Siren Call of Addiction
Updated: May 25
I smoked my last cigarette on October 3, 2009. Officially, I'd been a smoker for thirty-one years. I started at summer camp for the most pedestrian of reasons - I wanted to be in with the cool girls. Someone offered me a smoke and I took it. Made me sick as a dog but, boy, was I committed to making it work. Who knew being cool could be so easy? I just had to put my mind to it, ignore the nausea and the headaches, and inhale like a bad girl which I kind of was but the cigarettes sealed the deal.
Like all addictions, it was a love/hate relationship. Every time I lit up, I told myself it was my choice. Twenty cigarettes, give or take, a day, every day, for thirty-one years. Breaking it down: that's 11, 315 days x 20 cigarettes a day = 226,300 nails in the coffin. Two hundred thousand little sticks of pure poison. I tried to quit and did, many times, but I always came back to it.
Which begs the question, why? It wasn't like in my parents' day when they just didn't know the health effects of smoking. I mean, doctors recommended smoking for anxiety reduction. Whereas, we had all those horrific photos on cigarette packs of rotting gums, black teeth, and tar-infested lungs so, in full knowledge of the deleterious effects, we picked up the habit anyway.
And, besides, those ads just didn't work. It's an addiction, people. Denial is the name of the game.
Cigarettes weren't the only addiction. For many years, I was embroiled in an unrequited love situation with red wine. At some point, it dawned on me that red wine wasn't as fond of me as I was of it. The light of awareness slowly broke through the fog of denial and I could see red wine for what it was - a sexy and enticing narcissist with whom I thought I was in love. I broke it off a few years ago, was a little sad that it didn't appear to have missed me, and then fully let it go.
What I think is missing in the conversation about addictions, once you get past all the judgement, and shaming, and moralizing, is the profound and complicated emotional attachment we have to them. I was a lonely and lost kid who'd experienced abuse and big losses which began at age five. By the time I was a teenager, I was begging for relief from the constant ache of the damage done. It was either cigarettes or suicide, quite frankly.
Smoking saved my life, if you want to look at it that way. I found friendship and camaraderie. Not just with other smokers but with the cigarettes themselves. Always available, always mine, always just waiting for me to engage. With my pack of smokes, I was never alone, I always had a friend - one whose love and acceptance of me was unconditional and never finger wagging. Cigarettes "got" me and I was grateful for that.
Gabor Mate, the go-to person for all things addictive, says this:
And there it is. At the root of addiction is the need to escape, to not remember, to feel the freedom from emotional and spiritual pain.
The catch-22, of course, is that the solution becomes the problem. Or, another problem. What at first felt like the answer to your prayers quickly became the devil you knew. The pain is still there, lurking. Adopting addictive behaviours is like treating a gushing head wound with a dirty band-aid.
Treating the symptoms of abuse is not the same as treating the debilitating effects of abuse. And until we can sit with that reality, face the painful memories, and move through it, releasing it, the siren call of the cigarette, the needle, the drink, the casino, the internet, will be loud and clear, too enticing to ignore.