Friday, November 10, 2006

Quitting Quitting


The only thing I do better than anyone else is roll cigarettes by hand. The cigarettes I roll are of consistent shape and size, firm cylinders of paper encasing a spindle of tobacco. They burn perfectly, always feel right in my hand and taste delicious. They look just like a machine made them.

That level of precision, their likeness to machine-made cigarettes is a bit shameful, but it's the least shameful element of this talent. If a machine can do what you do, then let the machine do it. Humans are intended to do what machines cannot do. I am not about to get into a John Henry-style competition with a cigarette machine. That would be silly. What's truly shameful about this skill is that I have perfected a hand-craft that will kill me. Imagine if knitting caused cancer. Would anyone knit for fun? No.

I started rolling my own cigarettes in earnest several years ago, upon my return to smoking after a two year break. I had dabbled with hand-rolling as a younger kid, in college. My earlier rolling habit was all affect. I wanted to seem hard, more real, though that term didn’t exist at the time. Of course in trying to be more real, I was a monumental phony. Later, when I started rolling smokes in earnest, I was as real as could be. I was cheap, and I wanted to smoke as little as possible.

Before that, I had been dead serious about quitting, and it was a hard thing to do. I asked my doctor for help. He prescribed a drug called Zyban. The chemical in Zyban, bupoprion, is also marketed under the name Wellbutrin. It’s meant to treat depression. No one is exactly sure how it works in treating depression. But a few years after it hit the market as an anti-depressant, doctors began noticing something odd. Their patients who smoked reported that they had spontaneously quit smoking. Depressives smoke at a much greater rate than the rest of the population, so this was a noticeable occurance. A few studies were commissioned, and bingo, the drug’s maker found another market for their pills.

It sounded like a great plan. I would take a pill and that pill would somehow, as if by magic, drain the urge to smoke right out of me. I had always thought of myself as a depressive, so maybe this drug would take care of that too. I mentioned this potential added plus to my doctor. He made an encouraging little punching gesture and said, “This stuff will give you a little oomph.” I nodded. He nodded back at me, and resumed writing the prescription.

After that doctor's appointment I walked down to the banks of the Hudson River. It was February 1999. I was 27 years old and had accomplished nothing. The water on the Hudson that day was like glass. At that time I smoked Camel filters. I must have smoked three or four, sitting on that bench looking out at the undulating black mirror of the Hudson. I remember grieving for my bad habit, for my depression, for the blue cigarette smoke that I loved so much but that I knew would kill me sooner or later. The pill would send it all way. I’d turn over a new leaf. Right? I mashed out the cigarette, turned my back to the water and started walking back towards 72nd street.

My doctor gave me a sheaf of paper with the prescription. It told me what to expect in the coming days as I started taking the drugs and subsequently quit smoking. I wish I still had that paper now. I remember that it told me that I had to ease into the daily dose. That should have been a warning sign right then. For several days I took a quarter of a pill, split in a little pill guilletien at my kitchen table. After that I moved up to a half a pill, and then finally a whole pill. As the treatment went on, I was encouraged to try to quit, but not try too hard. The wording of the sheet, if I recall correctly, suggested that I would just quit.

That is basically what happened. I also became mildly psychotic. Or perhaps sociopathic is the more accurate term. I remember one particular meeting at work during that period. My boss, an obnoxious woman, went on about some nonsense that she didn’t understand and that no one could possibly care about. It’s true I hated her. But at that moment I remember feeling completely dissociated from my physical body, from my moral upbringing and from any sense of goodness I had. While my boss prattled on, I looked at her and thought, “Oh yeah, I could kill her and it wouldn’t bother me a bit. It would be like squashing a slug.”

I called my doctor. He asked if everything was going okay. I said, “Yes, but I want to kill people, joylessly, but without remorse either.” He told me this was normal and that I should continue taking the drug. That particular side effect would ease.

I continued on with the drug for the prescribed 3 month period. I soon realized that it’s primary function seemed to be squashing all emotion, all pleasure, all pain. I was never sad, but I was never happy. When I did try to smoke during this interval cigarettes neither sated an addiction's craving, nor disgusted me. I ate, slept and had sex only because it seemed situationally appropriate, not because I wanted to eat, sleep or fuck. But understand at the same time, it’s not as if I didn’t want to do any of these things. In some sense, it’s as if the Wellbutrin greased the rails of free-will. So I now made decisions on a purely rational Spock-like level. Food? Yes, eat it, or you’ll faint or something, not because it feels good in your mouth or smells tasty. Smokes, no don’t smoke them, or you will die. My other moderately bad consumption habits, coffee and alcohol, I continued only because I thought it would be odd if I forsook all my habits at once under the influence of another drug. But one night I was at Tom and Jerry’s, and I had a pint of Bass Ale in front of me. I drank some of it, but wasn’t much interested in the rest. It still tasted like Bass I suppose, but the overwhelming sensation it gave me was that of mere wetness. Who cared? For the rest of the evening I drank water.

I also recall that evening coming up with a new slogan. Here it is: “Cunt rhymes with Orange.”

Not so good, huh.

Now it would be untruthful to say that the subsequent two years passed without any backsliding. I did smoke from time to time. Usually when I was drinking, I granted myself the indulgence of mooching a smoke off of a fellow drinker. But I only very rarely purchased smokes, and I seemed to be functioning just fine. I still, however, did not accomplish anything of merit.

Then came September 11. You may recall that some people crashed commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center on that day. It was a pretty big deal at the time. By late afternoon that day, my friends started sorting out their coping strategies. I went to visit my friend John. He lived in a second floor apartment that overlooked the ruin of the McCarren Park pool in Williamsburg. The skyline of the city was visible from a chair in his kitchen, with the spires of the Empire State Builing and the Chrystler Building sticking up most prominently from the island of manhattan. He smoked pot as I sat with him, each of us trading our stories from the day, tracing our personal proximity to the tragedy. He offered me some refer, and I declined. It is unusual for me to decline an intoxicant when I’ve no immediate work or relationship obligations. But in those days I didn’t know what kind of immediate obligations would be foisted on me at any given moment. None of us did. Other folks decided to get drunk or a little high, or, as my girlfriend’s landlord chose to do, have scary loud sex with a hooker while everyone else in the building is forced to listen through the thin walls of the building. I was going crazy myself. I did not want to be intoxicated. I also did not want to take a psychoactive drug as prescribed by a doctor. So I walked to the deli and I bought a package of Drum tobacco. And I smoked.

In the years since then, when I’ve told some people that I began smoking again after September 11, a few of them have said that I was just looking for an excuse to start smoking again. September 11 provided it. These people are universally people who were not in New York City on that day. I have four words for them: Shut the fuck up.

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