Cigarettes, Alcohol: Such Ordinary Thieves

Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser
Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser

As she slid into the chair next to mine, a redolent if acrid scent of smoke merged with the air we shared. The impulse to hold my breath came and went. As my respiration slowed I became somewhat inured to the burnt, stale smell. But I lost the words a person was speaking from the periphery of our circle. I closed my eyes, then opened them as I tried to stay attuned as the recovery meeting progressed.

Later, memories flooded me of cigarettes lit and inhaled rapidly before entering a “no smoke zone.” Especially at places such as where we gathered for meetings. I was angry when most churches and hospitals–common spaces used for various groups– banned smoking. How to keep the nicotine level up in the blood stream when it took an hour and a half for such gatherings? If there was a smoke break halfway through, I’d be fine. If not, well, there was at least coffee, better than nothing but really.

It was 15 years this February since a cigarette has come near my lips. They are well pleased with that and so is the rest of me, not the least of which are my brain and spirit.

There was a time I sought help for substance issues and fellow smokers would welcome me with open arms. I’d walk in and a fog of smoke greeted me first. It was like coming home. Voices rang out amid the blur, many laughing, engaging in debate, sharing personal stories that could make me sweat with sympathetic pain. Close at hand was my attractive flip-top box of cigarettes. The very act of lighting up was enough to bestir feelings of calm and pleasure. Any misgivings, restlessness, sadness, anger or general vulnerability could be momentarily vanquished by a luxuriant draw of smoke-thickened air. I’d close my eyes and let it all go a brief moment.

I recall when we smoker-recovery folks joked with one another that at least we had our cigarettes, that was not going to go–not illegal, not exorbitant, not going to land us in detox. We had given up so much already–our companions of alcohol or pot or narcotics or stimulants or whatever combination transported and eventually wrecked us. Nicotine didn’t do much harm in comparison–if we coughed too much, well, we still could walk and even hike, couldn’t we? So, one thing at a time.

The non-smokers rarely came outdoors during a break or held themselves apart. We headed out in rain, sleet, snow and wind as well as sunny weather, cigarettes between lips, lighter flaring as soon as the door closed behind us. That first drag–a relief, a friendly button pushed with familiar rewards. We were pals, hard-core smokers who’d managed to survive ravages of alcoholism or other addictions. We hunched together in a tight group, our talk intermittent and somehow exclusive. Smoke circled about our heads and we were oblivious of our slavery to one more drug–or we just didn’t care. We weren’t breaking any laws.

In the beginning for me it was nothing to worry about, except that smoking was against my parents’ decorous, church-adhering ways (and mine, at least partly). Though I’d tried a couple of stray cigarette butts found outdoors, I had a closer look at smoking in a psychiatric ward in a medical center at fifteen. My neighbor T. across the corridor, four years older and from the streets of Detroit, had boxes of Kools stashed. We’d detach ourselves from the group when outdoors for recreation of sorts and he’d show me how it was done. I shared a few puffs, the act feeling like an intimate one. Ah, that menthol blast, followed by heat of smoke quaking the lungs. It was a charge.

T. had hooded, fathomless eyes. A way of walking that said, “Come along, but stay back a foot.” We were both in treatment for drug use and other rebellious behaviors but he declined to say just what he had done. He said he was in a street gang, said it as if it was a badge of victory as well as a way of being. This was during a decade when the only gangs I knew about were in books and movies (James Dean came to mind), not in my manicured lawn town. T. scared me but under bravado lay the barest hint of a romantic, hopefully someone more like me. He taught me how to smoke, to jut out my chin, use a narrowed, penetrating gaze to scatter unwanted others. To walk with heels hard on the floor and ground. But the a long lasting change taken home was that newly discovered habit: smoking. On my last day he gave me a whole carton of Kools. He was being transferred to a long incarceration. I wanted to attend an arts boarding school in the same city but my parents refused–their trust was shaken. T. and I said good-bye with a secret look, though by then I knew we had little in common but anger, addiction and quick drags on a cigarette passed back and forth in a hurry.

I’d show my parents and keep smoking. It wasn’t so easy to accomplish as I didn’t want them to know about this new thing I had gotten into. When they were gone (my older siblings were already in college) I threw open my bedroom windows and blew streams of smoke out the screen with forceful exhalations. I worried constantly they would know I smoked and I’d be grounded or worse so took to gum chewing, mouth wash and clinging perfumes. I felt vaguely criminal, now an underage smoker on top of the other offenses.

As it became more urgent a need I smoked in a couple restaurant corners, a haughty don’t bother to ask my age, buddy look on my face, or on walks with a close friend who shared my interests. M. had eyes that were cousins to Sophia Loren’s and cheekbones I’d never personally know. She was, perhaps, a watered down female version of T. but smarter and more trustworthy. We smoked and talked for hours, we plotted to get out of our hometown, we came to each other’s rescue, such as it was–often wrong-headed but well-intentioned.

I never considered stopping smoking. But it was curtailed somewhat since I was a developing vocalist and wanted my voice to have optimum opportunity to improve. My voice teacher was demanding and I did not want to lose any purity of tone I still had. Singing felt like life itself back then, and smoking could ruin things for me along with other substances that remained hard to refuse. But if classical singers did not smoke, folk singers and rockers often did, I realized, so I kept puffing now and then outside my parents’ house. They finally knew; they scolded and worried.

Smoking accompanied me into college and ramped up, then followed me into marriage. Nothing like getting together with our friends, loudly debating politics and art and life with shared smoke making us raspy and heady. Cigarette ads flashed on television and took up a whole page in magazines. It was cool, sassy or urbane, depending on what crowd you ran with. Certainly all my friends and Ned, my husband the artist, smoked–as he worked on “chopping” his Harley Davidson, during classes and projects in sculpture, before even breakfast and a last one before bedtime. I smoked as I wrote, painted undulating forms of jeweled colors on big canvasses, met with feminist friends. It accompanied me into motherhood, lessening as I nursed my children. It is notable that four decades ago health information was scarce and few public campaigns discouraged smoking. But I still feel some guilt about it.

I was no longer singing so often. My vocal chords were changing and seemed on the way to becoming an alto after being a clear, natural soprano. A result, I suspected, of smoking for too many years already. But I had other things to worry about and accomplish. So I puffed away. I still managed an insouciance that kept me ignorant. I was young, after all.

I had found recovery from non-alcoholic drugs by my early twenties. Still, several years later I found myself with a glass of grocery store wine in one hand, a cigarette in the other, gazing out a window overlooking twilit fields and a deep, black-green forest. I spotted mysterious deer, sipped and mused, located the Little and Big Dipper above. A coughing spell and then a gulp. I was having a hard time shaking bronchitis that winter.

How innocuous alcohol seemed, how affordable that sweet, humble wine–and legal. I was twenty-seven years old and had not drunk more than a cocktail or two. Total. I suspect it seemed rather banal as a youth when all those other chemicals were sparking up the sixties generation.

It was a bitter winter of howling winds and days alone–occasional nights as well–with two small children. Ned sometimes took remodeling jobs far away so we could pay rent and buy food. The wood stove heated our pleasant house as long as there was wood enough so I split and cut it into lengths to feed the steady fire. I made bread and the rooms filled with a cheerful aroma. My intense, boisterous son and intense, quiet daughter learned, played and fought together. We took meandering walks in snow along a sluggish or frozen river. The nights felt sharp-edged when alone. I sat at my desk when the children were asleep and typed on my old Remington countless poems, sometimes stories, yet another beginning to a novel. The ache of cold crept up my ankles and clutched all the muscle and bone. Loneliness found the cracks within me. I poured more wine. When he came home, we were not as aligned. The frictions seemed like cataclysmic signals and the endless silences felt like drowning. I poured more wine but put it in a goblet because it looked innocent, even beautiful by the light of candles but it always tasted and felt like a deliverance.

And that’s how it went. Drinking cheap wine and smoking, then better wine and more smoking and finally in a year or two, drinking Seven and Sevens or rum and Cokes with unfiltered Camels or, if trying to slow down on the heavy nicotine, just Newports. I coughed too much, caught respiratory bugs often. Yet alcohol and cigarettes seemed a perfect juxtaposition: a depressant and a stimulant. It was off and on like that during a decade’s worth of mini and major disasters. The damning sustenance I had now fashioned was made of nicotine and alcohol. Food was optional some days; my stomach recoiled. I was loath to see the damage done in photographs, for I was rail thin, a ghost of myself by my mid-thirties. It would take another five years for me to wake up.

This may seem a history of my addiction but that is far denser and more inscrutable. More private. Every history is different but the theme remains the same: an adverse and ultimately life-threatening reaction to what many can many others can enjoy without such effects. No, rather, this is a small warning. To myself after a good meeting with other recovering alcoholics. It triggered memories of smoking cigarettes and sloshing alcohol. And perhaps it also can be a communication with others who pick up a substance that may do them in. It hurts, the ravaging by drugs of any sort.

We in recovery are not entirely immune to random impulses or nostalgia over simpler times. As time passes, the bad times may recede until there is a reminder of the truth. For those who are still out there, the need to believe all is well enough is paramount–that one’s clever ways and means have managed to outwit dire consequences of choices made long ago. But cigarettes and daily drinks can become insidious enemies, may alter one’s life without reasonable notice.

This year I am sober for twenty-five years and abstinent from nicotine for fifteen. As with alcohol, there can a time when I had to quit smoking; my heart became so impacted that as I inhaled, my heart rate would rise immediately to around one hundred twenty beats per minute. Tachycardia with various other palpitations. Arteries had become so inflamed and blocked that even after quitting, a heart attack hunted me down while hiking in a splendid forest. At just fifty-one, nothing was further from my mind. I didn’t even consider the extreme and painful breathlessness that took me to my knees was caused by a sick heart. I thought it might be my lungs and didn’t go to emergency. It took a night and a morning before I sought help. And within a week I had the first of two stents implanted to open up an artery that was over 90% blocked.

That meeting today brought an evocative smell of smoke and the bravery and hopes of those who came for clarity and fellowship. It was a reminder of life lived in peace with lasting joys after living reckless years. Being under the rule of the totalitarianism of addiction. These were simple actions and wants, then a strong desire for substances enlivening or soothing. And then a critical need. But they stole from me on a grand scale, little by little. Parts of who I was were changed, rendered weaker yet also tougher. I was much less than who I’d expected to become. It may have taken me only fifteen years to find a way out as opposed to whole lifetimes for others, but what was lost was lost and cannot be regained. We can only move forward from where we land–thank goodness there is that.

I think a whole multitude of beguilements in this life are not worthy of such devotion. We have our own magic-making bodies with all those hormones and synapses and nerves. Our own intellects sparked by curiosity and given to free will. Our spirits, that gift from God that whispers, sings and shouts to us if only we will accept that as our guides. We are not meant to ruin ourselves but to take care. Some days we all get lost and could use a much better route to wholeness.

So I take my stand one more time. I am responsible. Cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs are ordinary poisons disguised by pretty packages. They do me no good. This peculiar and mystifying life will keep nourishing me and I, it. My gratitude for helping hands along the way is immeasurable.


(Note: I posted a series of essays about my own heart disease and that ongoing recovery. If you share this diagnosis, you might consider reading one or two. We can benefit from supporting each other.  Women are more often killed by this disease than men. The Heart Chronicles was begun in 2011. Heart disease is the number one killer globally. Learn more from any reputable resource and potentially save your own life. You can find my essays starting here: