I have MS and I am a smoker. There, I said it.
But, this simple admission does not absolve me. For my doctors, militant nonsmokers, sin tax perps, the most pious among us, and clinical researchers who insist that smoking is a factor in developing MS, fessing up is simply not enough. I must quit the devil leaf or else face a hellish demise. Period.
Last week, my fourth attempt to quit smoking since January resulted thusly--it failed. Thanks for playing, we are sending you home with a nice parting gift: your sanity.
Poverty had provided the impetus for this latest attempt at sobriety. Two days before my social security check would replenish my account, the balance read a measly nine dollars. I can do this, I thought, my mind filling with that eery light of hope, and I won't ask my partner for the money, not even if I start chewing on my mattress. I'm stronger than this. I am! After all, look at what I have accomplished through sheer will. I wrote a novel, for pete's sake, the scariest endeavor one could face. And I did it. I drank two scotches and smoked three packs of Nat Shermans for each page I produced, but I did it, and even Yahweh would have to admit that it was good. A miracle, no less. Facing a blank page and filling it with well-crafted paragraphs is a feat few have attempted and even fewer have completed. It brought me a literary agent and a dozen laudatory rejection letters from the top editors at the top publishing houses. It didn't find a publisher, but it got read, ladies and gentlemen, by people who have published David Foster Wallace and John Updike, Lorrie Moore and Dave Barry, Tim Farrington and Deepak Chopra, Cheech and Chong. I was honored and humbled by the mere reading of my manuscript. It was enough. I can now die happily in peaceful, unpublished anonymity. I had the ear of the publishing elite for a couple of hours and received, if not their trust in my selling power, their acknowledgment of my talent.
This comfy anonymity lulled me into a new fantasy of overcoming an immoral enemy. After all, it is a literary theme with which I am well-acquainted. Here was my opportunity to live it, not just to read about it. I would receive no accolades, no glowing letter of appreciation for giving up tobacco. I needed none, I am a well-adjusted, mature woman whose challenges and failures have built a calm, sturdy character. I will, for the sake of my health, quietly eliminate a bad habit. No hoopla necessary, no pat on the back for a job well done. I am an adult, a creature who does all sorts of things it does not enjoy doing. Duty as a moral imperative is not lost on me.
The first day, I chew nicotine gum every hour upon waking and far into the afternoon. At first it is easy to choose the gum over lighting up. But by 3:30, a bomb goes off in my brain. I don't want a piece of gum, I want a cigarette and I want it now. My brain cannot hold another thought. I drive to the gas station and buy a pack, smoking it greedily throughout the afternoon and evening. I feel no guilt. Tomorrow is another day. And I have no more money for cigarettes.
The next morning, I smoke the three remaining cigarettes from the previous evening's relapse. When they are gone, I chew nicotine gum. By 11:30am, a wave of fatigue consumes me and I crawl into bed, sleeping through the afternoon. At 3:30 I awake. I want a cigarette and want it now.
But there is no more money. Frantically, I rummage through all my old purses and coin pouches for loose change. By some miracle, I assemble five dollars in quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. Once again, I drive to the gas station on a now below-empty gas tank. If I buy the cigarettes, I might run out of gas on the way back home. I have my cane with me, but a half-mile walk back home is a very long, excruciating journey for an MSer. The choice is an easy one. I don't care of I have to crawl back home, I want those cigarettes. Some passer-by will take pity on me and offer a ride.
Back home, I tear open the pack and chain-smoke the first ten cigarettes. My mind quiets down. I can now concentrate on listening to the radio, sip my coffee, gaze at the garden, making mental notes of a landscape redesign. My mind is free to roam again, and I am happy. At peace. A smoker. I sit at the computer and compose an essay, happily puffing away.
Tomorrow, I will have the money to buy a whole carton. My absolution will have to wait until another day, when that voice filled with false promise distracts me once again. I am a mature adult, after all, polite and sophisticated enough to at least appear to be listening.