American Culture

The noxious weed smelled good…

Have you ever stumbled into a situation where something made you crave your long forgotten bad habit or addiction again, just one more time? You’d repeatedly proven yourself stronger than your old needs or patterns and were no longer even tempted. But then, perhaps because of the phase of the moon and the alignment of the planets, you found yourself suddenly and unexpectedly thrust back to the threshold of that need?

That happened to me earlier this week. For the first time in 14 years, I smelled cigarette smoke and it smelled good….

Now, I was never seriously addicted to nicotine like so many of my family and friends have been at one point or another. I smoked 3-4 cigs a week for two months, stolen from my mother and my neighbor’s emergency stash. As an outsider, I wanted to be cool and hang with someone – anyone – who would let me hang around. In my junior high school, the stoners in my school were less off-putting than anyone else outside my geek clique. I didn’t need the stoners’ respect, but I was tired of being targeted because I was smart, took geeky classes like drafting, and played trumpet in the band and orchestra. And smoking cigarettes was the rite of passage.

But I quit after only two months because an opportunity to get something I craved more than belonging came along – track season. And by God I wanted the respect of the jocks that came with being willing to compete, even if it meant losing all the time. This was especially true after the popular kids dropped out because they couldn’t handle the pain or weren’t willing to come in last. In fact, the jocks who I so desperately wanted to like me, or at least to respect me, came to hold nothing but disdain for the popular kids who whined and quit after less than a week. That disdain for the quitters morphed into respect for anyone who at least stuck it out, and somehow I got the feeling that some of them were amazed that I would step out onto the track every meet and run my legs off even knowing that I was going to come in dead last every time.

But after smoking even that those few cigs for two months, when I first started running that season, I couldn’t breathe. It felt like my lungs were collapsing in my chest, that my heart would explode, that my eyes would pop out of their sockets as I pushed myself to run without oxygen. And so I quit cold-turkey one morning, told my stoner “friends” that I couldn’t smoke and run track at the same time, and found myself mostly alone again – except for the other stoner baseball player who also quit a couple of months later for the same reason.

I didn’t feel the need for a cig again until I was a junior in college. I’d turned 21 and was at a club when everyone around me was lighting up. I’d noticed that the smell of cigarette smoke always lingering in the clubs had, over the months since turning 21, stopped bothering me and was even slightly appealing. And so I asked to take a drag. It was like coming home – and like being a naughty teenager all over again. I bummed one whole cig from someone at the table, sucked down beer and smoked, and then it was last call and time to head back to my dorm.

When the bite of the early spring, late night central Pennsylvania air hit my lungs that early Saturday morning, I could barely breathe again. And I felt that way all that weekend long. My roommate Jeff smiled and would only repeat “That’ll learn ya.” No shit. And I haven’t craved a cig since.

Until a couple of days ago, that is.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the smell of uncharred tobacco. Pipe tobacco reminds me of my dad smoking his pipe before he quit, and to this day I occasionally want to open up a humidor just to snnnnniiiiifffffffffffff in the luxurious smell. But cigarettes? Unless I’m the one doing the smoking, it smells like ash and road grime. The smell permeates everything – furniture, clothing, cars, even the walls. And at this point, if I ever actually took up smoking again, I’d have to be prepared to lose my wife and both of my kids in the process – too much asthma and allergies in the family for a smoker to coexist in the same family day in, day out. Hell, tobacco smoke makes me sneeze in even low concentrations (low as in “barely visible”), and I know that it wouldn’t do my blood pressure any good. All perfectly rational, good reasons to avoid cigarettes.

So why the hell did the fumes from burning sticks of this noxious weed make me want it? I’ve lost friends and family to cancer related to smoking. I expect that cigs will eventually kill more of my friends and family, cutting short their time with my family and I, and it saddens me profoundly. Smoking is one of the few things that bothers me enough to overcome my generally libertarian views on drug policy. And yet. And yet.

It still smelled good for a fleeting moment.

There has to be a reason or two that my own body and mind would betray me in this way. I’m hardly an expert, but I think there are two reasons. The first reason is largely psychological. I think that the smoke reminds me at a deep psychological level of what it was like when I was young and my parents scared away the mummies who were chasing me in my dreams. I was comfortable and safe, and I think that part of my unconscious associates the smell of tobacco smoke with those feelings.

The second reason is neurological. I was 15 when I smoked for the first time, and articles that I’ve read over the years have said that the brain is undergoing massive restructuring at that age. Which is why kids who start smoking tend to stay smokers for the rest of their lives – their developing brains get biologically dependent on the nicotine and can’t function as well without it. And there’s evidence that male brains are still developing into the early twenties, when I smoked my last cigarette. In other words, I think I bookended both sides of my brain’s development with nicotine.

The fact that I never got seriously hooked means that I either had a lot of willpower, I got lucky, or both. But merely walking by three people smoking cigs in a parking lot sent me back to a place I thought I’d left behind me 14 years. If that can happen to me, I’m not sure I can even imagine how hard it must be for people who have suffered from and overcame actual addictions.

5 replies »

  1. Well, I overcame a two-pack-a-day, six-year addiction, and it was the toughest thing I have EVER done. But cigarette smoke irritates me, now. I have, on occasion, had a minor craving for a cigarette, but that’s usually at some restful time after a hard day when I’m looking out over mountain scenery, and I remember how good it felt to suck that smoke into my lungs and let it out … sloooooowly. The nicotine is relaxing.

    But it’s the feeling I want, and not the cigarette, itself. I know that, until I got used to it, the cigarette would taste like burning leaves (fancy that) and the smoke would make me first feel high, then would give me a headache and clogged sinuses. Smoke enough of them, though, and you can no longer taste or feel that stuff.

    Basically, I no longer want to be near cigarette smoke of any kind. And it sure doesn’t make me want to smoke again when I do smell it. On the contrary, it reminds me of what a terrible, awful thing cigarette smoking is.

    This was a really wonderful piece, Brian. Thanks for posting it.

  2. I can’t say I’ve ever had any need to smoke. Probably for the same reason you quit in junior high. Track & cross country. I was actually pretty good at it, so maybe I had a stronger need to keep my lungs healthy? I don’t know.

    It can’t just be genetic, either. I have a brother and aunt who smoke. Hell, my aunt still smokes even though the docs have already removed a tumor from one of her lungs. My grandmother smoked, too, and ended up on a respirator before she died. So if there’s a family of genes linked to nicotine addiction, I probably have several of ’em.

    I do understand the yearning for a scent, though. I, too, like the smell of pipe tobacco. Just as long as I’m outside and there’s enough wind to blow it away when it gets annoying. In certain situations and in extreme moderation, there are some cases where cigarette smoke actually smells good…although, I think its more the match and the burning paper, for me, than the tobacco. Doesn’t happen often, though. Mostly, it just gives me a head ache.

  3. I’ve never even tried a cigarette, and I was one of the people who though NY State needed to let business choose for them selves whether or not smoking should be permitted inside. I have to say i was 100% wrong on that one. I am appalled if I go into one of the few bars/casinos that don’t follow or somehow get around the smoking ban. I will say one thing. The NY state anti smoking commercials need to go. I understand what smoking does. I don’t need to see the inside of a cancerous lung while I’m eating.

  4. Great post.

    Although I loathe the smell of and/or smoking tobacco in any form, I do respect “Smokers Rights.” The government just needs to stay out of this one and let the free market make the decision.


  5. Electronic Cigarettes. Nicotine dispenser without the toxic smoke.

    Smoked for 18 years, up to 3 packs a day when I was in Guam with a broken foot.. mostly a pack a day, every day, for 18 years. Quit because the lingering smells and clogged sinuses and “down” feeling that went with the toxins, lack of tastes from foods, etc etc.

    Now I might [willfully] take up nicotine again, in a non-toxic, non-carcinogenic form. I like nicotine, I liked smoking, I just didn’t like the toxic aspects. After doing some preliminary research on nicotine, it seems that drug is mostly harmless (if not very addicting, but being 5 years clean with basically no effort seems that once you’re past the initial stages of withdrawal, it’s not that hard to not put poison in your lungs). It can even be beneficial in some contexts (higher metabolism, stabilizing effect on blood glucose levels, calming, helps maintain focus, etc), so if more searching finds that there are no “negative” effects of nicotine, why not use it?

    mmmmm… dopamine.

    You only get one life, shouldn’t you maximize your enjoyment in non-destructive ways?