Newsletter 63: The Power of Nicotine Addiction

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. Here is a newsletter from July 2017. It is about how insane it is that I used to smoke. It is very strange to quit smoking, because something that once was the center of every single day suddenly is the opposite of who you are as a human being. Addiction, man.

One of the more satisfying things about getting older — maybe the only satisfying thing about getting older? — is the useful illusion that you are smarter now than you used be. Every poor decision I made when I was younger can now be retroactively explained away by supposed immaturity. I wouldn’t be so foolish and dumb now. Now I’m older. Now I know better. In 20 years, I will look back at myself at 41 and mock myself for being so young and knowing so little, and I’m sure I’ll do the same thing 20 years after that. The one thing I’ve gotten smarter about as I’ve gotten older is understanding how people don’t actually get smarter as they get older. They simply become more themselves.

There is one exception to this, however, in my own life: I no longer smoke.

I started smoking my junior year of college, which is way too late to start smoking; you should know better by the time you’re 20. I had an oral fixation as a kid, chewing on pens and toys and straws and whatever was near (chairs, legs, cats), and my mother always said that I should never even try a cigarette, because if I did, I’d only want more and more. She was right. I loved smoking. I mean, I was addicted to nicotine — six years after I quit, I still remember that gnawing, antsy headache I’d get if I want more than two hours without one — but I loved the experience of smoking. A cigarette always felt like a punctuation mark on whatever activity I’d just been doing, whether it was writing, eating or even exercising. Nothing ever felt done until I’d had a cigarette to finish it off.

Once I started smoking, it became a central tenet of my life. From that junior year of college until I was 34 years old, I smoked about a pack-and-a-half of cigarettes a day. My brand for the first 12 years was Marlboro Reds, and I switched to Marlboro Lights under the delusion that they would somehow be better for me. It is difficult to find many pictures of me from before 2010 in which I do not have a cigarette in my hand.

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(I’m not sure what’s going on in that picture. That is not proper smoking technique.)

One of the reasons I couldn’t imagine myself quitting — I didn’t even want to quit; it would be like quitting water, or air — was how tied it smoking was my work. I planned my writing around smoking. I’d get up and write a bunch (I always find it helpful to write as much as I can before my brain has had a second to realize I’m not quite awake) up to an artificial deadline of “need a cigarette time.” I’d then go back and write as much as I could until I needed a second, and then a third, and then once I was smoking while I was writing I knew that I was really cooking. I was always fortunate to have roommates who either also smoked or who didn’t mind if I smoked inside, something that now, a decade later, seems patently insane. I’m pretty sure there are whole states where you can’t smoke outside anymore now.

I didn’t consider any of this a problem. I knew smoking was bad for me — my mother reminded me of it every third sentence of our conversations — but it felt too inextricable from who I was (not to mention the physiological addiction) to even consider stopping. I just assumed I would smoke until I died, whenever that was, whether smoking was the reason for it or not; smoking was just what I did. I was a polite smoker: I cleaned up after myself and always went as far away from non-smokers as possible to smoke. But I was a smoker as much as I was anything else on the planet.

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Nothing — not the complaints of my mother, not girlfriends (and eventually a wife) who didn’t smoke, not health concerns, not society’s increasing disgust with the habit — made me even consider trying to quit smoking until … my wife became pregnant in 2011. It was one thing to sneak smokes on the roof of our apartment building; it was quite another to have two people in our home have to risk their health being around me. After 15 years, I decided to stop.

My father quit smoking when I was about 10 years old through immersion therapy: He put cigarettes in every room of the house, next to the phone, next to the bed, on the kitchen sink, so that every second he didn’t smoke was an active decision not to smoke. Eventually all those decisions added up to Dad not smoking anymore, but it is worth noting that when I smoked, Dad used to ask me to stand near him because he still missed the smell of cigarettes. My dad is a stronger person than I am, so I knew I’d something more than just willpower. I’d tried the nicotine patches years earlier as a favor to my mom, but all that did was give me crazy-ass dreams and the unnerving sensation that my heart was going to jump out of my chest. So those were out.

So I tried Chantix. Some people have had nightmarish experiences with the stop-smoking drug, most famously documented in a haunting 2008 New York Magazine story, and one friend who had tried it essentially turned into Peter Lorre-in-M every time he walked down the street until he gave up. (He still smokes today.) The drug itself comes with a warning to anyone with any history of mental health issues to stay far, far away, and if you have any suicidal thoughts after taking Chantix to stop immediately. This part didn’t worry me, though. As I told my wife at the time, I have never once had suicidal thoughts, so if I mentioned any, it’s the drug.

They tell you when taking Chantix that you’re supposed to keep smoking. Eventually, it will just turn off the part of your brain that likes smoking, and you just won’t them anymore. And … that is precisely what happened. I smoked like normal for a day, then a little less a day later, and by the third day I just looked at a cigarette — which had been my constant companion for nearly half my life at that point — and just had no desire to smoke it. And that was it. I was done. I’ve had a few cigarettes, maybe 15–20 over the six years since then, with friends who are smokers, but mostly just to be sociable, and I don’t even do that anymore. I don’t like cigarettes anymore. That was it. The addiction, the self-identity, was just … gone.

It’s a little disturbing that a pill can do this — I hope there’s not a pill that goes into your brain, pushes a button and then suddenly, hey, look, I’m only sexually attracted to penguins now, that’s weird — but I am not complaining. I was at a party last night in which just about everyone around me was smoking, and I couldn’t even conceive of being one of them anymore. I had no desire to have one, and it’s even strange thinking of myself as a smoker. I can’t believe I smoked that long, that it was so important to me. I’m not grossed out by cigarettes; I don’t have the zeal of the converted. I don’t bother people for smoking, and they don’t bother me. It’s just something that was central to my being, and now isn’t. My kids will never know me as a smoker; it will seem insane to them that I ever did. It seems the same way to me. Not only do I not miss it … I barely remember it.

So apparently that’s the secret to being smarter as you get older: Take a pill that turns off the part of your brain that is doing something stupid. The more you know.

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021.

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