This post was originally published on February 13, 2015.
I think I’ve tried to quit smoking around 21 times. Sometimes I succeeded for a whole day, maybe two, one time four months and still another time three whole years. But now I’m back on the pack-a-day regimen, and I’ve finally stopped hating myself for it.
Here’s how I quit for three years: I tried hypnosis, I replaced each pack of cigarettes with one pack of soft-baked Choco Chunk cookies at 7-11 (three for a dollar!) and a Diet Coke, then I took some Chantix because, after staying off the nicotine for a month, I couldn’t get out of bed. Nicotine floods your brain with dopamine, spikes your mood up to the moon and then, when you withdraw from the stimulant, you crash down well below where you started. Yeah, kind of like other drugs. Down, and further down I sank, all my will to get up and take a dance class, go to a meeting, call a newcomer vanished. But the Chantix helped tremendously.
Every night for a month I’d put my headphones on and listen to this British dude tell me I could quit cigarettes in a hypnotic voice. First, I had to relax all of my limbs, then my mind, which was easy with the beta waves purring in the background. Then I allowed this British hypnotherapist to take me down into deep relaxation so that I became open and willing to sign over my family inheritance or believe what he told me about cigarettes.
“Cigarettes gave you nothing. They did not relax you, they did not help you concentrate, they did nothing for you.”
This actually worked—I believed him. I never realized that my entire smoking habit depended on a core belief that sucking on a toxic Marlboro Light would take away all my problems, release all my stress, make me wealthy and help me achieve my writerly dreams. So when John Westhrop, clinical hypnotherapist, shattered these beliefs, there was no point in smoking anymore. And I stopped for what I thought would be forever.
Until I started working as a pastry chef at Spago, Beverly Hills.
Working in the kitchen at Spago was hellacious and thrilling all in the same night. “Use your brain!” the sous chef would scream at me during service. Each night we’d do at least 200 covers, and I’d have nine soufflés on the board at a time, each requiring 15 minutes for the raw batter to rise into a delectable chocolate-hazelnut mass inside the ramekin.
The process was utterly overwhelming. I couldn’t keep track what soufflé I put in first. We had this big industrial timer that resembled R2-D2 with its flashing red and green and yellow lights and you had to push five buttons just to start one of the four clocks on it. I couldn’t remember what timer went with what soufflé, so I pulled out many too soon, which made them collapse into a deflated crater of sugar and egg and fat.
Not exactly good enough for Wolfgang Puck.
Then there were those fucking tuilles made of rhubarb shreds that looked more like a sculpture in MoMA than an edible substance. A tuille, for those of you who don’t know, is a prissy wispy cookie, so faint and thin it breaks with the lightest touch. We soaked strands of rhubarb in simple syrup, then sucked all the moisture out of them overnight in a dehydrator; when some jackhole ordered the creme caramel, we’d manipulate those congealed strands into a whimsical twist and set it on top of the gelled custard.
I constantly snapped them in two, and when I didn’t snap them in two, they’d slump over like atrophied angel wings and sink into the custard, unable to hold their shape. With 15 tickets lined up on the board and a screaming sous chef in my face, I started to crack just like the tuilles.
A cigarette sounded lovely.
It didn’t help that everyone in the restaurant business smokes. The cooks smoke, the general managers smoke, the chefs smoke, the servers smoke, the bussers smoke, the dishwashers smoke. You go outside for your 10-minute break, and there they are, all lit up in the alley in a fog of CO2-ridden vapor.
So I bummed one. Three years of smobriety down the drain, and I picked up right where I left off.
I smoke like a junkie. Those people who can smoke two or 10 cigarettes a day confound me. If it weren’t so expensive and totally disgusting and terrible for your lungs and every other part of your body, I would smoke three packs a day. And if I could smoke in my apartment—I can’t, I have a roommate—I would smoke half-asleep on on my bed, I would smoke while brushing my teeth (I know I could somehow) and I would also find a way to smoke in the shower.
And of course when I went back on the cigs, I punished myself by smoking cheapo Marlboro Reds. After smoking three in a row, I couldn’t feel my legs. My back ached, I felt like I had the flu, all the food in my stomach nearly jetted out of my mouth and I woke up with one of my eyes nearly swollen shut. This didn’t happen in my 20s, but at 35, my body was having an entirely different experience.
So I swore them off.
Four months went by, and I didn’t pick up a cigarette after I woke up with that swollen left eye. By then I was out of Spago, but I had to pick up again, over some dude I was tangled up with. This time, I went back to my Marlboro Lights. Unfortunately, I couldn’t smoke those either. Every cigarette I inhaled sent pain throughout my whole body, and I jittered so bad I couldn’t hold my chef knife or roll out dough properly. Instead of calling it quits, I opted for American Spirits, figuring all those chemical additives may have been what made me feel so ill.
Fortunately, unfortunately—who knows—that did the trick (at least temporarily). I don’t know what the hell they put in those Philip Morris cigarettes—maybe it’s rat poison, maybe it’s feces—but whatever it is, my body could no longer tolerate it. The American Spirits (light blue box, regulars) worked, although I smoked so much so fast I could barely breathe. At my next job, working in the pastry kitchen at a cute farm-to-table joint, I had to sit down mid shift, my breath short and my mind dizzy.
Since then, I’ve tried to quit multiple times, but with no success. I’ve listened to the hypnosis tracks, I’ve chewed the gum, I’ve gone for jogs, I’ve prayed my ass off, but I just can’t seem break the obsession. My throat burns, I’ve got that disgusting cough and have to constantly clear my throat, I stink, my boyfriend berates me nearly every minute, but at this point I don’t know what to do.
I’m glad I’m still sober, and I know I’m still willing. One of these days, I believe, I’m going to quit.