When I began smoking cigarettes, they relieved stress. They probably kept me from getting fat. They also made me smell like a campfire, but in those days smelling like a campfire was acceptable.
According to what I’ve read, a nicotine dependency is about as bad as a cocaine or a heroin dependency, though supposedly nicotine withdrawal is easier than the hard stuff. People using marijuana doesn’t have as or high a dependency as strong a withdrawal problem as cigarette smokers, so I’m among those who wonder why marijuana–even for health uses–is still generally illegal.
I haven’t smoked a cigarette for 25 years. However, if I see people smoking or think about smoking, my withdrawal returns at almost the same intensity as it did the first time I tried to quit smoking. It took numerous attempts to quit. But I’m not free of it. If my wife weren’t hideously allergic to cigarette smoke, it would be easy to start again.
My smoking began as a “cure” for a failed romance and then as a crutch for military service. That doesn’t mean that I blame either the lady or the navy. Smoking was a conscious choice, one that seemed to work. I don’t think I was smoking because it was supposedly cool or badass.
Like many people, I didn’t plan to get addicted. I thought I’d smoke a few cigarettes a day and quit whenever I wanted to. I ended up smoking three packs a day 25 years later with the distinct impression that I’d never be able to quit. The addiction was so bad, I smoked when I had the flu or a cold and once walked to the store in a snowstorm when I was out of cigarettes and my car was snowbound in the driveway.
As I write this, I want to light a cigarette. That’s how invasive nicotine is. I’m happy that there appear to be fewer people smoking these days than there were in the 1960s. The health risks are bad enough, but the withdrawal is a constant companion long after all the ashtrays have been thrown away.
My writing suffered when I quit smoking because I always lit a cigarette when I sat down to write. Fortunately, I can write now without lighting up a Marlboro. I am also capable of answering the phone or walking into a bar without lighting up a Marlboro. The trouble is, I really want to light up a Marlboro. Daily, I make a conscious choice not to do that.
It’s better if one just doesn’t get started. That seems so obvious now. But, in 1968 when I started smoking, we didn’t trust anyone over 30 and those were the people who said you’ll be sorry you ever got started. Hell, the bastards were right.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” and “Lena” in which one of the characters chews tobacco and one of the characters smokes.