Smoke ‘em If You Want to Live

That’s strange. Where’s my garden hose? I wondered to myself. The disturbing answer to my question came much later in the day.

I only noticed it was missing because I wasn’t able to water the flower beds that morning before going to work. It was Austin, late in the summer of 2016, and my flowerbeds couldn’t go too many consecutive days without water.

Around 2:30 pm that same day, I am camped in my cubicle at work. My cell phone vibrates on the desktop next to my computer. It’s a call from a number I don’t recognize. I answer…because I’m like that.

“Hi this is Treasure, M’s girlfriend. I’m really worried about him. Do you know where he is?” There is urgency and stress in her voice. Immediately, I am feeling just as worried. I know M’s been in a bad place lately. I tell Treasure I will do my best to find him.

Seconds later I call M on his cell phone. He’s always hard to get ahold of, even on his good days. Today, I’m preparing myself to double, triple, and quadruple-call him.

But he answers right away with a flat, hello. I could tell through the phone he’s somewhere outdoors. 

“Hey, what’s going on? You okay?” Really, I’m shocked that he’s answered. 

“Not really. I don’t know.” He is speaking from a sunken place. “It’s just hard. I’m trying.” I can hear what sounds like a police radio in the background. This is America. M’s six-foot-seven and black by birth. 

“Where are you, man? Tell me where you are and I’ll be right there.” 

——————————————————

A recurring theme of this blog is paradigm-smashing; how old ideas can get up-ended by ah-ha moments. Since smashing paradigms is considerable work, let’s take a “smoke break.”

For most of my life, I harbored a preternatural personal disdain for smoking. Of course, there is no shortage of people who dislike smoking, but not like I did. All for reasons I will attempt to explain. I will also build a new case for why smoking cigarettes should not be looked upon with such negative judgement, but is instead deserving of broad and empathetic understanding.  

Several years ago I was listening to a Freakonomics Radio episode about cigarette smoking. [If you don’t already know this show/podcast, it’s one of the best.] Two things from that podcast stuck with me in particular. The first was when one of their guests, a medical researcher, described nicotine as, “Good drug. Bad delivery method.” The researcher went on to explain nicotine’s “health benefits,” such as increased levels of beta-endorphins that reduce anxiety, to name just one. 

The other amazing fact they reported was that the most commonly shared characteristic among cigarette smokers is “mental illness.” [Screech!] Stop right there!! I wish to be super clear this is what they reported and substantially different from the better and more nuanced personal conclusions I’ve made on the subject. Stay with me while I attempt to connect a few dots.

Can I Get A Light?

I have never been a smoker. Well, not voluntarily. From as early as I can remember, and even before I can remember, smoke was in the air. My mom was a smoker and didn’t even think to slow down her habit while being pregnant with me. My dad didn’t light up as frequently, but he smoked on occasion, too. It was the 60’s. Practically everyone smoked. Even my first words were, “Can I get a light?”

When you are the child of a smoker, you are in a tough spot. You cannot simply make different lifestyle-choices and avoid being constantly surrounded by cigarette smoke. I disliked it VERY much. And once information started coming out in the media about how smoking was bad for your health, I despised it even more. I loved my mother, duh!. Watching her smoke pack after pack of cigarettes was the worst. Then, the final straw… I was maybe 14 or so when I became aware that some people thought I smoked cigarettes because my clothes, laundered by my mom, smelled like it.

My kid-logic brain created a monster-strong aversion to cigarettes, cigarette smokers, and pretty much anything smoking related. Smoking = bad. End of story. 

Now that I’ve accrued a decent amount of life experience I am able to understand the phenomenon of smoking in a far more robust and nuanced way. There are people in my life today that smoke and, while I don’t care to sit downwind from them at a table, I still appreciate them without negative judgement. 

A Tether Back to Earth

Several years ago a very close friend of mine- let’s just call him M -was going through a life-threatening personal crisis. He was distraught and suicidal like I’d never seen him. I was letting M stay in the spare bedroom of my house at the time; though he was out so much I rarely saw him.

On the day he planned to take his own life, M unscrewed the garden hose from its bib on the front of my house and carried the green coiled up mass towards his vehicle. In the dark hours before another unbearable day began, M parked his beat-up SUV behind a nondescript retail shopping center, right next to a dumpster. His plan was to stick one end of the hose up the exhaust pipe and leave the other end inside the car, windows up.

—–

My friend M is a smoker. When I found him that day in a suburban neighborhood alley, in the midst of four police officers and two squad cars, he was smoking like a fiend. Finish one, light another. Repeat. On that day, in that city, those cops were (thankfully) the good guys. They helped M find a clinic where he could get some legit help. The whole story is compelling and maybe someday the time will be right for me to tell it in full. For now, we need to stay at his side.

While three of the police officers were occupied by standing around, one was making arrangements so that M would have a safe place to go. For a few hollowed out moments, my friend and I were able to talk. Like I said, his cigarette smoking at that moment was in high gear. Out of pure curiosity, I thought to ask him, “What is happening when you smoke like that?” 

I found his response both revealing and fascinating. In the middle of this high-stress, intense, existential reckoning, he gave my question a moment’s thought and uttered, “It’s like…Okay, I’m alive.” This stripped down, raw, visceral response cut through so much mystery for me. Nicotine and/or the other compounds in cigarettes were somehow providing a tether back to Earth at a moment when stress levels threatened to hurl my friend into the darkness of space. 

Resolving the Rubik

On another front, I’ve been exposed to several different discussions of late about chronic stress that have me thinking about its connection to smoking in a new light. Each discussion had a completely different context, but I am seeing them all as different colored squares on the same Rubik’s cube. There was a story a couple years ago on NPR about the psychological effects of living in the US while being undocumented. More recently I heard about studies that show how simply being poor can put a person into a state of chronic stress, which makes total sense. An entirely different source, and at a later time, discussed how being black in America induces chronic stress, too. And one more- Recent deep dives into my own personal history have taught me how chronic stress can be the body’s innate response to even relatively mild forms of trauma during childhood. 

The last cube to turn… About 2 months ago, someone suggested I listen to Joe Rogan’s interview with an engaging Brit named Johann Hari. Ostensibly, the discussion was about depression, but that’s only where it started. Addiction. Medication. Self-determination. Civilization, and much more. It’s ALL connected. The podcast is 3+ hours long and totally worth a listen. The giant takeaway from the interview is that depression results from a much larger list of societal ills than most of us ever imagined. By the way, that someone who suggested I listen…was M.

Now I’m ready to resolve the Rubik and put all of these seemingly disparate data points on the same side. It’s not mental illness that is the most commonly shared trait among smokers, it is anxiety. Survivors of trauma whether acute or constant, and victims of chronic stress, have to battle anxiety with each breath. The chemistry of cigarettes gives those that smoke a brief but desperately needed respite from anxiety. Finally, I can look upon my mother’s smoking addiction with fresh, sympathetic clarity. The mother I knew as a child was steeped in worry. She was trying to survive her trauma, both past and present. She was stressed the fuck out! 

Her husband, my dad, suffered from his own issues and was honestly impossible to live with. Their constant arguing over everything from the thermostat to the “right” way to slice a stick of butter, created a home environment for her that was a petri dish for anxiety and stress. It’s long been my conclusion that when it comes to relationships, emotionally healthy people are drawn to each other and, unfortunately, the opposite holds true for the damaged.

My mom would never have ended up with my dad were it not for her own trauma-filled past. At 13 years old, my mom left for school one morning… without a clue she would never see her own mother again. When she came home that afternoon, strangers were going in and out of her house. She was told her amazing mother, the closest, dearest, most loving person ever in my mom’s young life, had died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. The strangers helped my mom gather up a few belongings before sending her to live with an aunt. This was only temporary, as were the series of foster homes she would be placed in while finishing out her teenage years. These were also the same years she takes up smoking.

Cured By The Flu

There you have it, full circle. My mother’s addiction to cigarettes makes disturbingly perfect sense within the context of her own personal hardships. 

It should be noted, by the way, that my mother eventually did quit smoking. She got sick with the flu one season and was seriously knocked off her feet for several days. While coping with a fever, sore throat, chest congestion, sinus pain, and all that comes with the flu, smoking a cigarette was the furthest thing from her mind. After getting better, her motivation for that next cigarette mercifully never returned. Her addiction to cigarettes was miraculously “cured” by the flu!

Though, I have another theory. The last 20 or so years of my mom’s life were perhaps her happiest. She had a part-time job she mostly liked, a quiet, peaceful living situation, several wonderful new friends, and at one point, three quirky cats she more than adored. The stresses and drama of her prior lives were now absent. Smoking was no longer needed.

My mom lived to be 84. The final year of her life may have been her best, and I hope to tell you about it in a future post. She passed away 9 years ago…

…from lung cancer.

Closing caveat: Most certainly there are many good people who smoke for reasons having nothing to do with trauma, stress, or anxiety. Can they not just enjoy it? Yes they can. You know, it’s not my jam, but different people like different things for all sorts of reasons. We should all be careful not to develop preconceptions about every smoker before getting to know them.  

The next post is….well…I’m really not sure what to say about. It’ll be interesting.

Published by

UltimateGaryB

Gary is a Solar Technician and writer living in Boulder, CO, who loves to play Ultimate frisbee!!

4 thoughts on “Smoke ‘em If You Want to Live”

  1. I started earnestly smoking cigarettes when I was 15 years old. By then the ‘warning’ label on the side of my cigarette pack might as well have said, “blah, blah, blah”. My brain ‘settled down’ almost immediately within the first couple of drags. Damn the consequences. I remember a while back reading about the correlation between cigarette smoking and mental illness. I think I cried when I read it. For most of my life I suffered with anxiety – with extended and debilitating bouts of it – throughout my adulthood. Cigarettes really did take the edge off and, looking back, I really do have gratitude for that. I’m an ex-smoker for several years now but I’m not a rabid ex-smoker, taking people’s ‘smoking inventory’, as it were. Thanks for sharing this, Gary. I appreciate your compassion telling this story.

    Liked by 1 person

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