A Real Drag

Where there was smoke, now there's ire.

"And this is the Black Lung," said Mrs. Carlson, brushing that same invisible strand of hair from her face. We were in sixth-grade science class, had just finished the filmstrip series Happy Hormones and You and were headed toward the dreaded book-on-cassette Ann Landers Talks Teen. But first we had to mark Nicotine Awareness Week, during which my geeky and naive sixth-grade self curled up in comfort, watching movies about the side effects of a drug that I knew I'd never do. The culmination of this segment was Mrs. Carlson's special presentation. Like the hostess of a grand dinner party about to utter the immortally creepy phrase "Dinner is served," she flipped back a drape to reveal...a disappointingly small, pathetic charbroiled filet from a smoker of twenty years. The Black Lung was a boogeyman with no boogey.

Exactly twenty years later, the counselor on the phone is saying I can be part of the Radiant Research Laboratories stop-smoking study. I've been complaining about smoking for ages, and have two failed attempts to quit already under my belt. Third time's a charm, right? But as soon as I say I'll join, I grieve over my decision as I would over a secretly broken marriage.

Dear Mr. Marlboro Man,

We have had some amazing time, you and I -- and as hard as this is to do, it is the best thing for both of us. Please believe me: This hurts me much more than it hurts you.

Week one: From across the desk, the white-coated counselor asks, "On a scale of one to ten, what is your determination to quit?"

I think hard, bite my upper lip. "Nine," I lie.

The counselor asks why I started smoking -- but asking that is like asking why I started drinking beer or why I started having sex. Everyone was doing it, it felt good, and when I wasn't doing it, I wanted to be doing it. Duh. She wants to know if I think that cigarette-company advertising had any impact on my picking up the habit at the age of fifteen. On some level, I suppose it did, but even the best class-action lawsuit attorney in the country couldn't hang my cloud-snacking on Joe Camel. Instead, blame a sexy seventeen-year-old with acid-washed jeans and a pack of Camels rolled up in one sleeve. Oh, yeah, I inhaled -- I inhaled sweet cancerous lung love with my main man on a daily basis and could eventually puff smoke rings around the pros. But at the end of my freshman year, Paul dumped me for a thespian new-waver who worshiped Simon LeBon even more than I did -- leaving me brokenhearted, sobbing "Save a Prayer for Me Now" and smoking like I had an addiction. Which I did.

Week two: The reality of quitting is sinking in. As part of the double-blind study, I'm issued three bottles of capsules. Bottle One has ten capsules, of which I am to take one a day. Bottle Two has twenty capsules, of which I am to take one a day. Bottle Three has twenty capsules, of which I am to take two a day. The doses are designed to be confusing, in case I have any sinister plans of meddling with Radiant Research's weird science. As the counselor hands me the pills and a contract that says I agree to participate in the study for eleven weeks in exchange for $500, it seems too good to be true. I am haunted by Grace Slick moaning Go ask Alice.

My counselor sets my quit date, which passes with little fanfare. Sure, I miss the damn things. A constant nag chews at my mind, and my life feels like I'm driving without a seat belt. I load up on animal crackers, raisins, granola bars and natural licorice -- a holistic friend tells me it will help curb the cravings.

Week three: I've been experiencing feelings of depression and withdrawal. When I tell my counselor this at our weekly appointment, she practically straps on the straitjacket as she leads me through a series of paper tests and verbal inquiries. Am I depressed? Of course I am -- I want a cigarette, and I want it bad. Am I suicidal? Over cigarettes? Please. (Mental note: When asked if you have any symptoms of depression, lie.)

Week four: The shaking of my hands and the midnight skin crawls seem to be subsiding, but my mood has gotten worse. Instead of my peppy signature "Howdee," I am greeting people with "Yeah, what the fuck do you want?"-- at least in my mind. Everything and everyone feels like fingernails up my spine, and my husband and I are considering marriage counseling.

This week's meeting with the counselor only pours gasoline in my wounds. She informs me that I am the sole test subject who hasn't started smoking again. She smiles at me, slapping some sort of doctor/patient high-five, but immediately I feel betrayed. What the hell makes my unknown fellow lab rats so special that they get to smoke? I want to smoke! In fact, I don't just want to smoke -- I want to fall off the wagon into a big vat of nicotine. I want to eat it, drink it, inject it and make love to it.

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