Light My Fire
After struggling to give up smoking, I have come to a compromise: Never smoke more than one cigarette—at a time.
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A while back I was temporarily side-lined by a benign brain tumor about the size of a small Frisbee. I handled it with my usual panache: “Piece o’ cake,” were the first words I slurred when I came out of the anesthesia.
The downside of the surgery was a strict order from the neurosurgeon not to drink, smoke, or get in bar fights where I might be hit in the head with a bottle. No problem. My last decent fight occurred in the fourth grade, and as for not drinking, I found the experience of waking up without a hangover almost intoxicating. I even thought my strength of character, though never before tested, would get me through cigarette withdrawal. Hell, I might even start exercising. Born again I would be. A veritable clean liver. I fancied entering the smoke-free world, where I could scowl at tobacco-heads and use little coughs to signal my disapproval and moral superiority. I could go on tour, an angel of abstinence, lecturing my friends about their rowdy and self-destructive ways. I would straighten the fools out.
Everything went well except for the part about cigarettes. Two weeks and 14,000 shirt-pocket slaps out of the hospital, I began to learn what the word “addiction” meant. In fact, addiction hardly describes the ordeal that awaits a smoker who is both habitually and hormonally (I’ve done a little homework) hooked on nicotine, tobacco, smoke, lighting up, putting out, inhaling, exhaling—in short, hooked in all ways and on every aspect of the killer weed. Sure, you can quit smoking if you really want to. But that’s the catch. I don’t really want to. The closest I’ve ever come to wanting to is wishing that I wanted to. If the price of cigarettes ever goes to $100 a pack, I’ll just steal televisions and hold up liquor stores.
So anyhow, I managed to go without a single cigarette for two months, which should have been plenty of time for my system to purge itself of nicotine, my hormones to readjust, and my habits associated with smoking to at least weaken. But no. If anything, I felt worse and worse, with nearly every waking minute interrupted by the urge to smoke a cigarette. It was like not having enough air to breathe or as if ordinary air was just too thin. It was like having an internal itch I couldn’t scratch. My writing days were over, I could tell. After all these weeks I still craved a cigarette the way a prisoner craves a woman (or so I’ve heard), the difference being that you can live without a woman. Kipling said it: “A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.” Or, in my case, a good cigarette.
On my next follow-up visit I told the doctor I had been scrupulously following his every order, but I might not make it without cigarettes, and I would really hate to undo $35,000 worth of brain surgery with a bullet. Upon hearing that, he allowed as how maybe I wasn’t ready for total reform and smoking probably wouldn’t be fatal in the short run. I nearly kissed that intelligent, perceptive, compassionate man.
Oddly enough, i had made it through the susceptible teenage years without smoking, had even scoffed at my peers who thought it fashionable, and had assumed that with such a good attitude and track record I wasn’t vulnerable to the ridiculous vice. So later, when I was in the Naval Air reserves for a special training program, I didn’t worry about accepting a couple of cigarettes from an older sailor, who said they would help me stay awake during post watch—“Take these, kid. They’ll give ya a buzz.”
I had smoked cigarettes a few times in high school just to prove I wasn’t a wimp or something like that, but these—smoked all alone at three in the morning on a dark runway at the Dallas Naval Air Station while guarding against Communist saboteurs—were different. They sure enough gave me a buzz, or “body high,” as kids would one day call it, and the whole business of playing with a cigarette—lighting it, taking a puff or two, putting it out, then lighting it up again—was kind of fun. Next nighttime post watch, I scrounged two more, plus an extra just in case, and was able to amuse myself completely till the sun came up. Before long I had bummed enough from my bunkmate that he remarked on how nice it was that I had learned to smoke, and the next thing I should learn was how to buy.
That surprised me. Cigarettes were dirt cheap on base, and it wasn’t like I was smoking very many. Maybe two a day and one in the evening. Possibly more than one if we were drinking beer (underage) in the enlisted men’s club. Well, hell. I’d go ahead and get a pack just to avoid hassles. I figured it would last me a week or more, and after all, I’d already demonstrated that I wasn’t hooked.
The first pack lasted about four days. The next lasted maybe three, and since then I’ve found it impossible to explain to anyone—in one case my own stepson, who was just chipping away and claimed that he could stop anytime he wanted to—how incredibly insidious this habit is. People shake their heads when they hear of the lung cancer patient who cannot stop smoking. I understand the poor devil. An intelligent, well-educated woman friend of mine who works for a health magazine, of all things, was unable to stop during two pregnancies. (So far, so good with the children.) My own father, ill with emphysema, unsuccessfully tried every trick in the book to quit and eventually died of a heart attack.
Several weeks after a second round of surgery, my head was pretty much functioning again, so I decided to have the teeth in it fixed. That delighted my dentist, who had had a hard time making ends meet without my business. He marveled at my half a haircut, which set off a nifty transorbital scar, and complimented me on my new-wave look. “Mr. Helmer,” he said, admiringly, “it’s you!” Then he asked how I was doing. I said fine, except for my shameful surrender to the tobacco demon. I told him how weak-willed and worthless it made me feel and how the only effect that two months of not smoking had had was to make me love life for all it had to offer—starting with cigarettes. Right-side paralysis, inability to speak, seizures, short-term memory loss, long-term memory loss, whatever—I could handle all of it as long as I had cigarettes. Abstinence, I told him, had made my heart grow fonder, and I had completely restructured my priorities. I no longer took cigarettes for granted. They came first.
I’m sure some of this rambling was merely a response to nine hours of brain surgery followed by serious hospital boredom—the kind of boredom during which one invests small events (like finding in the TV schedule a M*A*S*H episode one hasn’t seen very often) with great importance. For me, cigarettes took on that kind of importance because they were about the only tangible pleasure left in a life that for a while there had gotten a little rocky. Add to that the addiction-habituation problem and, as my old buddy the dentist put it, “Sounds like you’d just about kill for a cigarette.”
The very fact that I had to stop and think about that statement bothers me a little. I laughed and answered no, of course not, don’t be ridiculous, ha-ha— but I said it without conviction, and unbidden to my mind came little scenarios where such a perverse trade-off just might be considered justifiable. I thought of the classic moral dilemma someone once proposed: “For a million dollars, and if you were certain no one would ever find out, would you press a button that would cause the death of some totally anonymous and generally worthless creep?” Me, no—I don’t handle guilt very well. But if the problem involved the creep versus smoking, I’d have a hard time deciding.
It’s not good to start thinking along such lines because it becomes hard to stop. How about if the hypothetical victim was a psychopathic monster who rapes and kills little old ladies and sexually abuses children and who keeps getting off on legal technicalities? How about if the guy was Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein or somebody? How about if it was that jerk in the apartment next door who is right now blasting reggae music through the wall?
Look at that! Already I’m losing perspective and contemplating what your average prosecutor would call murder. That’s hardly relevant to the issue at hand and would only land me in jail, or worse. But if I were going to do something that violent and awful and foolish and crazy, the place to do it would be Utah. There I could opt for the firing squad. But I’d want to find out first, of course, if they observe tradition and let a man smoke a last cigarette.