I had my first cigarette when I was 13. I was in Wildwood, New Jersey with three friends when we decided to steal a couple of my Dad’s KOOL cigarettes and attempt to smoke them -- without actually inhaling -- under the boardwalk. We felt badass for a fleeting moment, like we were more than just pimply teenage girls under the control of our parents.
But it wasn’t until I was 18 that my unhealthy friendship with cigarettes -- Malboro Menthol Lights to be specific -- really began.
I was working at a shitty restaurant where I would regularly butter hamburger rolls (yes, food establishments actually add butter to your already greasy burger) for eight hours straight without a break. I soon realized that the only people who got to rest their feet and escape the horror of stoners taking five years to decide whether to get the spicy chicken nuggets or a milkshake or both were the smokers.
Every hour or so, the smoking staff would retreat to the back, plop down on the floor and light up, their faces full with relief as smoke poured out of their mouths. I was jealous of their temporary serenity, and I wanted in.
I occasionally smoked the drunken cigarette, so I decided I would just occasionally smoke the work cigarette. Yes, they made me dizzy and slightly high, but I felt relaxed. Cigarettes officially became my companion, relieving my boredom, creating a diversion from the monotony that is a high school part time job.
Alas, that dizzy nauseous feeling turned into pure bliss with time. I was no longer the kind of girl who could have a cigarette here and there (is there even such a thing?); I was full blown addicted.
It didn’t help that my addiction coincided with my transition into college. All of my new college rituals became synonymous with smoking.
Upcoming exam? Cigarettes helped me get over the stress and boredom of studying. Awful hook-up? Cigarettes comforted me, helping me get over the humiliation or heartbreak. Awkward social situation? Cigarettes were right there, holding my hand as I forced conversation (usually with other smokers).
It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the horrifying consequences of smoking. My hair and fingers smelled, I woke up coughing after heavy nights of drinking, and I once collected change to buy a pack of cigs over food. It wasn’t my best look.
Plus, I’ve always been sort of a health freak. I started dancing at the age of three, taking classes five days a week through high school. Working out was a central part of my life -- I made it to the gym at least four days a week. I even got certified as a group fitness instructor and started to gear most of my writing toward health and fitness topics, eventually becoming a health and fitness editor and columnist.
I also watched my father, brother and mother (who is now one year smoke-free!) smoke my whole life and was known to nag them for the habit. I knew what I was doing was wrong. I knew it led to nothing good. But I didn’t know how to break up with my newfound friend.
I kept telling myself I would quit eventually, as most addicts do, but of course no time ever seemed to be the right time. First it was during winter break, but then I clearly needed cigarettes to celebrate the holidays. Then it was during the summer, but the beach just wasn’t the same without a cig in my hand.
Eventually it was senior year, and after four years of smoking a half a pack a day, I concluded that I couldn’t start another stage of my life—moving to New York to pursue editing—as a smoker. I couldn’t watch all of my new routines and rituals become associated with the sick habit. I had to start fresh. I had to break up with cigarettes.
So, two weeks ago as of tomorrow, I went cold turkey. There was the terrible physical pain from withdrawal within the first few days that made me feel like sticking a fork in my eyeball or yelling at small children and puppies. Then there were the irrational thoughts that I would die from something else, so why torture myself? Then there was the sadness and unrealistic idea that I could fill up the empty hole with something else -- shopping, food, drinking.
But after all that came the lingering feeling that I had lost something -- a friend.
Now, there’s no one to take walks with me or accompany me on annoying car rides. There’s no one to congratulate me after completing a confusing edit test or comfort me after not getting the job. I got used to having my chemical-filled pal waking up with me in the morning and going to bed with me at night.
It feels like I just broke up with an abusive boyfriend after a four-year relationship and now must move on, minus the awesome break-up sex.
But, with all breakups, I know what I need to do: remove all contact, especially when alcohol is being consumed because like a drunken text, a drunken cigarette is just asking for trouble (not that I haven’t caved in both aspects).
I can’t go running back into the warm, smoky arms of my Marbolos; no, I must resist and endure the heartbreak until I can move on to something better, like breathing easier, running faster or (and here’s the winner) living a lot longer. It’s time to get past my romance with nicotine because cigarettes and I just aren’t compatible anymore, and our relationship was way too toxic.
I think I’ll be okay, though. I have an amazing role model of a mother who managed to ditch the dirty habit after decades of smoking (yeah, she’s incredible), a pretty cool best friend who is quitting with me and a bunch of really supportive people in my life who are kind of happy to see me taking charge of my health.
So while I can’t say I don’t look at my old friend longingly when someone lights up, I can say this: All friendships, whether with people or not, should only be maintained when they add beauty and happiness to your life. And I don’t think rat poison and like 4,000 chemicals are doing any of that for me.