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:

139 thoughts on “Cigarettes, Alcohol: Such Ordinary Thieves

  1. Beautiful writing! So lovely to read and wonderful message. I’m also in recovery, have quit smoking, started, quit, you know the story 😉 I’m happy to have found your blog… I’ve just recently started and am finding such wonderful people to connect with. Thank you!

  2. I was a heavy smoker and gave up 21 years ago, with the help of a lovely woman who worked in a local chemist (pharmacy). It was hard, but I did it and am glad you did, too. Thinking back to why I smoked and all the social life there was around smoking – the positive and negative attitudes to it that made it seem ‘right’ at the time and so much more difficult to stop – are things you’ve echoed in this excellent post. Thank you.

  3. Great post. Got me thinking, something I needed to be doing this evening. I can relate. Well partially. 17 yrs as a friend of Bill & Bob. 6 attempts in those 17 yrs at the other, just starting to think about giving it another go. As I ironically type this while pausing to have a drag. The insanity of addiction eh? If nothing changes, nothing changes. Thanks for the reminder of that. Marianne

    1. Marianne, so understand where you are coming from, of course. And it takes what it takes–but the fact that you are contemplating things once more is a good sign of impending possibilities. Blessings. Keep the faith.

  4. I’m very glad you have stopped smoking! I never smoked but growing up my mother smoked like a chimney in winter and the smell always irritated my stomach. To this day I can’t stand the smell of cigarettes, I often have to close my car windows at a stop light because someone in a car around me is smoking, have to hold my breath when walking by people who are standing outside smoking, and do my best to get in and out of places where there is that smell of smoke. It really bothers me when I see people smoking in this day and age because it is common knowledge that smoking causes lung cancer and can cause people around the smoker to possibly get lung cancer. I had a dear friend who was a musician and played in bars etc before smoking was banned and he died of lung cancer and he didn’t smoke.

    Quitting just may have saved your life! And I’m glad of it!

    1. My sister has sensory integration disorder it wasn’t a surprise when she outed my smoking habits to the whole family! After putting up with me for a while she finally sat me down and described how bad it got to her. It was very similar to how you described your distaste. I’m really glad I stopped for us.

    2. so true, even I can’t understand for the life of me why smokers enjoy that hovering thing when I see normal people feeling sickened and nauseated even as a small lingering smoke moves into their noses. Public smoking is something I have hated always. This is prevalent in India( I don’t know if that’s because of dearth of smoking rooms). But I hate these public smokers!

  5. i love this. i quit smoking/drinking wine when i found out i was pregnant in september. reading this really helps when i think about how bad im going to want to go back to those bad habits after the baby comes. thank you for sharing

  6. I loved to read this and I love how much your put your heart into this blog. So much love to you.

  7. Composition and content is good BUT addiction or not, you willingly gave up your money. To me saying that these inanimate object stole from you is not taking responsibility and using blame as a scapegoat. I know first hand the power of nicotine. I’m still hypnotized by it, and not trying to promote smoking, and congratulations on quitting, but with all do respect, man up.

    1. Interesting thoughts, thanks for commenting. But if addiction was “a disease of choice”, it would not be classified as a serious and ultimately fatal illness by the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and the American Medical Association. That said, as millions of others have and do, I addressed the disease and got help needed for a healthy recovery. It takes good interventions and daily commitment to no longer be under control of life-altering addictions. Best wishes.

  8. I know several former smokers who continue to experience residual “nicotine triggers” such a stressful situations. My aunt claims that she now craves a cigarette only when she has a drink in her hand. I do believe nicotine is among the most difficult addictions to overcome. Congratulations!

  9. Great blog I find it very interesting when others like yourself find it easy to stop… wish I could stop.

    1. Not very easy–a week of withdrawal from nicotine physically and emotionally. That’s another story! I may do a post on those early weeks. Thank you for reading and commenting–but you can stop if that is your true desire to do so…hang in there.

  10. Thank you for this, it is a great blog. I think people often struggle to understand how tough addiction is- I recently wrote an article about homelessness and realised that homeless addicts don’t get as much attention or respect as they need. It is important to understand that addiction can happen to anyone and I am grateful that you make that so clear.

  11. Started smoking when I was 15 I’m 25 now. This is truly an eye opener for me,a lesson. You are a blessing. Thank you.

  12. So glad I stumbled along this post. I really really need to quit smoking. My goal is to be a non smoker by the end of this year. If you have any tips on how to quit Id greatly appreciate it! Keep up the great work and can’t wait to read more of your Posts. God bless

    1. That is great that you really really want to quit because that desire WILL help move you into the action stage! I would be glad to give tips–maybe I will tackle that in another post in the next few weeks since many have responded to this issue. In the meantime, glad to have you along and hope you enjoy some of the others. Hang in there!

  13. Hi Cynthia,
    I found your blog, as a result of my search about addictions. This post was wonderful — certainly accurate and beautifully written. I smoked like a fiend, and know the real addictive “qualities” of sucking that smoke into my lungs. I no longer smoke, or drink for matter. Yea! Instead, my drug of choice has become the “white stuff.” No, not cocaine — SUGAR! I always new I was in love with it, but wasn’t aware that it was addictive.

    The revelation came when I was diagnosed with Diabetes. With that diagnosis, came denial. Sound familiar? It’s been about 18 years since that day, and every day is still a struggle. Today, I was reading an article about management of diabetes, and the #1 tip was REACHING OUT TO OTHERS. (No surprise, right?) So that, Cynthia, is why I reached out to you.

    A rose is a rose. An addiction is an addiction. By any other name, it’s still an addiction!

    Thanks, Cynthia. Just reading your post is helpful.

    Kathy from:

    1. Fantastic that you took your life in hand and are feeling better! I’m sorry to hear you have diabetes but those of us with a chronic disease can still hew a happy and meaningful life–maybe that was your wake up call. Addiction–yes, we people are prey to so many! Thank you for responding. Carry on with hope–blessings.

  14. Very well said I am a smoker but would love to quit and this has just inspired me to do just that. I have notice over the years my breathing i cant walk as far and I having blood pressure issues which i never had before………. Thank you for sharing!

  15. Many of my friends are smokers. They were told to stop. That won’t stop them smoking, they always have excuses until one day, one of them got a serious disease.

    Hope the best for you and your health. I am following your blog to see more, hope I could share with my friends about smoker’s experience. By One Dollar Hosting

    1. Please do share a link to this if you would like. We need to have healthier humanity in all ways! Yes, I am still a power walker and hiker–so far, so good after surgical interventions for my heart. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  16. #cynthia Guenther Richardson, that’s a great post. I wrote a similar one about “why some people won’t quite smoking”, but defiantly i was talking about addiction.

    1. So true, it is an addiction but we still generally have the power of choice to make a change in behaviors–perhaps more so good intervention or support! (My husband, an ex-smoker, gave me encouragement). I know you likely but thanks so much for commenting.

  17. The hardest part of quitting or leaving an addiction is confronting why you did it and how you’ll confront what you were escaping from. Thank you for this beautifully written piece and your vulnerability.

    1. That it is, for so many. For me, reasons were clear but action for change took awhile to be engaged. “Writing true” is important to me. I’m so glad you found it of interest–thank you for reading and commenting.

  18. Lucky to stumble on this. Yesterday had a couple too many drinks, smoked a lot. Today I regret both, especially smoking. I should quite too. I really should, life sounds much better without them. Thanks!

    1. Glad you found something in it for you. Life is not only healthier but the peace and joy that can arise after leaving substances behind are amazing. I’m rooting for you. Give yourself a break. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Best wishes.

  19. Even though I’m not a smoker myself, I still feel like this story is something I can relate to because of the people who I do know that smoke or used to smoke. Definitely a very powerful, uplifting story.

    1. Raney (I love your name–it is a good Clyde Edgerton novel title, too!)–that’s an interesting perspective to have and I appreciate your being able to read with sensitivity. I’m pleased you find it uplifting–that is the whole point of what I hope to share here. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      1. Oh, really? Didn’t know that. And yeah, I’ve had family members who used to smoke. My Mom has been cigarette free for a year, almost two now.

  20. You poured your heart out with plenty of memories in this article.

    Great efforts taken to explain such a life experience regarding smoking just for the benefit of others..

    Keep up the work and keep going great with a beautiful smile on your face.😃😉👌👍

    1. Hey Phoenix, it is a true joy to write and share thoughts–and always a pleasure to hear from others who found my writing interesting or helpful. Got to keep it real– and hopeful! Thanks for the good words and stop by again.

  21. Hey, I always wanted to read something like this. I smoked for fifteen years (from fifteen to thirty). Then I got pregnant and I quit. Been off nicotine for almost two years now, and I’m 100% sure I’ll never start again because I worked with myself a lot and got rid of the only danger there was: my image of myself as a smoker. Instead of feeling that smoking enhanced me in any way, I now see how it only plays me down. Long story, but finished and wrapped, and I feel it’s one of my life’s greatest victories. Now I don’t feel the slightest temptation anymore.
    Yes, I had the palpitations too, heartrate 120, doctors sought the reason why I ended up in the ER so often, but my heart seemed perfect and everything else too. Now I realize it must’ve been the arteries, I had bad circulation. Now all great. Wonderful post, keep’em coming 🙂

    1. Hello annaacalin–it is very good to hear from you. I agree, not smoking seems easy after you finally have had it–and it becomes irrelevant as the years go by. Yes, those cigarettes can be seductive to the young, unfortunately, along with other substances. Re: your palpitations–if they come back, please check it out with the doc as heart disease is often more sneaky for women. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Congrats on staying nicotine free all this time. Blessings your way.

  22. A heartfelt and honest account of the inner world of desire that is at the core of addiction. Thanks for sharing this piece! You may find that my WordPress blog posts relate to some of your interests –

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