Smoking: Seven days in a haze

This column appeared as part of an in-depth four-day series of stories in The Times entitled “The Cost of Smoking.”

April 2, 2001 — Smokers, I salute you.

It takes dedication to become addicted, a willingness to endure the headaches, the hacking and the horrible smell.

It’s a reverse withdrawal, of sorts. A hard road that leads to dependence.

Recently, I decided to endure the ride — or at least a very small portion of it. I became a smoker for a week.

But after 49 cigarettes in seven days, the only craving I felt was for a breath of fresh air and a bottle of mouthwash.

It was midnight and I was at a party in Atlanta. Time for smoke No. 1. My accomplices ushered me to the smoking area — outside. It was cold.

So we shivered and sucked. Shivered and sucked. All the while, I was tutored on the proper toking technique.

Mine needed some work. My two-handed ash-flick was all wrong. I coughed violently with each attempt to inhale. I did, however, feel I had made some progress when I blew smoke out my nose.

Outside, I was an obvious outsider.

“I’ve been trying to quit for three years,” one smoker grumbled from the stoop, “and this guy is trying to start?”

He took three long drags before throwing his butt down in disgust.

Nearly all the smokers I encountered were trying to quit. Some said they already had — and now only smoke after a good meal, or when they drink alcohol, or when their nerves need calming, or when they’re driving their car, or … you get the idea.

I lit up another. There is an etiquette to the activity, you know.

“Dan, try not to blow the smoke in my face,” my friend said.

“Oh yeah. Sorry.”

My smoking lesson stayed with me the following morning. I could taste it in my mouth. I could smell it on my hand.

I smoked again after breakfast. A morning cigarette really clears the head, a friend told me.

A clear head sure feels a lot like a headache.

I realized quickly that I would have to schedule my days around the cigarettes. This is a time-consuming habit. And for someone without the inner alarm clock of addiction, it requires much planning.

I began to wonder if smokers come to work early, or if they get work done more quickly or if they just do less work. I found it hard to work cigarettes into my work day.

I did learn that all of the really important conversations at the office happened outside, near the ashtray. I felt connected … and lightheaded. During those smoke breaks, I was a member of an exclusive — and smelly — club.

I went to the Huddle House after work for a bite to eat. When I walked in, the cook and waitress were sitting in a booth and smoking.

I sat nearby and lit up. Service was better than usual.

This was a big step. I had to buy my first pack.

Up to this point, I was still using the Marlboro Lights I bummed off my friend at the party.

I bought my pack at a smoothie shop that I frequent down the road from my gym. I surprised the girl who works there when I ordered smokes to go with my post-workout smoothie.

She thought I was joking. I was beginning to wish I was. I didn’t feel too good. Maybe it was all the carbon monoxide.

I began smoking my cigarettes quicker and quicker. I couldn’t wait for them to end.

In college, I had a professor who would do this before class. He could finish a cigarette in three drags.

No pleasure. Just nicotine.

My co-workers began hiding my cigarettes from me. They wanted me to fidget. They wanted to see me cranky.

But I felt no craving at all. Not like the ones I get for spearmint gum or orange popsicles.

I coughed up something nasty this morning. So I stepped out on my porch and smoked a cigarette. The old hair-of-the-dog theory, right?

Not sure if my neighbors could see me puffing away, but they could sure hear me. I hacked my way through two Marlboro Lights.

I went through the day in a smoky haze. Each cigarette gave me time to think … about when I would smoke the next one. Smoking, it seemed, was beginning to take up most of my time.

I wondered how those who smoke one, two, three packs a day manage. We all need a hobby, I suppose.

I started smoking in the car, an effort to make the most of my suddenly precious time. Smoking while driving is not for the undexterous. Which hand holds the cigarette? Which hand holds the wheel?

I flicked my ashes out the window and they blew right back in. I threw the burning butt out the window and it flew back in, too. I panicked. I almost swerved into oncoming traffic.

And people complain about drivers using cell phones.

I pounded four cigarettes right after I got back from the gym. A nice little workout warmdown. I wanted to get them out of the way early.

Someone at the office said I was beginning to look “haggard.” Another said I had taken on “a smell.” One of cigarettes, I hope.

While sitting on the “smokers’ bench” outside the office, I discussed the habit with an addicted colleague. During a pause in our conversation, she took a puff and turned to me.

“You know, I feel a lot better when I don’t smoke,” she said matter-of-factly.

I nodded, inhaled and coughed.

I braced myself for the next two days. Nineteen cigarettes to go. Almost an entire pack.

I wondered what look comes after “haggard.”

A friend pinpointed my problem with inhaling. Turns out I, in a hurry to finish, would take in too much smoke with each breath. Small puffs allow the poison to permeate the body — which is the goal.

So now I could inhale, sort of. And it made me feel quite ill. I had gotten used to the constant headache, the incessant cough. This was worse.

Nine cigarettes didn’t go by quickly. I stayed awake an extra hour just to smoke my self-inflicted quota.

A pile of butts began to accumulate outside my house. I left them there as a monument to my misery.

As if taking up smoking for a week wasn’t stupid enough, the idea led to other actions of similar stupidity.

I found myself driving up Interstate 985 with my window rolled down in the freezing cold … just so I could use the time to smoke.

Yes, smoking causes cancer. But it can also cause head colds. It did with me.

But that’s OK. After cigarette No. 49 was finally finished, a head cold seemed like heaven compared to another day spent smoking.

I was anxious to once again use my car lighter for its primary purpose — recharging my cell phone.

And I couldn’t wait to take a shower.

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