Today is my 26th day without drinking. I haven’t felt inspired to write a great post, so I’ll serve up this essay I wrote several years ago. It is, perhaps, an answer to the question, “Why smoke cigarettes?”
The first fifteen minutes of my drive to campus wind past a field which is topped, for a second, by a glimpse of Budd Inlet and Cooper Point beyond. There is a horse lying down, a sign in front of a Lutheran church that says “Anger’s best solution is delay.” There are some goats that I noticed for the first time a couple days ago, there are two parks, a lonely Shell station with a convenience store that is stocked more like a general store, with bacon, nails, coffee beans, cans of soup, video rentals, copies of a locally authored book about geoducks…
I often have my first cigarette of the day on this drive—the nicotine creeps into the back of my neck, my stomach, my nervous system, my brain. Nicotine initially causes a rapid release of adrenaline, the “fight-or-flight” hormone. It also causes increased release of acetylcholine from my neurons, leading to heightened activity in cholinergic pathways throughout my brain. This in turn promotes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in my brain’s reward pathways. The nicotine also causes the release of glutamate, a neurotransmitter involved in learning and memory. My first cigarette stimulates receptors in my hypothalamus, hippocampus, thalamus, midbrain, and brain stem, as well as my cerebral cortex. Besides acetylcholine and dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin,vasopressin, growth hormone, and ACTH neurotransmitters are released by the nicotine’s actions.
Many smokers enjoy their initial cigarette more than any other, but I consistently feel sick after the second puff. My nausea is always accompanied immediately by an emotion like depression, but it comes on with more urgency, with the sharp edges of terror.
Whatever tide of neurotransmitters and hormones washes through my system, it pushes me up against a familiar, yet mysterious shore. It is a low-lying place where I’ve lost shoes in the sucking mud. I stuck my kindergarten teddy bear under a bush there. I had accidentally carried it halfway to my first grade classroom, suddenly seized by the fact that I was way too old to have a teddy bear at school. When I returned, the stuffed animal was gone. When I visit this foggy place, I am still the shortest in my class. In the murky air, I pass an anguished earlier self and know I can’t help. I can’t stop him from asking that girl to marry him, from throwing dozens of pages of horrible poetry at her feet and crying on no sleep. “You don’t really love her,” I might yell at my earlier self, “You are on amphetamines, or in withdrawal from all that Codeine and Vicodin. You are just desperate for some meaning.” I can’t make him hear, no matter how urgently I whisper, “You are embarrassing yourself!”
When this sharp edge of self-pity, this familiar amorphous violence, hits me after the second drag of my first cigarette, when I am suddenly balanced precariously on this side of tears, it takes me a moment to realize that this happens every time. Every morning I smoke a cigarette. Every morning I am momentarily washed away, spun around, sucked up. Every morning this bad tide quickly recedes and I forget that I was drowning a second ago. The day comes crowding in, happily, and the moment is forgotten.
Today I know the terror passes, but I didn’t always. I haven’t always been able to visit the darkest spot on that gloomy shore. At one time, those desperate memories were inaccessible, even though they were fresh. From the flat uncomfortable place that the people in the recovery business call “post acute withdrawal syndrome,” I couldn’t quite believe that my paranoia had been so imaginative, that terror was a thing I had actually felt, sharply and recently.
There are thoughts I had in the days before I went into rehab that I still don’t want to write down, thoughts that I would imagine a schizophrenic might have: parasites, poisoned water, someone hiding in my house…everyone knows, they all know…One night I collapsed face down on my couch, every light in my house burning, my mind was still racing but I hadn’t eaten or slept in days, so my body collapsed. As clear
as if it was in the other room, a voice called my name, a voice I was sure belonged to someone playing a trick on me, maybe the neighbor across the street was hiding in the basement. I am sure, now, that I hallucinated this voice, but I was as sure, then, that the voice was real when I answered it: “What? Leave me alone.” All this was insane, but what strikes me as more insane, more pitiful, is the fact that I did not get up, I just remained face down on the couch, allowing the conspiracy of killers in my basement free reign.
In the rooms of NA and AA—that is what they are called, “the rooms”—you hear a lot of things over and over; the experience of the addict is universal and clichés proliferate: One day at a time. You’re right where you’re supposed to be. My best thinking got me here. Let go and let God. Most recovering addicts insist that they
never want to forget what brought them to the rooms, their “bottom,” their last high. This is the redemption that my first cigarette of the day brings me: the reminder of how bad it got. Addicts don’t know much about what feelings are. They have suppressed them for a long time, pressed them into the feeling of being high and the feeling of not being high. So, when Bernard, the drug counselor at my outpatient facility, a big black man who had a weird kind of non-greasy jerry curl haircut and fingernails that had some type of fungus on them, demanded of me how I felt about an experience, I was often at a loss. He helped me out by saying, “There ain’t but five,” pointing at piece of oak tag on which someone had written:
There ain’t but five. In one way, the reduction of my emotional range to an acronym has been a good thing. It is a comfort to be able to grasp my feelings, write them down, safely label them and place them back on the shelf, certain that they will all make an appearance at one time or another, that no matter how they mess up my apartment and demand my attention, they are only here to visit. Nevertheless, my emotions are calling the shots, even when they linger in the background. I’m not sure, but I think that all my choices are dictated, in the end, by my desire to comfortably balance my emotions. I try to live so that sadness doesn’t dig too deep, so that loneliness doesn’t penetrate as sharply, so that pleasure doesn’t leave me washed up, writhing.
But there is more to a thing than its name. I cannot describe all the things that happen when I am on that morning drive by looking at an oak tag poster or researching the psychopharmacological effects of nicotine. That sudden drop, that shaky dark vision that the cigarette brings on is something more. It serves several functions. Its transience assures me of its transience. Its darkness shows me light. It is contrast.
I have a warm apartment, fifteen minutes from anywhere. I am looking out window at the water and the hazy silhouette of the Olympics. I have my neighbor’s beagle curled up on the couch. Spring is coming quickly. I will never run out of good books to read. I have a good stereo and my favorite radio station comes in clear. I am my parent’s prodigal son. I have goals. I am in college. I am incredibly happy and light. I will float away.
This is why I thank gravity. This is why I do not want to give up my daily moment of darkness, of heaviness. My moment of nostalgic terror is a glimpse at what my life is not, what it was, what it could be: contrast. When I smoke my morning cigarette, it is the beginning of my prayer of thanks, my ablution. My moment of terror is not just payment for my blessings, but reassurance that all things pass, and all things return.