stand should get edgy when that word is bandied about.

A few people died, but no more than normal, and the virus did little more than give a good chunk of America the sniffles for a few days. Lamentably, that good chunk of America included me. I got the thing right before New Year’s. I caught it from my father when I went home for Christmas. It started with a sore throat and then progressed to the light-headed nausea, the body aches, and a throaty cough. The nausea and the aches went away in a couple of days. The cough stayed and turned into something I easily recognized as bronchitis.

Throughout college, I got bronchitis at least once a year, sometimes twice, and I’ve learned that antibiotics will not make it go away any quicker. So this time, I was determined to ride it out. The cough lasted from the Sunday after Christmas, when I woke up with the flu, right on to New Year’s and beyond, getting steadily worse.

Oh yeah, did I mention that I’m a smoker? Have been since I was 16 — about half a pack (a loose estimate that could include up to 15) a day.

Oh yeah, did I mention I’m an idiot?

I hit a low on New Year’s Eve. I went to a party with my girlfriend, a party of my friends from college, the majority of them full-time smokers. My cough — a body-shaking, chest-ripping thing now — was in full force and I was wheezing loudly. I probably smoked half a pack in those few hours alone.

Oh yeah, a big, fat, fucking idiot.

We got back to my girlfriend’s apartment around three in the morning, and I could barely carry my bag up the stairs. Every time I tried to take a deep breath, I doubled over coughing, and if I tried it slow, tried to sneak my way past the cough, it was like I hit a wall where my lungs would just stop working.

My grandmother was a smoker. She carried an oxygen tank around with her in the last few years of her life. I was nearly positive that this night I, desperate for an oxygen mask and medication, would have to wake my girlfriend in the middle of the night to take me to the hospital. I avoid doctors whenever possible, but it was that bad.

Morning came, though; no hospital and I could breathe better, but the cough was still there. I went home and I smoked my half a pack. The next day I did the same, and the cough was still there — no better, no worse.

Big, fat fucking … Well, you get the picture.

That Saturday, I tried something: I went as long as I could without having a cigarette. By evening, I was light-headed and flying, like I’d just snorted Ritalin. I finally had one around 8 p.m. One. The fewest cigarettes I’d had in a given day in five years. And the cough had lessened. The next day, I did the same. And the next. The day after that, I had none at all. The day after, I had one. Eventually the pack ran out and that was that. No more smokies. That was around six months ago.

Okay, that’s the story I give to nonsmokers, to people who say, “Hey, good for you, how’d you do it?” It’s short, it’s sweet, it tells them nothing. For smokers, for anyone who’s been addicted to anything (and I don’t mean chocoholics, you fucking non-narcotic pansies), this is for you guys: let’s rewind to that Saturday. It was easy. Too easy. The horrible cough made the thought of having a cigarette just a little unbearable and the lightheadedness (the first stage of withdrawal) was a novelty I wanted to explore. On Sunday, the lightheadedness was gone and in its place was a manic energy that let me get done more chores in an afternoon than I usually would complete in a week. On Monday, the shit started.

I loved cigarettes then. I love cigarettes now. I love their sleek, cylindrical shape. I love the smell of them, lit and unlit. I love the way they complete a meal. I love the way they fit in your hand dangling out the window of a car. I love the way they break up a workday. I even love the ritual of lighting them: taking out the pack, pulling one out, flicking the lighter or the match and sucking in. I love the way you can use the burning tip of a cigarette to punctuate a sentence, stabbing it in the air.

And on Monday, I remembered all this.

It was the first day back to work, and worktime was the hardest. No more trips outside to break up the day. By evening, I was pulling out my hair, but I was stubborn. I waited until 9 p.m. before having one. On Tuesday, it was the same. Only by then, I realized that this was the closest I’d come to actually quitting and if I was gonna do it, I’d have to do it all the way. Having that single smoke in the evening was like running a marathon and not crossing the finish line, just standing there toying with the ribbon.

My girlfriend came over that evening. We spent it at a bookstore, and maybe that made it easier. She loved that I was quitting, said she was proud of me. She hated that I was a smoker. Her family hated it. My family hated it. I was the only one who was very much in favor of my smoking, but I was kind of liking the ability to take in great lungfulls of air without choking, liking not coughing up a mouthful of phlegm first thing in the morning. I wanted that to continue.

I explained to her that it would not be easy for me or for her. I explained that my temper was riding on a razor’s edge. A part of me would, if asked, rape a grandmother and smother a newborn for a cigarette. She found this funny, and somewhere inside I was killing her with a nailgun for that.

I had to give her some slack. No one in her immediate circle of friends and family has ever smoked (except for her best friend from high school who worked as a sound guy for Ozzfest, and nicotine is the healthiest thing he puts into his system on a regular basis), and therefore has never quit smoking, and therefore she didn’t know what she was in for. I explained that I would be in a foul mood over the next couple of weeks and that I would snap at her for no reason, like Lizzy Borden with PMS. She said that the physical addiction to nicotine only lasts about a week. She read so on the Internet. Nailgun. Pow-pow-pow.

The physical addiction to nicotine is nothing. That’s the shakes and the light-headedness. The psychological addiction to nicotine lasts a lifetime. That’s the razor-nailed beast right outside your line of vision. If you don’t make eye contact with it, it might just spare you. Give it a moment’s thought, and it’s tearing at the inside of your cerebellum with bloody claws made of craving.

Over the next couple of weeks, as promised, I was a bitch. She will attest to this, although she really doesn’t know how restrained I was being — I never vocalized the grandmother-raping, newborn-slaughtering urges I would get. I don’t really know how my withdrawal progressed. Maybe I should have kept a journal, wrote down how I felt every day. That would make things clear.

But as anyone who has gone through it can attest, the last thing you want to do is talk about it, much less write about it. It’s bad enough that you spend every other waking minute thinking about it.

It’s six months after, and only now can I calmly tapitty-tap this out. I still get the urges: when I’m having a cup of coffee at an open-air café when I’m driving long distances; when I’m halfway through a short story and my brain is longing for that little neuron jump-start cigarettes can provide.

But those urges get less and less powerful every day. That’s all I can tell people who want to quit — the horror lessens. It never goes away, but eventually it transforms from an acute pain to a chronic, treatable ache.

Will I ever have a cigarette again? Who the hell knows? I ain’t planning on picking up a pack anytime soon, but who knows what the future may bring. NCI might come through with an anti-cancer pill and tobacco will go back to being an innocuous cash crop.

Or GWB might get reelected, in which case I’ll be lighting up with the rest of the condemned.

Or I could just be really drunk and bum one off of somebody.

I’m hoping for scenario #1.

So, if you’re planning on quitting, I’m behind you all the way. Stock up on the gum or the toothpicks or the patches or whatever the hell it is you think will get you through it.

Oh, and hide the grandmothers and newborns. You know. Just in case.

Article © 2004 by Steve Spotswood