Smokeless in art school
Health scare campaigns and the rising cost of cigarettes: These tactics seem to have limited impact on smokers, young and old, pack-a-day devotees or attempted quitters. More personal, nuanced tactics may need to be mobilized, in order to tackle the ambivalent relationship many smokers have with their habit.
In Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Sifting the Ashes,” the author described his repeated attempts to kick the habit. Franzen’s disgust at his engagement with such a senseless activity is palpable, and he convinces the reader of the profound foulness of smoking. But his hatred for cigarettes is hypocritical, it functions simultaneously with his unshakable infatuation with cigarettes. He recognizes this weakness in himself: he still finds it incredibly sexy to see a woman leaning out her apartment window, taking a long, smooth inhalation of her cigarette: “I fell in love at first sight as she stood there,” wrote Franzen, “both inside and outside, inhaling contradiction and breathing out ambivalence.”
It almost goes without saying that the act of smoking is closely associated with socialization, with boredom, with making days bearable, with alcohol and, of course, with sex. You’ve heard it all before: asking for “a light” is the ideal, unassuming way of striking up a conversation, an icebreaker, an instant bond. Then you move on to discuss your collective inability to quit. Before you know it, you’re lovers. (Albeit, lovers with sizeable debts from mounting health bills.)
Talking about quitting smoking with someone who has never smoked, on the other hand, is no fun at all: they simply don’t understand its seemingly insurmountable draw. For those who genuinely wish to quit, perhaps there we can find some middle ground, beyond the behavioral reinforcement of smoky hook-ups, and the tut-tutting of smoke-free preachers. More useful conversations can be had with people who are former smokers: those who understand the perplexing challenges of quitting.
F Newsmagazine presents three very different accounts —one from a student and two from SAIC faculty—about successful attempts to overcome nicotine addiction.
1. Quit and stay quit
When I was in art school [at SAIC] I smoked two packs of cigarettes per day. Even though I felt awful much of the time, I couldn’t imagine life without smoking. Everyone smoked in those days, even in the painting and printmaking studios.
Over the years I tried to cut back, I tried switching brands, but continued to smoke like a chimney. When I was twenty-nine I had to have my gall bladder removed. After the operation, as I faded in and out of consciousness, I found I couldn’t catch my breath. I heard the doctors remark that I was a heavy smoker.
The combination of that scare, and the enforced nicotine withdrawal from my hospital stay, gave me a golden opportunity to quit for good. It was my seventeenth and final attempt to do so, and this time, it worked. I haven’t had a puff of cigarette smoke since January 1994.
The first two years without cigarettes were the hardest. I bought hundreds of boxes of toothpicks to gnaw on and carried gum and sunflower seeds with me. Gradually I found I didn’t need these anymore, but to this day if I’m nervous about something I will often reach for a toothpick to chew.
In the long run, quitting is the easy part—staying quit is the challenge. After fourteen years I’m still painfully aware of how easily I could slip. Nicotine is a fiercely addictive drug and I’ve never completely lost my cravings. But having watched loved ones struggle with and die from cancer and emphysema, I feel extremely grateful to have succeeded. I have tremendous compassion for smokers trying to quit. If you really want to do so, you can.
Steven L. Jones
First Year Program
2. Quit at the gym
I smoked for five years, from when I was fifteen to twenty years old. On New Years Eve of 2003, after many undisciplined attempts to defeat my pointless desire to achieve social status through toxic inhalation, I made a New Year’s resolution to quit.
During the time I smoked I was unfit, frequently sick, asthmatic, and probably smelled bad. My friends were all the same, so I thought this was normal. We had yellowed fingers and collective coughs. We joked about cancer. The memory seems absurd now. JOKED? About cancer?
Nowadays, when I see students standing outside of the School’s buildings—lighting up, looking edgy, and loitering splendidly—I don’t think of them with any particular distaste or judgment. Rather, I see myself; I understand them. But beyond that moment of nostalgic recognition comes a major realization: seeing these smokers, I am reminded of how much I have improved as a person since quitting smoking. I have emerged into a stronger, more intelligent, more productive, healthier, and nicer smelling individual. Truly, it’s quite horrendous how wholesome I’ve become.
Here’s the catch: for me, as for many others, quitting smoking required developing a new image-related, selfish addiction. I became a gym junkie. The first time I ran on a treadmill was in early January 2004, shortly after my resolution to quit. The machine seemed alien and threatening, a conveyor belt of horror, and after five minutes I thought I was going to die. I gasped desperately and clutched for my inhaler. I’m only twenty, I thought. This is ridiculous.
I got better at running. As I improved, I had less and less desire to smoke, because I knew that my late-night, inebriated “do you have a spare cigarette?” would cause exercise to hurt again, and all I wanted to do was to make that pain go away. Instead of having control of my “don’t give a damn” art school image—through smoking—I discovered another form of control, control over my body.
If this article were to have a sequel, I would tell you all about the perils of exercise addiction, but now is not the time. If you’re looking for a replacement addiction, exercise is a useful one, because you can’t properly exercise and be a smoker, without a great deal of discomfort. One activity cancels out the other.
Five years on, smoking now seems about as undesirable as licking a Chicago sidewalk.
Second year MFA Painting
3. Quit by hypnosis
Smoking used to be my second job. I was notorious. Worse, the damn things insinuated themselves into my writing process so I thought I had to light up to float a necessary distance and see properly what I’d done. This foolishness went on long past twenty years. With, of course, nine months off to have one natural childbirth.
Then, on April 18, 2000, I got hypnotized. Yes, she wore a lab coat. True, in addition to serving as its Director, she likely represented the entire staff, clinical and clerical, of the Hypnosis Institute. Also true: although she claimed Long Island as birthplace, her aspect and manner of speech suggested Mars. But a person twenty years into addiction checks irony and humor at the door. That’s my tip: Arrive to a hypnosis session suitably desperate.
Also, I really think this woman was a genuine healer. My overnight quit caused such sensation here at SAIC that throngs of students and colleagues visited her successfully for quitting smokes or for creative anxiety or for weight loss or for matters simply too delicate to mention.
According to one of those online quit-counter thingies, since April 18, 2000, 5:30 p.m., I’ve skipped 124,637 cigarettes and saved $24,927.40. I’ve also experienced much joy. And breath.
How to Quit
1. No smoking.
2. Really, don’t smoke any cigarettes at all.
3. Don’t buy them either.
4. If you accidentally bought some, just don’t light any.
5. Stop going to convenience stores.
6. And bars.
7. With your friends. No more friends. Especially if they smoke. Or drink.
8. No drinking for you, either.
9. In fact no looking cool, sophisticated, or “alive with pleasure” anymore, at all.
10. Stop being a teenager, sullen writer, private eye, motorcycle gang coordinator, haggard bar fly, art school student, post-coital bed fellow, rebel, silver screen starlet, European, man or woman.
11. Or cowboy or camel. You can’t be those either.
12. See how easy this is?
13. OK. How about this: Help enact an indoor smoking ban.
14. In Antarctica.
15. Where you had to move. Because you can’t smoke outside, you see. It’s too cold.
16. And you might die.
1st year MFA Writing