After this writer lost both her parents before they turned 60, her two-decade chain-smoking habit seemed less like a coping mechanism and more like a death wish.
If I had known how awful the effects of smoking are—the headaches; the wrinkles; that guilty feeling when you’re the only smoker at a social event; the sneers and fake coughs of righteous non-smokers who you hate but also know are right; how the smell sticks like a horrible cologne to your clothes, your hair, the walls, everything; the fear that every canker sore, every irritated taste bud is cancer; how I would still dream of smoking years after I quit—I would never, ever have had my first drag. But I was 11, so what did I know.
My older and cooler 13-year old friend bummed a cigarette from a guy walking out of a 7-Eleven who happily handed her one, unconcerned with the obvious fact that she was a child. Ahhh, the pre-Bloomberg era was great! She lit it and offered me a drag. It was an Afterschool Special moment. She even said “You don’t have to if you don’t want to” but I wanted to. I was scared we’d get into trouble—not scared I’d become addicted. I took a drag and I was a natural! I didn’t cough once. I just inhaled the smoke and exhaled the feeling of being a total badass. Smoking was cool and grown up and now, so was I!
But then, I actually did grow up and I smoked the whole time, heavily. At least one pack a day and certainly more if I were drinking. I worried I was headed down the wrong path. I’ve always wanted to be one of those women who live in her yoga pants, opting for green tea instead of coffee, Zen-fully wandering through life working part-time at a community garden or a quaint storefront selling organic, fair-trade jewelry. But instead, I chainsmoked cigarettes, hustled for “gigs” in entertainment, hung out with comics and actors and drank whiskey, occasionally opting for a slice of late-night pizza. And I was always wanting to lose ten pounds.
My parents provided me with all the necessities—food, water, shelter— but less so, guidance and an acknowledgment that I was doing things a kid probably shouldn’t, so it was easy for me to keep up the charade that I didn’t smoke, even as I reeked of cigarettes. I hid my smoking from them for years. I washed my hands after every cigarette, popped breath mints like potato chips, and spritzed perfume on my hair, my clothes, anything that could be used as evidence. They didn’t want to know and I didn’t want a lecture or worse—to actually get caught and forced to stop. The only time I lit up in front of my mom, I was 24. I was crying and stressed, transitioning between jobs. We were in my car, which already smelled like cigarettes and I just announced that I couldn’t take it and I was going to have a cigarette and yes, I smoke! She just said, “Well, roll down the window and never do it in front of your grandmother.”
My mother used to tell me she was grateful I’d inherited my father’s genes because unlike her, he was mostly in shape. But when she would say that, I would wince inside, knowing my father’s struggles with alcohol and smoking and everything fun I liked to do. Those were the options for my future: obesity or alcoholism. I was tired of being careless with my body. Even at the young age of 31, I’d already been a smoker for 20 years. Sure, I’d quit a few times for a day, three days, a week, one month but I’d always come back to it. If I messed up and had a cigarette, I never thought, Oh, well. I’ll climb back on that horse tomorrow. Instead, I said to myself, Looks like I’m a smoker again! but I was always relieved to return to my crutch. I wanted to quit for my 30th birthday but a few days after, my mom went into the hospital and I was way too stressed to stop. She died two weeks later, ultimately from heart failure, but really she’d been struggling for a long time with a number of health problems. Years earlier, she’d had gastric bypass surgery to lose weight, and then slowly developed osteoporosis. Eventually, she needed back surgery but her type-2 diabetes made it impossible to heal. She had so many accidents, falling down and hurting her hip or her back. The doctors said her body was like that of an 80-year-old. She stopped taking all of her medications, put on a DNR bracelet, and waited for her body to run its course. She never changed her diet. She never lifted a dumbbell. It only took 24 hours for her to pass. She was 59 years old.
My dad died when he was 43—I was 16 years old. My parents had been divorced for years. He’d have long stretches of sobriety, then he’d relapse. Just like every addict does, he’d enjoy his relapses; stretch them out as long as possible, even for years. This time, my dad wanted to take his relapse on vacation, so he and his new girlfriend went on a trip to Mexico. They were having fun, I’m sure, drinking, smoking, living it up on the beach but then, just like that, he drowned. A surfer swam his body ashore and he died drunk on the sand.
So the best advice in life I’d received—yes, go to college and here, this is called a salad—came not from my parents, but from my friends. Voltaire was my newest friend. We met in California working a job conducting marketing surveys at a baseball game, a job we both felt fell beneath our true talents. I was sure I’d be a famous actress and Voltaire was an entrepreneur. He often waxed philosophic, too, so his name suited him. We were “paying our dues.” He didn’t have a car so I would pick him up and drive him to work in exchange for personal-training sessions. I’d been venting to him about the sight of my thighs in shorts, part of our uniform, when he suggested we workout together. Crap. Didn’t he know if he we put energy toward our goals we might actually achieve them?
Gas prices were on the rise, but I was getting the better bargain, except for one thing. I didn’t want to get out of bed at 6 a.m. to go running, lunging, or be in any kind of scenario that involved push-ups, sit-ups, or something called a burpie. But a deal’s a deal! I never break promises.
“Great!” I said, dropping Voltaire off at his place. “Tomorrow morning, 7 a.m. at the track. I’ll see you there!” I feigned enthusiasm. But the next morning, I did it. I peeled my hungover body out of bed and met Voltaire on the track at the USC campus.
“We’re going to run a mile,” he said, “to warm up.” I braced myself and started to stretch.
“That’s four laps around the track, plus we’re going to run up and down the stairs. Then, we’ll do your abs.”
Voltaire and I got to the starting line. I’d only ever seen this view in movies. The silver bleachers, the bright, white lines painted on the red polyurethane.
“1-2-3 … GO!”
We started running. I hadn’t ran a mile since they made you do it in elementary school. Even then, I think I walked the last lap. But now—we were flying.
Voltaire and I began to meet three or four times a week to work out. We became good friends and good accountability buddies. He told me about things he’d given up in order to achieve his goals: dating, unnecessary spending, fast food. I told him the things I would never give up: dating, unnecessary spending, and at the very least, pizza. We would discuss politics, race, religion, sex, entertainment and pop culture—all while doing sets of sit-ups on the incline bench. He called our time together “church.” Neither of us was religious, though we’d both had brushes with Pentecostal churches in our youth. As a young girl, watching worshipers roll on the floor and speak in tongues fueled my nightmares for weeks at a time. My whole family was relieved when the spiritual aspects of Alcoholics Anonymous became enough for my father and we could stop attending church services on Sunday mornings and retrun to our cartoons. Voltaire and I would joke about the TV Evangelists who claimed to exorcise demons out of people.
“I command you demon, GET OUT!”
I was beginning to really enjoy running at the track. I never regretted exercising the way I would regret a night of bad food and drinking too much. In fact, working out was helping me drink less and eat better. I was getting closer to my dream of being a green-tea drinking, yoga-pants-wearing girl! Except, the smoking. I still sucked ‘em down one after another, sometimes even before meeting Voltaire in the mornings. And I felt guilty. So, so guilty. Every cigarette I smoked felt like a promise to myself NOT to be the best person I could be. They began to represent my insecurities. Why was I still single? Why was I not further in my career? I knew that smoking was not one hundred percent to blame for all my problems or unachieved dreams but it didn’t help my confidence either. I started to actually want to quit and it felt very scary.
One day Voltaire asked me if I had a heart condition.
“No,” I said. “Why?” But I knew why, I was always out of breath! Even though I was seeing positive results from our workouts, my nights of whiskey guzzling and puffing down cigarette after cigarette were preventing me from improving—getting faster, getting stronger. I hated to do it but I had to confess. Voltaire was the reverend of this assembly of two and even though I was so embarrassed that something so small—a little, stupid cigarette—could have such a strong hold on me, I had to surrender to my higher power. Voltaire was that deity.
Finally, a few months later, I quit. I wanted to wait until New Year’s to make quitting smoking my resolution, plus that bought the addict in me more time with my beloved cigarettes but I was starting to hate it and hate myself so much for doing it, that I just quit on Thanksgiving. I thought, at least every year that I don’t smoke, I’ll remember that I’m thankful for deep breathing and fresh breath, kissing without needing a mint, more money in my pocket, less stressful social situations, hair that smells like shampoo! But it wasn’t easy. I cried A LOT, hard, for about a year. I cried when I was alone in my car. I cried watching TV on my couch. I cried with Voltaire at our church, down at the track. Young athletes and college students whizzed past me, a sobbing jogger, schlepping along in the slow lane. I cried for everything sad or beautiful that I had ever felt or seen. My mother, my loving mother—how sad she seemed at the end of her life, so disappointed by it all, coming in and out of consciousness while the morphine managed her pain. She looked helpless in her hospital bed, almost childlike, unable to connect all of her life choices that had lead to that very moment. I cried for my dad—how his own parents were so cruel to him, calling him stupid and useless when he was just a boy. I cried because Voltaire was kind. He believed in me, in anyone with conviction and determination. When we would run and I wanted to give up, he would ask me, “What are your demons telling you, Amber? What do they say?” I would laugh and tell him they say it’s hard, that I should stop, that it hurts. Then miraculously, I would cross the finish line, lap four completed. Except it wasn’t a miracle, it was me.
“See?” Voltaire would say. “Those demons? They are liars.”
We would walk one lap to cool down and catch our breath, my breath that was now normal, my lungs healing. I’d think about my parents, how I’d broken this cycle of addiction and abuse. I imagine that they are proud of me, cheering me on from the bleachers. My mom with a bucket of popcorn, my dad smoking, drinking a beer.
“We love you!” they’d cheer. “Keep going!”
I continue to run, jog up steps, lunge, leap and be strong but I still prefer coffee over tea, jeans over yoga pants, and sometimes even a nice whiskey on the rocks.
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