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You've come a long way, baby...

One thing I knew was that if I did get pregnant, I would have to stop smoking a pack and a half of Marlboros every day, something I had failed to do after countless attempts in the past 21 years. This time, I made it through the initial emotional basket case phase, crying all day and riding out alarming surges of anger. It was unnerving that my brain seemed to have stopped working and that I couldn’t concentrate long enough to hold a thought or write a lucid sentence. An acupuncturist friend put needles in my ears and that helped relieve the craving pressure in my lungs. As a last resort, I tried smoking a joint every time I wanted a cigarette, but all that did was get me high and hungry. I went several days without a single conscious minute when I wasn’t obsessed about smoking, always on the verge of going to the store to buy a pack.

Then I did the classic addict thing. I told myself I could handle one or two cigarettes every now and then, just to relieve the stress of withdrawal. I bought a pack of Marlboros, smoked 10 over three days, crushed the rest and threw them in the trash. The next morning I fished them out and smoked what I could salvage. Other times, I put whatever was left in the pack under water and threw them away, but by morning was ready to smoke whatever had dried out. It was disgusting.

All that dumpster diving clearly proved no amount of willpower was strong enough to defeat this addiction, no matter how hard I tried. Almost as bad as letting my own self down was admitting failure to everyone who knew I had quit and was cheering me on. I talked about the first slip when I went and bought a pack. But the humiliation of buying, destroying, and resurrecting the second and then the third and fourth packs was too humiliating, so I stopped talking about it at all.

That’s when I really understood what Ed went through during his countless tries to stop using heroin: the initial intention, the first slip, the illusion he could control his using, then the renewed promises, inevitable using again, and the final dive back into shame-driven secrecy and lying. That’s when I got it that I was also a substance addict even though the “real” drug addicts and alcoholics, all of whom still smoked and many of whom would die from tobacco-related diseases, ridiculed the notion that a smoker was as authentic an addict as they were. For the first time, I felt compassion for Ed’s struggle and could empathize about how hard it was, and especially how bad one can feel about oneself. (p. 196-197, Double Helix)


I was 17 when I started to smoke cigarettes during my freshman year of college. Three years later, in 1964, the Surgeon General's landmark report came out linking smoking with lung cancer and heart disease. That marked the first of many times I tried, and failed, to stop smoking. In January 1979, my issue of Mother Jones arrived in the mail. The front cover screamed: "SMOKING: The Truth No One Else Will Print." The article itself was titled: "Why Dick Can't Stop Smoking: The Politics Behind Our National Addiction." At that moment, I understood the reason I had not been able to quit: nicotine is an addictive drug!

Even after that awakening, it would take 10 more years, including going through two years of graduate school in public health as a "closet smoker," before I was able to finally quit. I know many people say quitting was "no big deal" for them (and they are the lucky ones), but I also know many─like the regulars at the Nicotine Anonymous 12-step group I joined for about two years─who struggled and suffered throughout the process.

It was only after I stopped for a long enough time that I realized what nicotine had done to me during my 28 years as a smoker. It kept me thin. It kept me relatively emotionally stable. There's a funny saying in Nicotine Anonymous: "have a feeling? have a cigarette." But until I quit, I didn't fully understand the hold it had over my life.

I had smoked for any and all reasons—when I was happy, sad, stressed, relaxed, or angry ... I had to learn how to do everything all over again—wake up in the morning, have coffee, talk on the phone, work, drive, socialize, celebrate, and grieve—all without a cigarette. (p. 255, Double Helix)

It's only now, 32 years since I last inhaled nicotine, that I truly feel I've come a long way ... baby.

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