Start smoking as a teen like your peers, because it seems rebellious, or cool, or your role models do it, or it’s available, or convenient, or you’re so bloated with angst and teenage self-loathing you have to do something. Or you’re bored. Or because your mom smoked, and though as a child you thought it was disgusting, it now feels familiar.
Or start drinking in earnest in college, and then bum a clove while you’re drunk, and recognize that the little scratch in the back of your throat gives you a thrill because of its self-destructive potential. Or maybe explore everything that you were prohibited from doing as a religious youth: sex, alcohol, tobacco. Just to see what all the fuss is about.
Or maybe you don’t even remember how it started.
Smoke occasionally at bars when you’re drinking, because there are other people out there on the patio doing it that you want to sleep with, or impress, or be as cool as. Buy a pack even though you only want one cigarette, but keep the whole pack, because they’re kind of expensive, so it would be a waste to just throw the rest away. Smoke the rest of the pack, one or two at a time. Just like, when you’re at the bar, or once in a while at night or when you’re driving.
Be out at the bar, and when a friend goes out to smoke, ask to bum one. They’ll say they only have a couple they were saving. Decide that for once you can be the one other people bum off of instead of being a mooch. Don’t plan to smoke the whole pack. Hand a few out to friends. And then buy another pack. When those run out, buy another. Realize that you’ve actually smoked the last couple packs yourself, and cigarettes are kind of expensive.
Start rolling your own to save money. People who roll their own cigarettes are cool.
When the doctor asks if you smoke, tell them “only socially.” When they ask how many packs a day, tell them you roll your own, so you aren’t sure, but it’s not that often. That there are days that you don’t smoke at all. Try to remember the last day you didn’t smoke at all.
Rationalize that you mostly just smoke at night and that it helps you sleep. Or it’s something you do to pass the time on long drives. Or when you’re feeling anxious and want an excuse to go outside for a few minutes and be alone. Or when you’re bored. Or when you drink. Which is every night.
Tell yourself that you’re not like one of those chain smokers, that you can stop whenever you want. Start smoking American Spirits, so it’s like, not even that bad for you because it’s natural, or organic, or something. You forget.
Realize that you haven’t worked out in a long time. Imagine that if you started running again, the positive effect of the exercise on your lungs would essentially counteract the negative impact of smoking. Right? Commit to starting to run again. Don’t worry about when, or make plans, but know that when you start, it’s going to be great.
Think about how much money people waste on buying packs of cigarettes, but that when you buy tobacco and rolling papers you’re really only spending like $20-30 a month. Tell yourself you easily spend more than that on junk food, and you could eat fewer meals out and save that much easily. Commit to eating less junk food. Don’t make a diet plan, though, or any firm commitments.
Tell yourself your drinking is much more problematic than your smoking. That if you’re going to quit anything, it should be that. And speaking of drinking, how much do you spend at the bar every month? On beer? That’s a way bigger threat to your budget than tobacco. And probably your health. Commit to drinking less. Don’t worry about how much less.
Go to the drug store and look at the nicotine gum. There will be the 2mg or the 4mg gum, and the box will say that the way you choose which is by whether you have to have a cigarette within the first 30 minutes after waking up. And you’re not anywhere close to that, so clearly your problem isn’t bad enough to need some kind of intervention like nicotine gum. Tell yourself it hardly even qualifies as a problem, really.
Tell yourself that you don’t have to take smoke breaks at work to function, and if you run out and don’t have a chance to smoke for a whole day it doesn’t cause you severe distress, and you don’t have like, withdrawal symptoms, and isn’t that the definition of addiction? Decide you’ll take a break from tobacco after your next bag is done, just to prove to yourself that you can. Last about three days before buying another bag and more rolling papers. Tell yourself that a smoker who was really addicted wouldn’t be able to even go that long.
Find yourself outside a bar, huddled with a bunch of other miserable losers under an overhang in the pouring rain. Realize your friends are inside, warm, dry, having fun. When you tell them you’re going for a smoke break, you’ll see their faces register the slightest countenance of disappointment. Tell yourself you imagined it. Or maybe you’re projecting. Or maybe the one who’s disappointed is you.
Think about the politics of tobacco consumption. How you’re letting a massive corporation control your behavior and negatively affect your health—but voluntarily. How there’s not much you can do about gentrification, or environmental racism, or being broke and living in a shitty house with mold, and there’s not much you can do about your worsening mental health, or that your friends keep dying. But there’s something you can do about this.
Think about how LGBTQ people are far over-represented among smokers, and the degree to which this could technically be a slow but legal genocide. Consider whether you’re falling into a stereotype: one of your worst fears. Think about all of the menthol cigarette ads featuring smiling Black faces, and how your grandmother died of lung cancer after a life of smoking, and how bad your aunt used to smell as a kid and how you never wanted to visit her. And how unhappy she seemed.
Fret about how you sit out on the fire escape for 30 minutes every night at your girlfriend’s place smoking while she sits inside, alone. And how she said she’d never date a smoker, and how she makes you brush your teeth before you kiss her, and take a shower before sex, because the smell is in your hair. And how she doesn’t say it out loud but you can hear the disappointment and resignation in her voice when you tell her you’re going outside to smoke.
Decide you could try the 2mg gum, since you don’t smoke first thing in the morning. Usually. Fuck up the first time by getting the flavorless gum, which means it’s actually flavored like spoiled milk. Be unsure of when you’re supposed to chew it. Realize you don’t really feel “cravings” because smoking has become so quotidian. Chew the gum throughout the day. Keep this up for less than a week.
Attempt to read Alan Carr’s “The Easy Way To Stop Smoking.” Read the first few chapters. Understand the essential premise of the book: that smoking doesn’t actually do anything for you, that the feeling of relief and brief wash of pseudo-euphoria you feel with that first inhale is false, that it’s really just a self-perpetuating feedback loop because nicotine’s chemical makeup creates and then mitigates its own dependency. Understand that, according to Carr, once you quit you’ll find that you aren’t missing out on anything because smoking never actually did anything for you in the first place.
Read other quitting tips online: don’t hang out with people or do things that you’d normally do when you’d normally smoke, for example. Stop going to bars. Replace smoking with something else you enjoy: reading a book before bed. Remember how much you missed reading. Do things that smoking would normally prevent you from doing, like running again. Realize the “Runner’s High” is so much more exhilarating than those fleeting seconds after your first puff of the day.
Understand that Carr’s logic is airtight. Try to fully internalize this logic and “big brain” your way into quitting.
Get the gum that actually tastes like gum. Keep some in your car so that you can chew it on long drives instead of smoking. Tell your girlfriend that you’re quitting, and to raise a stink if you seem like you’ve smoked before seeing her, and to not let you go out onto the fire escape at night without a minor fracas.
Set yourself a challenge to start reading again. Realize that smoking reminds you of when your depression was at its worst and you could do little else besides sit on the porch and chain smoke for hours between naps. Think of your brother and what addiction did to him. And to his kids.
Realize that spending those hours working on art and writing projects instead of smoking is doing wonders for your mental health. Realize that you survived your suicide attempt but that you’ve been passively killing yourself with tobacco for almost 10 years, and if you genuinely want to live, you have to exorcise this demon too.
Realize the gum starts to taste like freedom.
Tell yourself a week or so later that, since you’re sad, you can have just one smoke, to make yourself feel better, and it won’t be a big deal, since you haven’t smoked in weeks so obviously you’ve kicked the habit.
Realize it doesn’t make you feel better. After the first few puffs, tell yourself that you’ve already failed, so you might as well give up on giving up.
Ask yourself: How did you get here? Has it really been more than 10 years? Realize how bizarre it is that you’re a smoker. That the entire time, you figured it was something temporary, or that you’d get back into shape, or get back to your real life, soon. That you kept telling yourself you’d quit eventually.
Think about how contradictory smoking is to your values. How you were vegan for years, but were also a smoker. How you organized your life around environmental sustainability, and against pollution and waste. That you were riding your bike in the snow in Seattle and 100 miles a week in Oakland and running half marathons. That you gave a speech at UM about sweatshops and fast fashion and recycling and how buying recycled was aligned with Jesus’ message. And you planted a vegetable garden in every house or apartment at which you had the opportunity. And you’d sit next to it and smoke. Realize that, because nature defaults to homeostasis, you eventually gave up the veganism and gardens and the cycling and caring about the Earth or your health or your self.
In favor of smoking.
Hear the voice in your head that tells you you’ve already lost, and effort at this point to change is futile. That the world is so shit you might as well give up. Realize that she’s the voice that haunted you for years during the worst periods of your depression. And that you hate her. And fuck her, she’s a fucking liar. Stop listening to her.
Listen when your therapist reminds you that while it’s OK to not be OK, it’s also OK to be OK. That it’s OK to be a healthy, functional person. That not everything has to be crisis or drama or struggle, that being depressed and non-functional isn’t your identity and it’s not artsy or clever or unique. That it’s not assimilation or selling out to be happy. That self-destruction isn’t actually cool. That the most rebellious, radical thing you can do as a trans woman of color in America is love and take care of yourself and thrive.
Realize that for the first time you can remember you’re kind of excited about the future, that you see yourself growing old, that in fact you can’t wait to get older. Look at the wrinkles around your eyes. They look like promises.
Find a decent doctor. When she asks you about whether you smoke, say yes, and don’t qualify your answer. Tell her you want to quit. When she asks you whether you want to try Chantix, say yes. When she prescribes it, she’ll say that you need to pick a start date. Pick one as soon as possible.
Decide you genuinely want to be happy again, like you were before you started smoking. When you were a teen. Decide that you’re ready.
Start taking Chantix. Twice a day. Decide you’ll genuinely keep up with this, and all your meds, for the first time. Realize that Chantix is like magic and that you don’t even want to smoke anymore. Wonder whether it’s really the Chantix, or that you’re just finally ready.
Feel like a new person after you’ve been smoke-free for a month. Buy running shoes and start running again. Take genuine pleasure in the fact that you don’t have to go out on the fire escape anymore, or brush your teeth before kissing your girlfriend. Notice her quiet pride that you’ve finally quit.
Think about how easy it’s seemed. Find it hard to believe that it took 13 years.
Take your progress for granted. When it’s been, like, six weeks smoke-free—the longest you’ve gone without smoking since you were 20 years old—the enthusiasm will die down. Everyone will already know you’ve quit, so you won’t get the motivational flashes of pride from your peers. Get really stressed out about work, and tell yourself that you’ve earned just one little smoke. That it’ll relax you.
It will taste terrible and make you sick. Feel like a failure. Like an asshole. Like a loser. Like it was all a waste of effort. Wonder if you’re going to be a smoker for the rest of your life and die at 60 like so many other Black people, queer people, trans people.
Relapse at least one more time. Maybe for a week. Maybe for three months. Don’t give up.
Keep swallowing down those magic pills. Keep replacing smoking with something else. Even if it’s watching YouTube and doing nothing productive and gritting your teeth and making fists over and over: it’s still better. The Chantix won’t feel like magic anymore. The cravings will return. Recognize that this is literally one of the hardest things you’ve ever done and one of the most important. That having a hard time quitting doesn’t mean you’re weak.
Remember that line from The Brothers Karamasov:
“Is such a man free? I knew of one ‘fighter for an idea’ who told me himself that when he was deprived of tobacco in prison, he was so tormented by this deprivation that he almost went and betrayed his ‘idea,’ just so that they would give him some tobacco. And such a man says: ‘I am going to fight for mankind.’ Well, how far will such a man get, and what is he good for?”
Remember that you are a fighter for humanity. That above everything else, your highest, most important value is freedom. Remember that in your youth, you were in bondage to the drug and alcohol addictions and mental health crises of your family members. In your adolescence, by the debilitating strictures of gender roles. In your adulthood, the ravages of mental illness. That you haven’t been free since you were a child. That this is your chance to get there, finally. That you’ve long fought for queer, trans, racial, economic liberation—for others. But this is your chance to free yourself.
Realize that this will be your burden to carry for potentially the rest of your life—but that it’s worth it. After a few months “clean,” you’ll realize that you’ve happily forgotten what it was like to be a smoker. That it seems so foreign. That you’re ready to stop taking the pills, because the habit has been broken.
Keep celebrating each monthly milestone. When you relapse, take it in stride: you are not your minor failures, you are your minor—and major—successes.
Realize that freedom is in your grasp. That you can do this. That you are strong, and beautiful, and powerful, and you’re bigger than this. That you have overcome worse things, and you will overcome worse things. Recognize that you have an opportunity, right now, to transcend all of the bullshit cards you’ve been dealt. That you’re finally taking control of your own life, and that you’re succeeding. That you’re proud of yourself.
Look at your own face in the mirror and cry because you’re happy with the look of your own face, and you’d forgotten what that felt like. And that you’re free.