I suppose the juxtaposition of yoga and cigarettes don’t mix, but I was a smoker for about twenty years. I’d often light up after a nice sweaty practice.
I loved smoking.
I loved the thrill of stealing cigarettes from my parents when I was 12.
Just a couple of short years later, my mother had become marginally accepting of my smoking — she didn’t approve, but as a-pack-a-day smoker herself, she didn’t feel comfortable condemning or prohibiting my habit outright
Smoking with my mother made me feel closer to her, and at the same time, independent. If I was not yet an adult, I felt closer to that end of the continuum than child. Childhood was a stage of life that had proven thorny, afflictive; I imagined the sooner I got out of it, the sooner I could make decisions for myself, and the better my life would become. In retrospect, I see the naivete as to the amount of work — and sheer number of years — an alchemical process would take. But I applaud my younger self’s optimism
Lest you judge my long-dead mother for her live-and-let-live parenting approach, many adults around me did the same thing. I would regularly sneak out of my religious Jewish day school and grab a few puffs after lunch. The teachers — even the Rabbi-principal — weren’t oblivious to my escapades. They said nothing to me for reasons that were never entirely clear but which I now interpret as an act of kindness: a choice to focus on what they could, which was giving me an excellent education. When my mother killed herself, the very same detectives who by law had to question me as a possible homicide suspect since I was with her, and there was no note, practically tripped over themselves to offer me the closest cigarette to what they thought I’d want. “Hold up, you want menthol or Marlboro lights?” And during the seven-day period of sitting shiva, when folks would call to see what they could bring, and I literally couldn’t stuff another roasted chicken or casserole in the fridge, I’d respond “just a pack of smokes.” They’d come, carton in hand.
As I got older, there were more reasons to love to smoke. The satisfaction of it after a good meal, or sex, the argument-less break it allowed from the drudgeries of even decent work that I mostly liked, the camaraderie I’d form with other smokers on planes, trains, and in bars, their generosity in sharing what was theirs, knowing everything would be paid forward.
In my case, I think I did smoke to connect with others — truthfully, this is what I miss the most about being a former — but perhaps even more importantly, to connect with an imagined version of myself — a bit more sophisticated, a bit more extroverted, a bit more fun.
Ironically, smoking taught me how to breathe: the cigarette perched on my lips gave purpose to the inhale.
And the pleasure of feeling into my body and filling up my lungs, and being able to let go as I was ready — there was a sense of embodiment that I didn’t get from going to a class and being told how to move.
Dr. Daniel Sumrok, director of the Center for Addiction Sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Medicine, believes we should rename addiction “ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking.” A seasoned doctor and former Green Beret based in Appalachia, he sees addictions as largely coming out of brain-body-mind changes that result from trauma, especially in childhood. In this way, addictions can be seen as our natural response to not getting that comfort when we were young. (You can read more about Dr. Sumrok’s trauma-informed treatment work here.)
At some point, every habit, every addiction starts to turn against you.
Mine came in the form of wicked hangovers, made worse by smoking my daily portion of cigarettes while clubbing (read: combining with strong cocktails). And then I started to get hangovers without drinking at all: terrible migraines that would come on strong, and send me to the toilet doubled over and after to my bed with my head pounding.
Never a quitter, the way I stopped was by not trying to. Instead I spent a couple of days jotting down how I felt after each of my cigarettes. I realized I had been playing favorites for years: I adored the first one of the day with my morning cup of coffee, my after-meal smokes, the smokes that got me out of the office and on a break with a friend, and anything with an adult bevvie.
My method was straightforward and based on the pleasure principle: I allowed myself those cigarettes and cut out the rest.
After a couple of months, I re-assessed. I found that I no longer enjoyed my first cigarette of the day, but I still loved the one after breakfast. I didn’t need one when I came home from work, but if I had a beer with a friend, I’d enjoy lighting up.
Eventually, I found I was gravitating to only smoking after dark.
The process was so slow — and all based on my feelings and choice — and I never had a sense of being deprived from something which gave me even temporary satisfaction.
For ten years or so, I let myself have up to three cigarettes a day, almost always at night.
My doctor stopped telling to cut down on my smoking: she said I was causing myself virtually no harm. (Until I stopped seeing her a few years ago, she did continue to hock me incessantly about my almost-daily wine habit, preferring Wellbutrin to Shiraz.)
I finally quit when I realized that the smell of other people’s cigarettes were viscerally disturbing and I had to stop being a damn hypocrite. By then, I kept my cigarettes in the freezer; I smoked so little they’d go stale otherwise. Even with that amount, going cold turkey wasn’t easy. I’d reminisce about long bus rides with regular pit stops, getting to know a stranger’s story in between cities, the lessons of giving and accepting, the habit that kept me connected to my mother’s dining room table, and the men standing outside the homeless kitchen down my block with whom I could easily share a moment in time. Not smoking meant isolating myself from my own past — and from those crossing of paths in the commons that would never have occurred without the excuse of a shared pleasure.
If you have an addiction, you’re not alone, and you too can stop playing the blame-game. My method might not work for you. (Indeed, cold turkey, with substantial additional support such as meds and therapy, works better with addictions to substances stronger than nicotine.) But at least consider that your addiction might be a desire to get comfort, and to connect.
A firm ex-smoker now, with about a dozen years in my back pocket, I’ve considered carrying a pack just to have when someone on the street asks me for a smoke.
Instead, I try to always pack a light, even if it’s just in my attitude.