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Last year I moved to Korea with the goal of improving my health. I quit drinking, got LASIK, improved my diet, got a gym membership to lift in and out of my wallet to gain strength in my fingers, and made the adult decision to finally, after twelve years, quit smoking. This is how that went: (originally published in Human Parts)
Dr. Lee is a startling woman. If I stood in the middle of a field with my mother on one end (a smile and open arms) and Dr. Lee on the other (rolled-up newspapers in each hand), and they both said, “Come here, boy,” without a second’s delay I’d bound my way over to Dr. Lee. Not for safety, not for comfort or health, and certainly not for a good ear-scratching. I’d do it out of pure, primal fucking fear. So when she told me it was time for me to quit smoking, I had a horrible realization: I was going to have to ghost my doctor.
I’d tried to quit smoking only once in 12 years. I went to a hypnotist, and he told us it was okay to fall asleep, so I did. I lasted two days before I dug a half-smoked cigarette out of the ashtray of a Papa John’s.
It was the best goddamn cigarette I’ve ever had.
When Dr. Lee told me to quit smoking, she didn’t blink. She never blinks. She looks at you like she’s daring you to run. “Do you have eye drops?” I asked.
“No.” She held my gaze across the office. It was such a tiny office.
“Ah, okay, I just had LASIK, so my eyes are, like — ”
“Your eyes are dry because you smoke.”
“You need to quit smoking.”
“Hm. Well.” I tried to focus on something other than her eyes. Her nose was flat. No moles or discolored patches. She wore no earrings, no makeup, no necklace, nothing. Even her hair was pulled back so far that you had no choice but to stare into those relentless eyes.
“I don’t know if I’m ready,” I said.`
“You’re ready.” She turned to her computer and started typing, fast and brutal. I looked at the keyboard and saw that seven or eight letters had been stripped away. I doubt she noticed. She never looked down.
“I’ve been smoking a pack a day for 12 years,” I muttered. She knew this already, but I hoped it might elicit some sympathy.
“Hm,” she said.
I waited in silence while she typed, cringing as the keys broke down beneath her hard fingers.
“I’m prescribing you Chantix,” she said. “It might make you vomit, and your dreams will feel real.” She held out a slip of paper and, well, she didn’t smile, exactly, but she lifted the corners of her lips at both ends and showed me her teeth.
I took the paper and ran.
The truth is, I love cigarettes. I love everything about them: the smell, the taste, the way they hold you at night, run their fingers through your hair, and tell you the world doesn’t really mean it. Chantix took this from me. It bit a chunk out of my brain and replaced it with wet sawdust.
The best part turned out to be the dreams. When I shut my eyes at night, whole new worlds emerged — dystopias, mostly. They were postapocalyptic scenes— crushed cities, dirty and overcrowded train stations, walls, armed guards. In one, I was a camp counselor in an arctic outpost protecting children from polar bears. I failed. In another, my brother was driving us somewhere. We crashed into a tree. When I stumbled into the woods, there were people around fires, selling rusty wares and coughing a lot. There was a tunnel, and it was cold. In another, I was searching for my best friend at a party in a room with no windows and no exit. There was a couch, a nice leather one, but no friend. Never found him. The dreams were all dark, all lonely, all full of loss and panic, and no one ever blinked.
I was back in Dr. Lee’s office a week later. I said, “I don’t want to quit.” I meant to sound firm, like my father telling me to pick up my room. I failed.
“I’m going to up your dosage,” she said. She turned her attention to her computer. Three or four new blank keys had appeared. There was no F. No U, either. I had a vision of Dr. Lee alone in her office typing Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! over and over. It made me feel a bit better. But then I noticed the C was still intact. I wondered how she dealt with stress. How did anybody?
“How do normal people deal with stress?” I asked. She paused her typing to listen but still didn’t look at me. “Like,” I continued, “I don’t know what do to when I am frustrated or stressed or angry or sad or anxious — not to mention hungry, full, happy, tired. How do normal people handle problems? Like life and stuff? And when I’m around people and need to escape, what am I supposed to do? I can’t just be that weird guy who goes outside and stares at their hands. People understand when you’re a smoker — better to be a smoker than that guy, you know? What do I do?”
Dr. Lee spun gently in her chair. Her face softened — or she was defeating a yawn. I thought she might try to place a hand on my leg. I flinched. “Cigarettes are your best friend, aren’t they?” she asked.
I thought about the man I call my best friend — a wonderful man, someone I would do anything for and who would do anything for me, a companion with whom to have endless fun, a man I could confide my deepest secrets to and instill all my trust in. A man I truly love.
“No,” I told Dr. Lee.
“It’s okay, I know.” She leaned forward and again I flinched, but she just said, “They are always there for you, right?”
“And they take care of you?”
“They won’t ever abandon you. They’re safe.”
“It’s okay.” She had leaned so close that her voice went soft like she was trying to put me to sleep. “They are your best friend, aren’t they?” she whispered.
His name is Jon, my best friend. He has red hair and can drink a Guinness like nothing you’ve ever seen. I looked into her eyes. I saw the upper part of her eyelids slide down just a hair. Maybe she could blink after all.
“Yes,” I admitted. “They are my best friend.”
She might have cooed gently, or just sucked air in through her front teeth, before saying, “And I’m telling you that you can’t see your best friend anymore, huh?”
I felt a deep sigh well up in my chest. I let it out with a relenting “Mmmmmm.”
Dr. Lee snapped back into a straight-seated position. Her eyes were violent little black-and-white disks.
“They are a bad friend!” she snapped. She turned back to her computer, and I sank in my chair. “They are a bad friend; they want nothing but bad things for you — they are killing you.”
She had tricked me. My reflexes were slowed by the stress.
I walked out of her office with a prescription doubling my dose of Chantix and one for anti-anxiety medication.
“For when you miss your friend too much,” she had said.
I started to ask people how they managed their stress without cigarettes. I don’t know how they felt about this. Probably not good. But I was desperate. Two weeks on Chantix means the nicotine receptors in my brain were thoroughly smothered. The anti-anxiety medicine wasn’t doing much. The most common advice I received was: masturbate. Instead, I ate four pounds of Smokehouse almonds.
There was no denying that Chantix did its job. It took me down to five cigarettes a day, and even those didn’t feel right, like calling an ex-girlfriend late at night and getting yelled at by her new boyfriend.
I tried to masturbate, but it didn’t work. Trying to masturbate when I didn’t want to felt too much like trying to smoke on Chantix. It made me sad. The night before I was supposed to go back to Dr. Lee, I dropped my last dose of Chantix. It was an accident, really. But it rolled under the table, and that was, like, really far.
That night I had an even stranger dream. I wasn’t myself — I was just some guy who lived in a rustic old beach house who was having a family party. Then a bunch of goth teenagers showed up. They lounged on the veranda, smoking cigarettes and making fun of me for being so lame. That dream guy was lame — not me. He drank excellent wine and laughed really, really loudly. I drink Budweiser and then test my sobriety by trying to blow musical notes into the empty lip of the bottle.
When I woke up, I found my last Chantix on the floor beside the table. I threw it away. I knew it was the last Chantix I’d ever see. On my way to the clinic, I smoked and loaded my revolver of arguments. The same arguments I’d been using for years on friends, family, concerned doctors, rude strangers:
1. You can’t quit unless you really want to, and I don’t want to.
2. According to this online survey I found, smoking takes nine years off your life, while being unhappy takes five years off your life. I am okay losing those four years.
3. I’ve got excellent genes. My family smoked for decades, and everyone is still doing well. It’s all about the genes, really.
4. I’m going to start using the electronic cigarette more. It’s better, you know.
5. I’ve still got five to 10 years before the damage really starts.
6. I know the Chantix works, so when the time comes, I know I’ll be able to do it.
I sat across from Dr. Lee. I hadn’t said anything, but she knew. I couldn’t look at her. At least 15 of the keys on her keyboard were now blank. The C was among them. Then, just to break the silence, I said it anyway: “I can’t do it. I love them too much.” I started collecting my defenses while I waited for her response.
When she spoke, she didn’t argue, didn’t reprimand, didn’t deny me my choice. She only said, “You are going to die.”
Wonderful essay, on so many levels. I've always loved your work, but these days I'm also appreciating the work behind the work.
(I'm eyeing my nicotine tic tacs and a vape pen, wondering if maybe there is a longish butt in the trash.)