Apple Pie and Cigarettes: On Abstinence

Kristie called me just outside Hunstville, Texas, the prison town that executes more inmates per year than any other in the nation.  We shot the shit as my fingers twitched in that familiar motion, and my body lurched for the end of the day.  I just needed to sing pretty one more night, then my body was my own again to self destruct, a glorious roll of lung cancer and ash seeping in and up to quiet the part of my brain that says I need, then yells at me for giving in when I do.  My gums ached with the smoke as I envisioned tooth decay from the inside out.

“I have an eating disorder,” Kristie said abruptly, “Not like anorexia or bulimia or anything, it’s just that I can’t stop, I am…”

And I finished her sentence with her.  A flood of last Sunday morning’s binge of popcorn with melted cheese and a fork– my secret eating– flashed into my brain.  My hankering for a cigarette turned into a yearning.  My lungs ached, my throat hurt.

“…a compulsive eater.”

What else have I been suppressing with my decade-long love affair with smoking?  A clear voice on the other end of the line–

“Everyone’s struggle with abstinence is the same,” she said.

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Weight Watchers and Curves and homemade apple pies and early mornings at the track and fresh baked bread and long sighs of disappointment as she stepped on the scale.  My mother’s struggle with the love of food vs. the way she wanted her body to look was passed to her from her mother, and as much as we fought it, has passed down to her daughters, too.  It’s not my mother’s doing.  It’s not the sole responsibility of our skinny obsessed culture, either.  My fingerprints were not the only ones found in the icing the next morning after everyone was to be sleeping.

Because everyone’s struggle with abstinence looks the same.

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We had only stepped out for ten minutes or so, just enough time to see the new house she and her husband had been building next door, and for me to confess to Jessica that I had again fallen in love.  When we stepped back inside, not only had my 97 pound dog managed to pull the Tupperware bin of dog food that was not hers from the bottom shelf of the coffee table, but had also managed– without a tooth mark– to pull back the snap latches, remove the lid, and eat over one half of a 40 pound bag.

We induced vomiting.

We walked it off.

We spent days of her moaning back in Nashville on a soft bed with a fan pointed squarely at her to ward off the discomfort.

“Like mother, like dogger,” I said to Jessica.

Because everyone’s struggle with abstinence feels the same.

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It was behind the Church of Christian Science on the tailgate of my yellow truck, accompanied for good measure with my pal, Phill, and justified by the theater.  How was I supposed to know how to direct a couple of Christian College Freshman on how to look “natural” smoking when I, myself, had never partook?  It was art.  It was college.  It was necessary.  And so, ordering the “slimmest, most feminine young person cigarette, please” from the gas station, where my ID was scrutinized over twice, I found myself at the beginning of a decade.  This decade would have me playing out roles of early-morning-thoughtful-coffee-and-cigarette artist, late-night-drinking-bourbon-and-talking-theology 20-something, long-drives-between-states-with-moody-music traveler.  All justified by theater.

I recently attended a reading in which the author described the act of smoking being that after the first cigarette of the day, you spend each consecutive cigarette trying to recapture the feeling of the first.  And now, ten years later, I am still trying to capture the feeling of 19, 20, 21, 22…

I made a promise that I would smoke no longer than a decade, and I’m running right up against the rails.  With 30 less than a week and a half away, my mostly-on-again-sometimes-off-again relationship with smoking is coming to a blazing halt.  And despite the 2AM panic attacks of emphysema and the dull aches in my head and lungs, I persist to smoke more than I have in the past year.

“Pre-binging,” Kristie said, as I confessed to her just a couple days ago. “When you know the diet is coming, so you eat as much as you can to pre-reward yourself.”

I told my Someone that it’s not so much quitting, as agreeing to spend this decade being quit– that we can pick it up again for our 40’s.

Because everyone’s struggle with abstinence goes the same.

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And maybe that’s where the sympathy comes in.  Maybe that’s where I find myself a little less angry at my ex-husband’s late night rants and stumbling to bed.  Maybe this instance of vulnerability and fear of parting with my long-time friend, who had kept me company through my ugly divorce and my new spackled marriage, helps me see that his long-time friend– not burnt down, but drunk down– has a hard time leaving, too.  And it may not all look like digging food up from the garbage or testing the limits of lung cancer, but everyone’s struggle with abstinence is the same.

2 comments

  1. “everyone’s struggle with abstinence is the same” – This is so true. I was raised in South Carolina and was issued a pack of cigs when I was 12. I am now 47 and still struggle with smoking. I have tried everything to quit. Cold turkey, warm turkey, the gum, the patch, the rubber band on the wrist that I would pop when I felt the urge, and Chantix. The only thing that has worked well for me is switching to vaping. I have been on the vape for about 3 years now and although I am still addicted to nicotine, my lungs feel much better. I really hope you do quit and soon because you have such a beautiful singing voice. I too had a very pretty singing voice when I was younger, but decades of smoking have taken their toll. I still sing reasonably well, but I just don’t have the breath support I used to. Don’t even get me started with the overeating. everyone’s struggle with abstinence is the same.

    1. Thanks for leaving such an open and thoughtful message, Larry. It was a real pleasure meeting you last weekend. I am now officially three weeks quit, since my 30th birthday, and while I am not exactly phlegm free, I am starting to feel better by the day. And I am thrilled to keep on keeping on.

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