On Smoking

My earliest memory on the discovery of smoking was upon visiting my great aunt’s house as a kid. When I asked my father what that horrible smell was, he simply said, “That’s the smell of cancer, son. Cancer and cats.”

“And cancer is bad?” I asked.

“Yes, it’s bad. And cats. It’s caused by smoking on a death stick, of sorts. It kills you. You cough until you die.” As directly as it came, that was the end of it. It’s no wonder why I grew up a dog lover.

It was just a few years later that the anti-tobacco folks showed up at our grade school, throwing pictures of cancerous lungs and gums into our untainted minds, shattering all beliefs that the chain-smoking bad guy in James Bond was cool. They gave us all the facts: you’ll lose all your teeth; your fingers will turn yellow; you’ll burn a hole in your throat; you’re really smoking fiber glass in menthols; the word “light” is just a ploy to trick idiots into thinking they’re better for you than the “full flavored” cigarettes; etcetera, etcetera. They never stopped to wonder that maybe all of those facts in a ten year-old’s mind may become greatly twisted and reimagined, like: “So I get to buy fake teeth that I’ll be able to take out and never brush like grandpa?”; “I get to turn the color of The Simpsons?”; “I get to talk into a machine like a robot?”; “You can actually smoke glass?”; etcetera, etcetera. When I raised my hand and asked about how the smell of a cat can give you cancer too, the auditorium went up in a riot, and I never raised my hand in school again. Thanks Dad.

Needless to say, I learned that smoking was definitely bad for you from the get-go. Whenever my family and I went on vacations that involved flying on a plane, I secretly scolded all those pesky loiterers outside of the airport that were waiting for cabs, smoking away on their death sticks, clogging the clean air with their foggy poisons and glass. The plane itself posed new questions to me, which I had to ask my father about. “Why do they even have a nonsmoking sign? Isn’t it obvious how stupid that is?”

“Not for everyone, Ryan,” he said. “Some countries allow you to smoke on planes, like they did here in America when I was young. They had smoking sections in restaurants, hotels, actually, nearly every building you can think of, even prisons and high schools. And you know, some people just need to be told that things are stupid. Not everyone learns that fire is hot the first time they touch it. They aren’t all as smart as you. It’s why we have elections.” My dad was wise.

Additionally, there wasn’t anybody in my immediate family that I knew who smoked, so whenever I smelled it, it was foreign to me, and it seemed like what rocks, hair, and spinach all burning in a pile would smell like. Even to this day, I’m not sure if there’s anyone in the family that has taken up the habit, at least not on the regular.

I remember walking on the Vegas strip when I was twelve as being one of the most visually immersive yet smelliest experiences of my life. Every step was like diving further into a sea of tar and piss. The fact that it was 115 degrees out didn’t help any either. The news had warned us to cover up if we had to go outside, but I thought this warning was wrongly aimed, that we needed to cover up to escape the poisonous clouds that were out to get us as soon as we stepped one foot out the door. Passing through the casino to get to our room proved even worse; it seemed like the smoke had nowhere to escape. It was like entering the final unbeatable dungeon in a videogame — there was just no way to win no matter what corner you turned or what secret magic skill you used. The power of invisibility was worthless; cheat codes were definitely needed.

Everything bad in my world became the smokers’ fault. War? It was the damn tobacco company again. Hunger? People would eat if they weren’t too busy smoking. Smog? You get one guess who was causing it. Mom stubbed her toe? Like the butterfly effect, someone must have lit up somewhere. I hated smokers with a passion, vowing never to go as far as holding an unlit cigarette. That is, before a certain girl came along.

To this day, I don’t actually blame her for getting me started, but she definitely pushed along and allowed my addictive personality to catch on to the fact that this destructive, rebellious habit may make me feel more emotionally and social connected amongst people that I had absolutely nothing else in common with at the time. How did she inadvertently accomplish this? It’s simple: she made me love her.

Though that’s not all the way true, she sure as hell didn’t make it difficult. To protect those I dare not truly name, let’s call her Kayla. Kayla and I met and fell in love early in life, around fifteen years old in junior high, in fact. It wasn’t until freshman year of high school that we began officially seeing each other, but by that point I already thought that I wanted to be with this girl for a long while. At the time we met, Kayla was a bit more rebellious than I was, which was apparent by her school ditching and weed smoking, both acceptable to me at the time, although I didn’t partake. When she showed up one morning to school reeking of my great aunt, and cats, I was taken aback.

“Oh, I was at my mom’s,” she said, as if it answered the question.

“Yeah, didn’t I tell you that?”

“Probably, maybe, who knows, but why is it so strong?”

“We just smoked one on the way here, dummy.”

I was shook. “She just, gave you one?”

I was struck with animosity, but I also felt small zings on envy. Suddenly, my world was flipped upside down, and I didn’t know exactly what to think. Who was this woman that I had chosen to love, and how could she love a square like myself? Something had to be done, and done quickly, before she realized her mistake. “Does she have cats?”

She gave me a confused look. “Yeah, three. Why?”

Bingo. “Uh, no reason,” I said. I would have to pass up the felines, but I wanted in on the other club.

The next chance I got, I found myself a lighter. Walking home to school one day, I found a butt on the ground, picked it up, lit up, and nearly threw up. The first thing that hit me was the taste, then the smell, then the lack of both. It felt as if my tongue shriveled up from the shock of the taste of ash, which eliminated all physical feeling, then as I blew the smoke out, I noticed that I couldn’t smell anything anymore either. I hadn’t coughed, but I realized that I had probably ruined my senses forever; there was no going back.

When my girlfriend smelled it on me one day, of course she asked, “What’s that?”

I knew how to play this game with her by now. “What do you think it is?”

“I just smoked a small one on the way here.”

She looked very confused. “A small one? Well who the hell gave you one?”

“No one,” I said. “I got it off the ground.”

She looked even more confused, if possible, with her stare stating, “Who is this man that I fell in love with? How could I like an idiot such as him? Something has to be done, and done quickly, before I kill him.” I felt vindicated in my actions, yet the animosity remained. Who is she to judge me? At least I’m not hanging around with cats. It was the proper justification and I stuck with it wholeheartedly.

I continued on with my bum-like, concrete-fishing smoking routine into our sophomore year of high school. I had transferred schools and had separated from most of my friends, which turned me into a social recluse of sorts for about a year. It wasn’t until near the end of the year that I rekindled an old relationship with my pal, Matt, an old childhood friend. We met up one day and walked to his house where he handed me a Marlboro. I lit up like a pro, feeling so cool and uninhibited.

“What are you doing?” Matt said with a look of disgust.

“Smoking,” I replied, but my tone had indicated, “What the fuck does it look like?”

Now I was disgusted. “What the hell do you mean ‘I’m not’?”

“Well to smoke, you actually need to inhale,” he laughed. “Breathe in after you inhale the smoke in your mouth.”

I didn’t understand, but I did as I was told, and I nearly died right there on the spot. “There you go,” Matt said, laughing again, “Now you’re smoking.” I felt like a true idiot now; this whole time I had been bumming cigarettes from the concrete and I hadn’t even been inhaling properly, feigning rebellion from the get-go. From that point forward, my life changed.

The first cigs that I smoked were Marlboros, and I’ve mostly stuck to that brand ever since. It’s not that I don’t favor anything else in particular, it’s just that I started with Reds, so I feel like I’m cheating on them if I venture off to and other brand. It seems like you can split the world into five smoking groups: Marlboros, Camels, Menthols, cigars, and rollies (DIY cigs). Marbs and Camels are rivals, like Democrats and Republicans — you’re faithful to one side once you commit. Menthols are the undecided party — the rebels of the group. If you smoke menthols, you’re tempting scrutiny on many levels, that and you’re smoking glass, so they say. I always thought that smoking menthols was akin to brushing your teeth with spearmint toothpaste until my girlfriend told me otherwise, that it doesn’t work that way, that all she tasted was ash and soot when she kissed me. Later in life, I’d sometimes wake up and unconsciously grab a menthol in a fool-proof way of cleansing my breath from the previous beer-soaked night with its minty freshness. I’d be leaving for work and give my girl a kiss goodbye and she’d ask, “What is that?” and I’d reply, “I just brushed my teeth, that’s all, now go back to sleep,” leaving her in a confused dream-like daze that she couldn’t later piece together. This was also the precursor to me losing two teeth from not brushing, but that’s a story for another day.

Cigars and rollies are one two opposite sides of the spectrum. I tried cigars for a period of time and started making the mistake of fully inhaling each puff that I took like it was just another cigarette. I coughed for a week. Regardless, I continued to venture, buying different labels, puffing and inhaling away as I drank my beer, risking permanent lung damage, all for a dizzying head rush. This was when I first moved to Texas and I had no weed connection yet, so it was my temporary replacement to get some type of high. As money dwindled, cigars got tossed from the budget and were replaced by cheap Pall Malls and rollies. I had always seen rollies as a poor man’s or a bum’s way of going about killing his lungs, and I had stopped fishing the concrete for cancer back in high school, but my new drinking habit had forced me to purchase my first pack.

They were great! Here I was doing my deed for our failing ecosystem by saving money (but really spending the same amount on papers), smoking less (because they were smaller, which I compensated for by smoking over 40 a day, so in turn, never really smoking less), and by no longer littering little orange butts everywhere (just little white ones). Never before had I felt so proud of my habitual smoking. My wife hated it; she would always be pointing out my burnt fingertips and blistered lips from newly smoking sticks with no filters on the end. “Why do you smoke it so far down?” she’d ask.

“I’m just doing my part to save the earth,” I’d boast. “What have you done lately?”

“Um, not smoke,” she’d say, thinking she was so smart.

I guess I should add that my wife was the same girl who “got me started” back in high school, but she had never stuck to the nasty habit. I, on the other hand, had turned full-blown Joe Camel, lighting up every chance I got. She hated it but tolerated it, mainly due to love, or maybe because she felt partially at fault. She knew the truth though — it was about our senior year of high school that we both realized that I was an addict in my preppy/athletic do-gooder disguise.

Although my addictive genes and ways of thinking are to blame the most, cigs were my gateway into full-throttle rebellion, killing all plans that God had for my future. They are subtle like that, sneaking their way in, murdering your life one day at a time. They take over your thoughts as they sit idly in your pocket; little man-made mutants, manipulating you with their psychic powers. “Did you just eat?” they say. “Yeah? Well then let’s go outside. Wake up from a nap? You know what time it is. Your shoe came untied? Shit, lay your lips on me, big boy!” Like those Truth commercials we always see, you really are signing away the contract for your life, providing at least ten minutes an hour to the conniving little suckers while simultaneously subtracting a day from the end of your life. It’s a lose-lose.

But like all addictions, you don’t think about the harmful consequences when you’re in the mix of things. My lungs would be fine, my teeth weren’t turning yellow, my throat would never have a sudden gaping hole in it — all things I was telling myself. What was all the fuss about? Out of sight, out of mind.

My parents caught on to my smoking right away back when I started, but I still never saw it as a big deal. Even though the gig was up once I was caught, I still did everything in my power to hide the smell. I carried Axe body spray everywhere I went, but I would smoke in my car also, so the spray never really did much good to cover my encircling stench. I had lotion for my hands, cologne in my car, soap in my backpack; I was a walking advertisement for bath and body works. Nothing worked. The smell was forever, if that’s a thing. Luckily, I couldn’t smell it anymore, and I questioned everyone what exactly it was that was bothering them. Again, they were the crazy ones.

It was 2012 when I gave my first attempts to quit when I entered into the fire academy. I just couldn’t be a smoking fireman, it just seemed so oxymoron-ish. It’d be like being a cursing preacher, a Jewish Nazi, or even a smoking pulmonologist. Have you seen those nurses outside of hospitals, puffing away while looking around cautiously like lightning were about to strike? That’s how I felt. I tried the patch, but ended up just smoking with them on. I was going to get the lozenges, but was steered away from them by my father who said that his neighbor had just become addicted to them and now spends more than he ever did a month on cigarettes. I settled on just eventually sticking with the sticks because it is so, so hard to quit while in recovery (which I’ve been at for 10 plus years) and everyone around you is lighting up, filling that new void in their life with all types of oral fixations, which somehow get held over from the old ones (drinking and getting high), like said smokes, food, and, well . . . oral sex. It’s everywhere! You can’t just have coffee at a meeting and talk to all those like-minded crazy people about how fucked up your life is without putting something else equally as addicting and fucked up to your lips. It just doesn’t work; it’s a requirement. It’s got to be in the 12 traditions somewhere.

My second attempt and real chance to quit was in prison. I went for the first time on July 18th, 2013, and was nicotine free until November 11th, 2013, which is when I placed chew in my lip for the first time. Why do I remember that date, with my before-mentioned memory issues, you may ask? Well it’s because I specifically remember thinking as I placed that small little wad in my mouth, “This was ballooned up in someone’s ass not too long ago.” It’s thoughts like that that will stick with you forever. Nevertheless, I kept on going, getting a good plug on the commodity which usually went for 5$ a dip on the inside. So upon release, I had a new fixation, but still lit up the first chance I got.

To this day, I am still trying to quit, doing all that I can to escape the cigarette’s grasp which hold tightly to my brain. Some days are of course better than others. Then there are the days when I can’t go two winks upon first awakening in the morning without thinking about how good it will be to just get up and light up, to carry around that burning 400 degrees Celsius in my hand, to inhale that 900 degree smoke in my thinned out, precious lungs, and exhale those exotic vapors into the fresh air, all the while thinking about how I should have just gotten a cat.

If you or anyone you know suffers from the affliction of smoking, or cats… please call 1–800-DAS-MELL…that’s 1–800-D.A. S.M.E.L.L. It can save their lives.

Author: Ryan S.

Born and raised in Elk Grove, CA, I've battled with various addictions throughout my entire life. I've discovered that through writing about my experiences and struggles, along with the other various forms of writing that I do, it gives my addictions, traumas, and worries of the future a little less power within my thoughts. This, to me, is therapy, and a route toward recovery through a little hindsight, which brings me to a happy medium with my struggle within my discovery of self.

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