May 13, 2014
One year ago this past Sunday, I did something I hadn’t done in seven years.
I woke up. I stretched. I got out of bed and made a pot of coffee. And I didn’t smoke.
I’ve tried not to talk about this too much. For one, I’m a born-and-raised Minnesotan, so I’m obviously not going to crow about what I consider my greatest coup. (Such arrogance would surely invite the scorn of my peers and the fury of the heavens upon me.)
And, for another, I know too well that smoking’s hard to kick. The late William Rehnquist was a religious two-a-day smoker. That’s not two packs. That’s two cigarettes. I have no idea how he could have done it; some people can have it both ways.
I can’t. For most of us, it’s day or night; all-in or fold. When I was younger, I was a much more tense person. In high school, friends told me that my first cigarette would make me woozy and lay me low. It didn’t; it brought the world up to my level.
Funny how your life can suddenly divide along a few pretty clear before-and-after moments. One minute you’re single, then you’re married; in the space of a few seconds, you can suddenly own a home. One night in August 2006, the switch suddenly flipped. I wasn’t a smoker, and then I was. Of course, smoking’s not exactly an easy habit to pick up. You have to intentionally debase yourself to its level. You have to want to smoke.
It started innocently enough: lounging down by the river on sunny summer afternoons with friends, endlessly chattering about new bands, movies, who did what, life after school. Getting in trouble. Chain-smoking and making music in my best friend’s basement, because his parents are lifelong smokers and couldn’t tell. Some of my all-time favorite memories were minted while staring down the barrel of a Marb Red.
(My parents found my cigarettes within four months. To my eternal gratitude and shame, they told me how disappointed they were, and then let me make my own mistakes. Thanks for treating me like an adult, mom and dad.)
Eventually, things got dark. It had been kind of fun to a point, but I woke up one day and realized I couldn’t stop. Youthful indiscretion gave way to serious addiction in college as I dove into the pack-a-day cycle. Then, shortly after graduating, I realized I had missed my opportunity to close the window and say, “I used to smoke, but I quit when I left college.” I was an adult, with a real job, and I didn’t have any cover anymore.
There are very few states of being as unpleasant as addiction. I entered a mostly aimless three-year period of total surrender. In the midst of working at a rock club, I switched to Parliaments: “If I’m just going to get drunk and smoke a million cigarettes, I may as well smoke ones that don’t make me feel terrible the next day,” I bargained. I shamefully entered the “pack-and-a-half” tier.
So what helped? Like most stoic Swedes, I’m not a big “ask for help” kind of guy, so I had to cobble together my own plan from any inspirational scraps I could find. Two books — Bob Mould’s autobiography, “See a Little Light,” and Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson masterwork, “Master of the Senate” — had riveting sections about the two men, hardcore smokers both, just dropping their habits in the course of a day. “All right,” I said. “Maybe I can do this.”
And I realized I was staring into something that couldn’t be ignored: I had smoked long enough that I was just at the edge of becoming a real, terminal, capital-S smoker. Seven years is short enough that it’s still possible (though not fun) to quit, but also long enough that I easily foresaw myself still pounding heaters, destitute, at 50. It was a distressing — and increasingly real — possibility, so I went nuclear on the gross-out options. I started a dramatic note in my phone that reminded me of all the hardcore pains awaiting me, from “atherosclerosis” to “dying alone in a hospital.” This yellow iPhone note, which I’d glare at in beady-eyed anxiety, did more than anything else to help me dump my favorite vice. I lived inside of it. I did something I had always laughed off before: I let it scare me.
And then, on May 11, 2013, I woke up to gauzy sunlight and the smell of dew. It was a textbook early-summer day — so much like the ones that made me reflexively grab for my lighter in years past — but I didn’t have anything to smoke. I mowed the lawn, watched TV and read a book. I went to bed without a cigarette, and I’ve made it through every day since. I’ve been on long drives, in tequila-numbed giddiness in the middle of the night and redlined on stress, and I’ve never reached for a Parliament. I didn’t do gum or patches, and certainly not an e-cig. I just stopped. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was done.
Ever since, I’ve been religious about avoiding the word “quit.” When I’d be out with friends in the first weeks and months, I’d say I stopped smoking, or that I wasn’t smoking. I’d made a marquee performance out of quitting before — only to reappear weeks later with one clamped in my teeth. I’d give my best roguish grin, a noncommittal “oops,” and let ‘er rip. Now, 368 days later, I think I can say it: I quit smoking.
I can run. I can climb — even bound — a few flights of stairs. I can walk and talk at the same time. I think I’ve noticed fewer wrinkles. I don’t do that thing where I accidentally rub my eyes after smoking and have to sit through a wave of burning. I haven’t put on weight — in fact, the fitness gains have kind of offset the post-smoking bloat, and I’m lighter than I was a year ago. I can taste things — which has had the unintended benefit of cutting out most of the tar-coffee and terrible beer I had been drinking when everything tasted like garbage. My car recently stopped smelling like an ashtray.
In the course of writing this, I was struck by the fact that it’s already been a year — a mystical number that was for so long the subject of feverish desire. “If only I could not smoke for a year,” I’d say, “I can do anything.”
I guess I can.