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A Real Drag

"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.

The counselor explains that it's been easier for me because I have such good support systems. As she finishes this sentence, I reach across the table, pull her eyes out of their sockets and sever the optic nerves with my bloodied teeth. "Easy?"

All smoking-cessation counselors should be required by law to have kicked the habit themselves. And not just a half-a-day habit -- that only qualifies you as an experimental user who could never feel my pain. Think about something you've been doing non-stop for twenty years, something that has given you endless pleasure and also seen you through difficult times. Think about having to give up that something you truly love -- forever:

Sorry, Dave, you must give up porn. I know the world seems to lose all its luster and becomes a big, overwhelming black well of misery without your sexual lovejoy, and even though you may become cranky, belligerent, mean-spirited and just generally nasty to be around, it really is the best thing for you. Oh, and Dave, everyone around you is going to be jacking off, m'kay?

Week seven: At 3:30 a.m., five and a half weeks since I smoked my last cigarette, I'm sitting at the computer, losing my mind. My skin feels like it is made of thick, uncleaned wool. My brain feels damp and itchy. I want to pry off pieces of my flesh -- starting with my palms and the soles of my feet. I eat black licorice like a fiend, trying to gorge the pain away. Five and a half fucking weeks later, this is what withdrawal feels like. I suddenly have empathy for heroin junkies; no way would I have the strength to give up junk. Poor Hunter S. I look in the mirror and smile through greenish-black, licoriced teeth and do not recognize the face smiling back at me. I say out loud to no one and everyone, "Will I ever be happy again?"

I meet with the counselor, who notches out each week I don't smoke like a gold star. I resent her joy in my struggle. I tell her that things have really hit bottom between the husband and me. He's trying to understand, but his efforts annoy me. I am emotionally out of control and wonder if I need a psychotherapist. She assures me that this is part of the process -- the feelings of being out of control, the irritability, the depression. When they hit, she suggests that I count to twenty, because "I understand what you're going through and know that ten probably just doesn't work for you anymore."

Eight weeks: Sure, I still inhale a little deeper when someone is walking past with a cigarette, but even that's starting to lose its draw. I am able to better control the urges, though I occasionally have a few moments when I seriously consider chewing off my right arm as a smoking inhibitor. The physical shit is manageable; the problem is in my brain. I know I am in control of my own happiness. After 35 years of broken hearts and abandoned dreams, I know where my boot straps are and how to use them. But this is different. It's like I can't remember what happiness ever felt like. I now only know being on the dole or off -- nothing else.

Nine weeks: Today, week nine of the study (but who's counting?), a non-smoking friend has a non-smoker conversation with me. He says that if Denver would pass its own smoking ban, he'd actually go out more, because after knocking a few beers back and inhaling all that secondhand fog, he always needs several days of recovery. I agree. But then he says, "I just don't understand, in this day and age, with all the information out there, why any of my friends still smoke."

Don't just pass the judgment, friend, but actually ask the question. Why would that attractive, self-assured woman at the next table smoke? Do you think she does it to be cool? How about that guy, the fifty-something businessman walking down the street? Ya think he does it to fit in with the hip crowd? Maybe they both tried to quit. Maybe they gave it their best shot but believed the third day was truly the hardest. Maybe someone told them, "Lately, you're just not fun anymore." Maybe they found themselves in divorce court.

I'm not saying that lighting up a cigarette will solve my problems. It's completely illogical to believe that if I spark a fag, the sun will come out and I will be happy. It's absurd to think that my marital problems could be traced to the end of a filter. Or is it? For two decades, my body, mind and spirit have related love, relaxation and fun with smoking. Am I now supposed to relearn these behaviors overnight and convince my poor husband that he wants to love this new, witchy woman?

Ten weeks: The end -- of the study, at least -- is in sight, and I'd love to serve up a Hollywood ending. You know the one: I wake up and the sun's come out, the birds are singing, and my husband and I walk down a tree-lined path hand in hand. But right now, my life is less like a blockbuster romantic comedy and more like a dime-store novel. I'm trying to answer the greater question of whether this has been worth it, and to be honest, I just don't know. The non-smoking existential indie-rocker from whom I get my morning coffee asks, "Life is so short and we are all just going to die anyway, so why even suffer through kicking this addiction?"

To combat the idea that I might get smooshed by an existential bus tomorrow (and wouldn't I go more happily if there were a cigarette in my hand?), I hang the image of the Black Lung in my head every night before I go to sleep. It's scarier now, knowing that the nasty thing has taken up residence in my chest, like the sticky slime-creature in Alien. But somehow, even with all of the reports, pictures, statistics and propaganda, the Black Lung doesn't frighten me as much as the prospect of a life without cigarettes.

Eleven weeks: On the last day of the study, my counselor congratulates me with a gold-embossed completion certificate and a check for $500. I am now able to admit that she has helped me on this journey -- even if most of the time I wanted to reach into her chest and grab her pink, healthy, never-smoked-a-cigarette lungs and wrap them around her ears like a pair of iPod headphones. But this warm fuzzy moment is swallowed by an oncoming craving, and I have the sudden desire to flee.

"One last question," she says, basking in the glory of her therapeutic success. "On a scale of one to ten, what is your determination to never smoke again?"

I think hard, bite my upper lip and say, "Nine."