Like many college students, and especially living in NYC, I picked up the nasty habit of smoking cigarettes. It was an easy way to be social and alone at the same time, and the perfect excuse on a bad date to dash away for a few minutes or to get a break from printing in the darkroom (when there still was a darkroom) for hours on end. Those tortuous little demons were my best/worst friends for 9 years, a constant in my life.
As a kid, I actively protested my grandmother's smoking, understanding it was unhealthy and did not want her to do it. My sister and I made "no smoking" signs and posted them all over her house while she was gardening. Upon her return, they were all ripped down and we were lectured for an hour, while she smoked and pointed aggressively towards us with a cigarette betwixt her fingers. She finally quit, but it was some five or so years later. And two years after quitting, lung cancer and emphysema killed her within a year of diagnosis.
Why, at 19, I then thought it would be a grand idea to "try it" is beyond me. I'll chalk that one up to being young and feeling invincible. It started innocently enough: drinking at a party and stealing my friend's cigarette to "see what the big deal" was all about. In hindsight, I did not correctly smoke for several months; I did not understand how to properly inhale. But I bought the same cigarettes my friends smoked and pretended to smoke a few of them every day. I wanted to look cool, to feel included. Most of my friends smoked, so it was a way to remain social with them. By the time I actually figured out inhaling properly, I was averaging about five cigarettes a day. Modest, compared to most. And then that winter, my on-pause-boyfriend told me he was trying to move on, with his roommate, and did not want to see me again. My gut reaction was to smoke to process the emotions. I quickly advanced my smoking to around a pack, or twenty cigarettes. After the burn of being crushed by love subsided, I continued smoking the same amount. Add in an extra five to ten cigarettes a day during my final thesis and the looming future before fleeing to my childhood home in Pittsburgh, where cigarettes were half the price as NYC, and my habit persisted. Two years spent working in a kitchen only fueled the reasons to keep smoking, despite the struggle to make sure bills were paid and food was bought. Cigarettes became my way of controlling one part of my future: the end. There was one outcome and I liked the idea of forcing the likely way I would die. They were my constant companion throughout life's hurdles and I wanted them to be my demise. This was a dark and tumultuous period that was only stopped by leaving a miserable job for one I enjoyed and moving out of my mom's (again).
The following years were when I started to enjoy living and realized I wanted to quit, both for financial and physical reasons. I could feel my lungs were sub-par and I wheezed when walking briskly. Things that, as I could feel my age progressing, started to matter. I wanted to be able to breathe and to one day get old and wrinkly. It was hard to give up, as my brother and a good friend were both in the military and stationed in Afghanistan. I could not listen to the news without a cigarette. My stress levels so high, the meditative breathing and addictive release of nicotine kept me smoking. At this same time, my grandfather got sick and I started to help care for him. Cigarettes were still my emotional crutch when the days were hard to deal with. Over three years, I would quit for a week here, a month there, but always had a reason to buy that next pack.
In December 2014, I got sick for the third time that winter. It was hard to breathe but I still smoked a cigarette every hour I was awake, despite the awful taste and the frigid temperatures outside. At 11:55pm on December 31st, I stepped outside to smoke the last cigarette in my pack. I had not determined if I would walk to the gas station for another. As I smoked that cigarette, I imagined my sister's wedding coming in 2015. I could not picture myself there as a smoker, as I would be unable to afford the flight to Orlando, not to mention the hotel, the bridesmaid's dress, a gift, etc. As I pictured all three of my siblings, I put out the cigarette. With the exhale, a part of me hoped that was it, that was enough to make me stop, while another part was unconvinced and imagined buying a pack in the morning. It's easy not to smoke when it's -10 degrees F outside and you're curled under a blanket with your cats and streaming movies. So the first week was hard, but not as hard as the second week when grandpa fell and was admitted to the hospital. And not as hard as the third week when his body shut down and finally stopped working. The funeral was the hardest to get through. A constant stream of whiskey entered my body for two days. Not having a cigarette to go with it was difficult, but made easier by being surrounded by my siblings. There they were, all three of them. Two of them came from out of state. We had just been together for the holidays a month prior, but these were the rare moments that we were all together and they counted so much. I asked my brother to pick me up for everything and he gladly obliged, knowing that his clean car would help. Had it not been for him driving me around to all of the things we had to do, I probably would have started smoking again.
Losing Grandpa hurt a lot; I was more effected by his death than even his own daughter. The winter was a mess of grief and anxiety; I would randomly start crying, or feel unable to move. To manage these emotions and to help keep me from buying that ever looming "next pack", I started riding a bicycle the 6.5 miles between my home to work. With the emotional and physical benefits of biking, and not smoking, I quickly started riding it as my main mode of transportation for everything; work, dates, shopping. Not smoking helped me climb taller hills (of which there are plenty in Pittsburgh) and ride faster to catch up with my best friend. The physical payoff of quitting was finally so concrete, I celebrated a little bit every day by riding my bike.
Flash forward to today, November 11, 2015, Veteran's Day. On my normal ride to work, I was wearing my grandfather's Marines sweater to keep warm. Normally I don't notice the Korean War monument on Pittsburgh's North Shore. But with the leaves sparse on the trees, I happened to catch a glimpse of it as I rode past. I started to weep, both with sadness and gratitude. My legs are strong and my lungs are stronger. It has been 314 days since I had that last cigarette. I keep a counter on the main page of my phone to remind me how far I've come, and how far I've yet to go. Quitting for the love of my family has strengthened my love for myself. While I'm now richer in spirit, it doesn't hurt that my bank account reflects the same.