'We are of all men the most miserable'

by Michael Sean Winters

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"We are of all men the most miserable." 1 Corinthians 15:19.

We, of course, are former smokers.

I began smoking as a freshman in college and, later, when I was running a restaurant, it was not uncommon to smoke two packs a day. I did not really smoke them all, or at least I developed that rationalization. It was the nature of the work, that you would light a cigarette, leave it to attend to any one of the dozen hourly emergencies that demand the attention of a restaurant manager, return to the host stand, and the cigarette was almost burnt out. My doctor told me that I needed to quit by the time I was 40, or emphysema would inevitably be a part of my dying process. Having watched my favorite uncle, who had also smoked most of his adult life, slowly die from cancer and with emphysema attending him every step at the way, this warning from the doctor convinced me to quit.

Two weeks before my target date, I started taking Wellbutrin, an anti-depressant that curbs one's appetites. It also requires abstention from alcohol. Yikes! The day to quit arrived, I put on the patch, and the whole process was much easier than anticipated. I was vaguely homicidal, of course, and I put on a ton of weight, and everywhere you look, you see someone smoking. But all in all, it went pretty well. I had worried about drinking coffee, which had always been accompanied by a cigarette, and whether I should stay away from that, too, but my wise doctor said, "Concentrate on how good the coffee tastes." He was right.

My doctor also explained that unless a person wants to quit, they can try all the gimmicks, and it won't work. You have to want to become a non-smoker. This makes sense: Success efforts are never built on a lie. But, that is not the lie that I suspect trips most people up. No one would attempt to quit unless some part of them wanted to do so. They then go too far and try and convince themselves that they hated smoking, which is a different lie, and just as deadly. Not me. I enjoyed every cigarette I ever smoked. Every one.

After the initial challenges, as your sinuses readjust, and your gums start and stop bleeding, and you pick up habits that involve your hands (God bless the inventor of computer Mahjong!), you get along. You start realizing that most people do not actually smoke. You start thinking about how much time you spent looking for an ashtray.

For the next few years, I never even thought about smoking ... until the day my parents were in a terrible car accident, and both were going into emergency surgery, and a friend came to the hospital and asked if there was anything she could get or do for me. A pack of cigarettes, please. That is the thing about them: They never abandon you. They are always there. They never harbor a nasty surprise (at least, not until much later in life and it is not really a surprise). When you are stressed, there are as reliable a distraction as the sun's rising in the east is reliable.

About a year and a half ago, I was walking from a restaurant where we had just had dinner with a dear friend. I was, of course, enjoying the post-dinner cigarette. My friend, who had always been very courteous about my habit, told me that he thought my work for the church was important, and that I should not shorten my life by smoking. This was, as you can imagine, very flattering and it planted a seed. I have tended that seed ever since and, a little more than two months ago, I started my Wellbutrin, and toward the end of April, I had my last cigarette. It was as delicious as all the previous ones. I was again vaguely homicidal for a few weeks, certainly more testy than usual and when disagreeing with people who were patently wrong, less generous with their faulty arguments than I should have been. I am not sure if it is a comment on our readership, but I also seem to have gotten more compliments in the past two months on my writing than ever before!

Smoking was one of my few white trash habits. I do not watch professional wrestling. I do not drink wine out of a box or beer out of a can. I do not wear pants that expose my behind when I bend over. I am not going to vote for Donald Trump. Now, all I have left is lotto. I do miss the smokes.

Once, in the past two months, I had a cigarette. A bishop friend comes to Washington a few times a year and we always go to dinner. In the past, I would offer him one of my smokes as we walked back to the car from the restaurant. He has the enviable ability to smoke one or two cigarettes a day and then put them in a drawer and have no more. A month or so ago, we went to dinner and, as we walked back to the car, we stopped at a store so he could buy a pack and we each had one cigarette. It was as delicious as I remembered.

A friend who got all messed up with drugs and alcohol told me that quitting cigarettes was harder than quitting cocaine, or booze or crystal meth. I believe him. It has been two months, and I still think about smoking every waking moment. The other night, I even had one of those weird dreams in which I was looking for a store to buy cigarettes in Little Rock, except the town in the dream wasn't Little Rock, it was some Midwestern town that had been in my dreams before but which corresponds to no city in real life I have ever visited. I could not find cigarettes anywhere and, if you know Arkansas, that is not even plausible as they sell cigarettes everywhere except the Baptist church.

I will always miss smoking. I like the taste. I like the conversations with strangers one has outside airport terminals where they force the smokers to go. I like the smell. I like the look of the smoke as it wafts into the air. Mercifully, I am not one of those nasty ex-smokers who berates those who still indulge. And, if Vice President Joe Biden announces he has found a cure for cancer, it will be best not to get into my way as I dash to the corner store.

We are the most miserable of men, we former smokers. But, hey, we get to be a bit miserable a few years longer than if we had not kicked the habit. In heaven, cigarettes will cause no harm and there will be an ashtray in every room.

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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