19 January 2017

An Addict's Life

by Eve Fisher

Divine in Heaven T-shirt.jpg
I grew up in Southern California in the 60's, which explains a lot. (Thank-fully, there was no Facebook, and no cell phones that took pictures, so I can deny everything.)  As I've said before, it was an interesting time and place to be a teenager.  There's nothing like starting off in a place where there are people of every ethnicity and religion.  (I still love the good juicy mix of people that you can only find in a multi-cultural city.)  Where people still might not be officially out of the closet - although wearing great designer drag - but the euphemisms were very thin and nobody was fooling anyone. (I learned about Jim Nabors when I was ten, and it didn't bother me a bit.) Where cult-shops were on offer everywhere you looked (which is why I know a cult when I see one, even if it's called a church, a party, a membership, or a club).  Where you were never sure if what was going on was reality or someone shooting a movie/tv show (now that could get a little weird...).

And then there were drugs.  Everywhere, oceans of them, both on and off-label, as it were.  I remember when I went to junior high, and the girls' bathroom reeked of what I quickly found out was not just cigarettes (my parents smoked), but also marijuana.  Reds and whites (downers and uppers) were widely available. And other things.  And wide recreational use was helped by the fact that both my junior high and high school were outdoor campuses.  Literally.

Only the actual classrooms and the auditorium were indoors.  The lockers were under the equivalent of concrete carports; the cafeteria was a row of vending machines (they even had burritos, which we all somehow ate and survived...) under their own concrete carport, and there were metal tables (never enough) under their own sheds.  The idea was that we students would dine and relax and run playfully on the wide and spreading lawns.  And we did.  Just not the way they [officially] planned.

Now, my personal experience in life is that almost all children and teenagers, given half a chance to run amok, will.  And in Southern California, where the weather was good and the teachers were worn out...   So freedom, space, opportunity...  most of us took it.

There is a period, from say 12 to 25, where people will do as much drinking, drugging, etc. as they can.  Whether or not they really feel like it.  Those of you who have ever worked at a candy store or a pizza place and been told, "eat all you want" will know how after a while, you don't really feel like it anymore, but you keep doing it because it's free, man, and you're supposed to want this stuff... Most people, after a few weeks/months of gorging will stop.  They may never want the candy, etc. ever again.  But during that time of gorging, you'd be really hard pressed to figure out who's an addict/alcoholic and who isn't.  I know anyone who watched me from 14 to early 20s would have been sure I was headed to rehab.  I drank, I smoked, I did some prescription drugs (my parents had bottles of both booze and Darvon everywhere), and later, when I left home, I did everything I could get my hands on. Just about everyone I knew did the same.

And then, it got old.  I quit doing pretty much anything but pot, alcohol, and cigarettes when I turned 18.  I quit smoking dope a couple of years later, when I figured out that it did nothing for my writing but make me think it was better than it was.  And then there was the early morning (2:30 PM) after the last big New Years' party of my life, where I turned to my new husband and said, "There has got to be a better way to start a new year than this."  And from then on, I was a social drinker.  One glass of wine, two at the most, and I'm done, thanks.

So, if you want to figure out if your teenager is an addict or alcoholic, chances are you really should wait until they're in their 20's to make a final call.  (I know, I know, what if you can't wait that long? Go to Al-Anon.  I am dead serious.  It can save your sanity, and perhaps your life.  Check HERE for a meeting near you.)

So, everything worked out great for me, right?  Yes, it did.  Except that I had one addiction I could not shake:  cigarettes.

Marlboro - my brand for years
Now this didn't bother me for years.  I loved smoking.  I loved the taste of it, the feel of it, the style of it, watching the smoke curl up to the ceiling, the activity, the movement of my hands, and the knowledge that I always had something to do.  It warmed me when I was cold, cooled me off when I was hot, tamped down the hunger pangs, tasted sooo good after a meal, fit in perfectly with my reading addiction (see my blog of 1/5/17), and was somewhere between the best thing that ever happened to me and my pacifier.  Smoking was entwined in almost everything I did, in almost every moment of my day.  I didn't know and I didn't care whether or not I was addicted: smoking was GREAT.

Fast forward twenty, thirty years.  I'm in my 40s, and I'm starting to feel it.  Colds sink into my chest and stay there.  I kind of want to quit, although I don't actually say it.  I'm struggling to cut down, to keep it under a pack, which I manage, and then under half a pack.  If I only smoke half a pack, that's fine, right?  It's better than nothing, and I still can't imagine being without cigarettes.  How do people live without smoking? How did I?  I can't remember it?  I can't envision it - not without a panic attack.  I am hooked, although I'm still in denial...

In my 50s, and I want to quit, God do I want to quit.  I can't deny it anymore:  my lungs are foggy, I'm coughing too much, my wind is gone, this is not good.  My journals are all about my struggle with addiction:  I tried Chantix (didn't work); I tried tapering down even more; I tried to quit outright, and failed, because I kept being ravaged by desire for a cigarette...  and I couldn't not give in.  I kept doing that years.  Tapering off, cutting down, going back, quitting, going back, on and on and bloody on...  I couldn't live with out that damned cigarette.  And the next one after that.  And the one after that...

Image result for horehound drops
Not me, but close enough...
When I did quit, it was a miracle, plain and simple. My husband had a heart attack, and was hospitalized for 3 days.  I spent those days in the heart hospital with him, and I knew that that meant the nicotine was physically out of my system.  So - now or never, baby! And, by the grace of God, along with a sack of horehound drops big enough to choke a small hippo and a stack of straws, I quit.

TIP OF THE DAY:  If you cut a straw in half, it is the exact size and shape of a cigarette, and not only can you can puff away on them, but it fills that space in your hands, and that hand-to-mouth action of smoking, that cigarettes held for years.

There were times I thought I would die.  I'd walk by someone smoking and smell that warm, wonderful smell and practically reach down their shirt pocket for a smoke.  Something stressful would happen, and I would walk around the house puffing madly on that damned straw and thinking "this is lame."  And there would be that time, late afternoon, work mostly done, sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea and my heart breaking because that had been the best cigarette of the day.  (That and the one after lunch, the one after dinner, the one after that, and...)  But, through the grace of God, I bulled through.  For one thing, I kept telling myself, "Fine, go ahead and have one.  But if you do, you'll just have to quit again."  And I knew I could never go through this again and make it...

Skull with a Burning
Cigarette -
Vincent Van Gogh
And now, I have over 6 years smoke free (after 40 years of smoking). God is great.  Huzzah!

Why am I telling you all this?  Because addiction is real.  Addiction is a disease.  I learned that the hard way.  There are still times when I want a cigarette.  There is a part of my mind that - against my will, I swear to God - likes to look back with nostalgia and regret for the good old days of smoking.  I've got my addiction, like a gorilla, bound up in a corner in my mind, but if I give it an inch, it will come roaring out and eat me alive again.  I know that.  And I'm terrified of that.

And at the same time, I'm so glad.  Because otherwise, how would I understand what it's like for alcoholics? drug addicts? addictive gamblers? other addicts? How could I relate to the guys at the pen, most of whom have been wrestling (and mostly losing) the battle with the gorilla for years?

It's not a matter of will power.  It's not a matter of moral fiber.  It's a mental/physical disease that takes a long, hard time to uproot.  That sometimes is never uprooted.  That is waiting, always, to lure you back again, into one more dance with the devil.  And the worst part of it is the mental, not the physical.  It's the mind - that devious, malicious, faux-nostalgic, faux-friendly, faux-helpful f***ing mind that still screws with me, and that I'll have to watch out for until my dying day.  And so will every other addict.

Image may contain: textMaybe someday our laws will reflect that.  As I've said before, mental illness has been pretty much made illegal in this country.  Rather than getting treatment, it's expected that the family will get their loved one the help they need -
(a brief intermission while all of us in Al-Anon or other family support groups have a long, hard, bitter laugh - again, HERE's the link to Al-Anon, and to NAMI
that the family will somehow get their loved one to the treatment they need, make sure they take their meds (if any exist), and keep them out of trouble.  It doesn't work.  (In fact, usually, it's the people closest to you that you can help the least.) Allow me to repeat that:  IT DOESN'T WORK.

Addiction, like any other mental illness, like any other illness, needs professional help from the get-go, not shame and secrets and expectations that do nothing but drive it further underground.  And then, when the addict finally does something that lands them in the hospital and/or prison and/or the morgue everyone acts so shocked!  How could that happen?

Because there isn't enough treatment.  Because there aren't enough facilities.  Because there aren't enough programs.  Because none of them, without really GOOD insurance, are affordable.  Because we don't believe, as a nation, that addiction is an illness, that mental illness is really an illness, and that treatment / medication / therapy really works.  Instead, we keep talking this BS about willpower, and then, when people's lives have crumbled, we say stupid things like, "I hope they get the help they need."

Maybe.  Someday.  In the meantime, I am so fortunate, and I know it.  


  1. I'm glad you were finally able to quit smoking, Eve. We finally got my mom to quit after years of trying and the doctors told us quitting gave her 20 more years of life.

  2. Thanks, Paul. It is very hard to quit smoking, at least for some of us. Addiction is both psychological, physical, and social. And cigarettes - they used to be so welded to every moment of daily life that it only made it more entrenched. Thank God, I am (hopefully) done.

  3. If I had known the odds, I doubt if I would have succeeded. Kudos.

  4. Congratulations on quitting smoking & I hope your husband is in good health these days. My sister & I were both nicotine slaves for years. In fact, she still is. She's two years younger than I am & got me started smoking when I was 15. She was 12 or 13.

    Husband & I moved to Buffalo in 2004 & discovered that Indian cigarettes were only 81 cents a pack by the carton. Long story short, he received the first of two pacemakers, health continued to worsen & the price of non-Indian cigarettes skyrocketed. He & I both put the cigs down several years ago, but I know I don't need to tell you how difficult it was.

    My sister, mentioned above, suffered at least one stroke in January of 2016. Her hubby found her but nobody knows how long she was out. She was in ICU & then a rehab center for months. Finally went home in the summer ... the physical addiction was long gone, but THEN she thought she needed to pick up the cigs again. She was not supposed to drive, but went out to buy smokes, hit a parked car, didn't report it, license revoked, etc. And she still chain smokes. Her husband is talking about moving to assisted living, since he knows she won't be able to manage if anything happens to him.

    I know you know from your work in the prison system that ramen soups have replaced cigarettes as currency!

    I am sorry this is so long but I had a lot to say ;-)

  5. Very interesting post, Eve--thank you. I'm no expert on addiction, but I wonder if overeating could be considered a kind of addiction, too, or at least similar to addiction in many ways. And it's an addiction people can't overcome by quitting cold turkey, by deciding they'll never eat again. How many alcoholics would succeed if they tried to overcome their addiction by having small drinks three times a day?

  6. Elizabeth, yes, I do know that ramen is THE currency in prison. Congratulations on you and your making it through cigarette addiction; it is so hard. Your sister's case is classic relapse - because addiction is far more in the mind than in the body.

    B.K., I think overeating is an addiction, and I think it may be the hardest one exactly because you can't do cold turkey. You have to keep eating to stay alive. I'm amazed anyone ever overcomes that.

  7. I don’t deserve to comment. I’ve never been addicted to drink, drugs, cigarettes, so it’s easy to ignore what others go through. I lived and went to school in the heart of Greenwich Village and never drank, never drugged, never even tempted. The much touted peer pressure never came up.

    Sex was my drug of choice, but that may or may not be regarded as an addiction. People can become addicted to bad relationships. Was that me? Setting that habit aside, I remained a dependency virgin.

    I’ve heard how addictive substances can be, that tobacco is one of the worst ever both in addictiveness and in damage. In research for a story, I studied the lungs and how tar gums up the delicate alveoli, bringing oxygen exchange to a gradual halt. If people knew that, they’d surely stop smoking, right?

    Smoke makes people smell bad and taste bad. Not just the mouth, but the body, if you follow my drift. If people knew how awful they tasted and smelled, they’d stop, right? Of course it’s not that simple.

    I have an addiction that drives me crazy. Coke. No, no, the liquid kind, Coca-Cola. I used it throughout my software design career. Eventually, I learned I was self-medicating. I’m beset with attention deficit disorder and many stimulants ‘cool the brain’. I never liked or trusted prescription treatments for ADD, but the caffeine relaxes me, makes it possible to concentrate. In ADD people, some drugs have inverse reactions. If I have trouble sleeping, I imbibe caffeine to help me rest.

    Except… I’m addicted to the damn stuff. Acidic juices like limeade and lemonade help mitigate, but Coke remains the drug of choice.

    It feels childish and stupid to get hooked on something so simpl: caffeine, carbonated water and high-fructose corn syrup. And it drives me ƒ-ing crazy.

    When it comes to the hard stuff… I can sympathize and feel thankful “There but for the grace of God…” That line is more true than what many people imagine.

  8. I’ve read that mental health treatment is actually more effective and cost-effective than that for physical health. Yet something in our national psyche forbids us from doing the sensible thing.

  9. It's a messed up world, isn't it, Leigh? Personally, I think everybody's addicted to something. And yes, mental health treatment would probably solve more problems than physical health... but that's not gonna happen.

  10. Leigh, I'm addicted to caffeine myself. I can tell you that Coca-Cola from certain bottling plants contains more caffeine than others. The Coke you get from the Philadelphia plant will keep you wired, at least it did the last time I was there. Mexican Coca-Cola, same thing.

    With regard to cigarettes, I have heard that the nicotine itself isn't the problem, the delivery system is. I would buy a pack of cigarettes only if I were going to be seeing the Donald up close & would have a chance to light one & blow the smoke at him. Otherwise, no.

  11. Elizabeth, I hadn't realized the formulation for Coke varied between bottling plants. Here in Florida, we sometimes see Mexican Coca-Cola, but they advertise the draw that it's made with real sugar instead of fructose. It's an insidious habit!

  12. Both caffeine and sugar are MAJOR addictions.

  13. When I was 14, an older cousin introduced me to beer and Pall Malls. The army continued the smoking habit. In Nam, we got a free 4-pack of cigarettes in every C-ration package. It took 23 years to break the habit cold turkey after a multitude of false starts. Now, it went the other way and I can't stand to be around cigarette smoke.


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