To smoke, or not to smoke

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It’s been more than nine months since I smoked my last cigarette.

Your body goes through some pretty extreme changes in the months after you quit. It’s like a phlegm-filled puberty with the shakes and 100 percent more anger.

Everyone says that the first thing that returns is your sense of smell followed closely by your sense of taste. I’ve even stopped coughing up strange things and I can once again hit the high notes in R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix).”

What no one ever tells you is that your sense of social superiority returns just as fast. It was a matter of days before I stood next to a friend who blazed up an American Spirit. “You should really quit. It’s SO not good for you,” I said, not realizing that I sounded like a smug jerkface.

Smugness. I missed that. You forget the power you have over people, forcing them into the terrible winter to enjoy their disgusting habit. Then there’s that feeling of giving them the stink eye when they blow smoke in your general direction. “HELLO! Non-smokers over here.”

Feeling superior isn’t the only reason I decided to quit.

A friend once suggested that women find smoking unattractive. If I wanted to meet “the ladies,” she said I needed to stop. What this well-meaning friend failed to take into account is the unavoidable post-smoking weight gain which would have me break even in the disgusting pant-load sweepstakes.

I’ve managed to add both years to my life and chins to my face. Now I look like a guy who grew a beard to hide his double chin instead of the guy who grew a beard to avoid being mistaken for a lesbian.

I know, I know. It seems like I’m looking at the negative side of things. One huge upside is that I no longer smell like what Eddie Money looks like.

So yes. I’ll admit. It’s a pretty great thing. But I’m no hero. You can delay all White House petition for my Medal of Honor. Although I ended my two-pack per day habit, I only smoked for about four years. I’m 34. That means that armed with all of the knowledge of the ill-effects of cigarette smoking, I decided in my third decade to take up a habit that most people take up in their mid-to-late teens.

Heck, as a reporter I covered a few personal injury lawsuits that focused on how in the early 20th Century tobacco companies and government covered up the disastrous effects of smoking on the human body. These were extremely graphic trials that went in to some very disgusting details. Even still, when court recessed, I’d be outside the courthouse smoking with the deadbeat dads and the nervous dudes charged with felonies who were lucky enough to make bond.

I knew better.

My only excuse for starting is the same stupid excuse most people have. I started out as a social smoker. Then I slid down that slippery slope. My “social smoking” era coincided with a brief relationship with a chain smoker. It was something we did together. Not long walks. Not reading. Smoking. Eventually she left and all I got was a terrible, expensive habit that cost me roughly $4,500 to $5,000 per year depending on the state in which I lived.

Of course, none of this makes quitting any easier.

Don’t be that smug jerkface who tells friends that they “need to quit smoking.” The most frightening thing about smoking is that everyone who does it know it’s bad. Have you ever told someone that smoking is awful and had them lose their mind because you just broke some news to them? Even if a person avoids all of modern science, there’s got to be a part of him that thinks, “Yeah, this ain’t good.”

That’s what makes it so scary; that you can think “I shouldn’t do this. This is bad,” with the same brain that tells you, “Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it.”

There’s a lot you can do to stop.

Some things keep you addicted to nicotine. Comedian Marc Maron often talks about his decade-long use of nicotine lozenges. My friend Christine has chewed nicotine gum for close to a decade. There’s hypnosis which, really? Acupuncture, which is strangely covered by my insurance. Cold turkey? Screw those people.

Like a real thinking American, I declared that bullshit “too hard” and opted for some quick-fix pills.

“We can do two different things,” my doctor said. “I can give you Wellburtin which, is an anti-depressant. It’s less effective, but has minimal side effects. Or, we can do Chantix. It’s more effective, but it has more side effects.”

“Yeah, let’s do that one,” I said.

Then he started to rattle off those side effects: Rage (check), suicidal thoughts (no more than usual), strange dreams (oh my).

When people talk about Chantix, they almost always talk about the dreams. The best way to describe what happens to your dreams is that Chantix turns the volume to 11. The picture gets clearer and more surreal. It wasn’t that I had nightmares, but I would lie there sweating and afraid to sleep like a character in an Elm Street movie. Not because I was scared, but because of a lingering sense that if I went to sleep, I would somehow remain trapped in my subconscious and just throw up my arms and say, “OK, this is where we live now.”

That’s not to say that some of them weren’t entertaining.

My favorite Chantix dream involved a road-trip adventure with one of my cousins. We lived in St. Louis and our job was to act as transport for important people. Our assignment was to drive to my hometown of Quincy, Ill. to pick up actor Hal Holbrook. Most people know Holbrook as an actor. What people often forget is that he’s also a renowned Mark Twain impersonator. He won countless awards and accolades for his portrayal of the American literary behemoth. When we arrived to pick him up, Holbrook was dressed like Mark Twain. White suit. Gray hair. Mustache. The whole getup.

Oh, and did I mention that he was the head of the mafia? Not just a small, territorial sect of the mob, but THE ENTIRE MAFIA. So, naturally this dream ended in a crazy shootout with a well-known actor dressed as my literary hero.

Nothing strange about that. Right?

I won’t extol the virtues of Chantix. This isn’t a pitch. Some crazy things happen to people who take it and it’s not for everyone. It’s just the thing that happened to work for me. I quit within six weeks and haven’t looked back. There’s also a part of me that truly believes I left a part of my sanity back there with my habit. So there’s that.

Having said all of that, I feel like a better, healthier person. Oh, and ladies. I smell a lot better, my wallet’s fatter and there’s a lot more of me to love.