My Past Life as a Smoker (part 1)

large_smoker-tax-cigarette

Smoking for me was a ritual of sorts. It was a personal time-out. A five-minute reflection period. A time to press pause… to linger. Sometimes it was an excuse to step away (particularly useful in awkward situations!); sometimes it was a bridge on which to bond with friends or strangers. Smoking was comfortable and consistent – I could rely on it to give me the same feeling each time. And where I grew up, cigarettes were cheap and easily accessible.

I grew up in a society where smoking was the norm, where finding someone smoking under a “No Smoking” sign was not surprising or unordinary. Where I grew up, the nonsmokers were the minority. But I was also raised in a smoke-free household. I’m not sure if my story would have played out any differently if I hadn’t been. I have friends who detest smoking because they grew up with it and I have friends who smoke for (partly) that same reason.

I smoked because I was spirited, impulsive, rebellious, anxious, and because most if not all of my friends did. And at the time I enjoyed it. Yet somehow, even in the peak of my addiction, I knew in my heart of hearts that it was only a phase. Somehow I knew that smoking wasn’t me. Somehow, I could never envision my “future self” smoking. The thought of a middle-aged Me pulling out a pack from her purse didn’t quite sit well. I just couldn’t foresee myself being a smoker for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be a smoker for the rest of my life.

I smoked for nearly six years: a majority of those years a pack a day on average, and the latter years – my quitting years – mostly socially, less consistently.

Then I completely stopped.

I realized one day, as a cigarette was innocently offered to me, that I’d reached an unprecedented stage in my relationship with cigarettes. I realized I had reached a monumental fork. I realized that I had a choice, and in that choice I recognized my power – power I had had all along. I had managed to crawl into the arena of “social smoker” status – I had managed, over the course of my quitting years, to control my addiction to a degree. And as I stood at that fork I realized I could either continue smoking on occasion as a social smoker (risking a very possible regression to everyday smoking), or I could stop all together and transform fully into a nonsmoker.

Reaching that fork was not easy. That I was standing at the fork at all was a victory. But I still smoked… however less frequently… I still smoked. My addiction had been chained, contained, but it was still present, sitting just beneath the surface of my skin. On pause. And regardless of my victory at having reached the fork, I was still gripped by nostalgia for cigarettes… still craving them psychologically, though not as much physically. Still missing them as one would a person. I realized that day that it was time to make a decision.

I remember looking at the cigarette, at the out-stretched hand that lingered with its offering. I remember pulling the simple but heavy words from my lungs, dragging them to my mouth: “no, thanks.” I remember a triumphant orchestra bursting like crashing waves in my mind as I watched the hand retract.

“No, thanks,” I heard my mind say again.

The truth is, that day when I saw that cigarette… I suddenly saw a struggle instead of a temptation. I suddenly saw the years of agony I’d endured battling willpower and impulse, battling doubt and indecision. I saw the frustrations, the helpless feelings of failure after a relapse, I saw the yellow globs of morning mucus in my bathroom sink, I saw my face with tired skin, and the cigarette-butt graveyard in my parents’ garden just outside my bedroom window. I saw ashes.

Association. That’s what had finally changed. That’s what had tipped the scale. I no longer associated cigarettes with relief, comfort, familiarity, fun, enjoyment, relaxation… cigarettes finally represented the mental, physical, and emotional struggle I endured while trying to tear away from nicotine’s spell. Tearing away from cigarettes is like tearing off your skin, like running from a vortex that pulls and pulls and pulls at you with unbelievable might.

But suddenly, instead of the usual sinking feeling that comes when you deny yourself something that you want, I felt sure, alert, and assertive.

I had changed. The transition was slow (so slow I almost hadn’t noticed it — and perhaps a part of me was in denial, still afraid to completely let go); it was stressful and painful, but my body had changed. In that brief pause I felt that if I’d accepted that cigarette and put it to my lips (“it’s only one cigarette!”), I would have been stabbing my efforts in a very real way, betraying the path I had paved in my years of trying to quit. It would have been like stomping on a flower bed. Suddenly one cigarette wasn’t worth it to me anymore. Suddenly I could see other things that were.

My taste buds had sharpened. My air passages had cleared. Strawberries were sweeter, lemonade, tangier. My steps felt lighter, my head, less burdened. I could breathe. No more coughing. No more spitting. No more foul-smelling finger tips. No more need for something.

I felt physically, mentally, and emotionally stronger. I felt free. I felt like… me again.

Quitting smoking (any addiction) is the essence of difficult. It’s an internal tug of war. It’s an explosion of emotional warfare. It’s a feat in which you must conquer yourself, not the addiction, but yourself. And even though it’s been a couple of years now since I’ve quit, sometimes I feel they still haunt me. Not because I secretly long for them, but because they were once a part of me and my life, and as such, they’ll always live in my memory.

If you want to quit as badly as I did, then you can and you will. The power to quit is in you. It’s the same power source you tap into when you pull yourself out of bed on those mornings when you just want to sleep in. It’s the same power you use to pedal faster on a bicycle because you want to feel the wind against your face, or make it past the light that’s turning red. It’s the same power you use when you bring yourself to the surface of the water after jumping into a pool or playing with an ocean wave. The power is there. It’s ever-present. You just have to recognize it, harness it, and believe in it.

thinking

(Part 1 of 2)

You can read Part 2 here.

Pepper & me

When I first met Pepper, her name was Pippi, and she was a terrified 10 pound puppy who looked like a fawn: delicate frame, slender body shivering from fear, long legs, long snout, and a thin tucked-away tail. She was dark brown if you looked closely and black if you didn’t. Her paws and neck were white. She crouched, and her eyes dared not meet yours. She flinched and cowered at a hand’s approach.

There was a special kind of sweetness about Pippi, and a heart-wrenching innocence. She was rescued from a puppy mill (an evil dog breeding factory – more on this some other time) where she was going to be put down because as a mutt, she was deemed unprofitable. Until being rescued, Pippi had never known kindness or safety; she had never known life outside of a filthy, foul, cramped cage.

“She needs confidence-building,” Liz, the lady from the rescue organization* explained to me. “She needs to learn trust.” (Don’t we all?)

It took 2 years of research and careful thought for me to finally decide that I was ready to bring a dog into my life. It was important for me to not adopt for the wrong reasons: because I simply love dogs; because they’re so cute; because I want one; because I have this fantastic vision of what it will be like to own one. When you adopt a dog, or any pet, you adopt a life… for life. (Otherwise just buy yourself a stuffed animal if you want something cute to look at and cuddle with.)

In the end I didn’t choose Pippi because I was taken by her story or frailty or cuteness (although those factors did help). I chose her because her size and the needs of her breed matched my lifestyle, my living situation, and sure, my preferences. Mostly, I chose her because when I picked her up and felt her soft little unsure body on my lap, it felt right. Like when a puzzle piece snaps into place and you smile.

And so she became my dog and I named her Pepper.

I knew that a dog in my life would change many things for me. The responsibility would shift some priorities; the financial implications and mobility restrictions would mean some sacrifices. I knew all this… and became slightly terrified. What was I doing? All my life I had wanted a dog… and it suddenly occurred to me that all my life as I dreamed this dream I had never actually visiualized it happening. And that’s when excitement erupted like fireworks in my heart. It was actually happening!

But what I didn’t realize about having a dog was that her presence in my life would mean so much more than just sweet, cute, loving company. I didn’t realize, for instance, that she would introduce me to the neighborhood I’d lived in for years. I bonded with my neighborhood so much more after adopting Pepper. I began to notice things I had normally walked past in absent-minded haste. Because of our daily walks, she made me slow down, explore, notice the height of the trees, feel the rain, the snow, the wind, the heat. Each season brought its own beautiful assortments of wonder, and because of our walks I found myself bonding with the elements and appreciating their power all the more.

In the winter I noticed a lone tree that refused to part with its leaves. In the spring I mused at the flower beds and marveled at the fact that just one day before the beds had been bare. I got to know the people who made up my neighborhood and I got to know other dogs and their owners — we didn’t know each other’s names but we knew the names of each other’s dogs! I learned that a basenji is a breed of dog that has no bark. Children would run up to me and ask to pet my dog and I would teach them the golden rule of “always let a dog sniff you first.”

Pepper absorbed her new environment. I watched as she first feared then slowly came to ignore the sound of the train raging past us on the tracks, the police sirens screaming by every so often, the nonstop flow of people jogging, biking, walking, rushing. Witnessing her experience the newness of city life made me observe my habitat, which I’d become somewhat immune to, as we all do, more closely.

I also didn’t realize just how much a dog in my life would influence my perceptions on patience and kindness. She puts up a mirror to me every single day because dogs feed off a person’s energy. They sense the energy you exude, absorb it, then reflect it right back to you. Because of this I pay better attention to the way I handle stress, to the way I interact with others, to the energy I put out into the universe.

But Pepper didn’t just teach me to be patient with her and with all things, she taught me the importance of being patient with myself. Whether it’s personal expectations or something new I’m learning, I look at her funny little clueless, worried face and it reminds me to be patient because just like her, I too will learn and adjust and get better at whatever I’m trying to do.

It’s refreshing living with a creature that has no expectations, no ill-wishes, no worries, no demands, no coarse emotions — just love. It’s refreshing waking up to a creature who lives every day in the moment and wants nothing but a meal, a walk, and a hug. It’s refreshing to take a break from the “me, me, me” and “I, I, I” and “my, my, my” by caring for something outside of yourself.

At the end of the day, it’s true that Pepper is just an animal… but she’s far from “just a dog.” To me she’s a true role model for real love, real friendship, real selflessness, and real trust. She’s a testament to what can happen when you give a rescue pupp a chance, or anyone a chance for that matter. Everyone has the potential to love and be loved. Everyone deserves that chance. When you remove words, assumptions, and the congestion of complex emotions… when you remove your ego, expectations, and the mentality of “what’s in it for me?”… you are left only with your soul’s energy and your body’s simple actions to be able to communicate and connect with someone.

It’s been 3 years and my 10 pound puppy named Pippi is now an 18 pound dog named Pepper. She’s still delicate though a little more shaply, still brown if you look closely and black if you don’t. Instead of crouch she may just come up to you with a curious nose and a wagging tail. She still flinches but out of shyness, not fear. And she still embodies a special kind of sweetness, still lives in her little bubble of innocence.

In this world that’s ruled by needs and wants and the time on a clock, I must say that the greatest thing about being a dog owner is having a loving presence and a peaceful constant in my life that reminds me… Now and Each Other is all we’ve ever had and all we’ve really got… so… take a breath why don’t you and slow down for second… how about a walk?

WP_20131218_01320131219211837

*ROMP Italian Greyhound Rescue

Why I write fiction

“Fiction is the art form of human yearning.”- Robert Olen Butler, American author

It wasn’t until I came across the above quote that I realized, yes — that is why I love to read and write fiction. I want to explore the human condition. The yearnings that pull at the human heart. Some yearnings are live wires, bursting, causing trouble or inspiring great change; others are dormant, not yet realized.

At the core of every beating heart is a raw desire, a painful need, a helplessness, a joy, a hope, a love, a passion, a fear, a secret. I’m fascinated by these complexities that make up who we are as human beings. By the eccentricities of our human nature, by the good and evil that battles in our hearts, by the intricate relationships we forge and release in our lives. By the choices we make. By how those choices follow us.

Why do we do the things that we do? What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to be evil? What does it mean to be human? Is there hope for us?

We all have unique stories and truths that shape our lives. Fiction is a reflection of those stories and truths. Sometimes the reflection is bright, sometimes it’s dark, but fiction — good fiction — is always true in that it always seeks to express or reveal what is true. That is why we connect with characters, why they become real to us — because in the characters, in their flaws, strengths, and motivations, we recognize a piece of ourselves or a piece of someone we know.

When I write fiction I get to analyze the various depths of human emotions. I get to be, feel, see anything I choose… I get to dive into the wondrous world of the everyday, seek beauty in the most unlikely of places, find the amazing in the mundane. Writing fiction allows me to step outside of myself, and it helps me find some understanding in a world that is becoming increasingly fearful, cynical, and unfeeling.

When I write fiction I discover. I practice reflection. You must look inwards as much as outwards when writing. You must trust your instincts and draw from what you don’t know as much as from what you do. You must question. You must observe. You must be sincere. I write fiction because I want to explore and bridge perspectives. I want to feel the other side of things. I want to play with the “what ifs”. I want to let others know, as many books have let me know time and time again:

You are not alone in this beautiful mess called the human experience. You are not alone. I too have braved this battle and felt this feeling and found this joy in the nothing.