In the final edition of “Vices,” Alexis Sachdev calls it quits on her nicotine love affair.
“Vices” is a four-part column that challenges what we think we need. Each week, a different writer will give up something he or she “can’t live without.” We watch them land safely or crash and burn.
I was 16 when I smoked my first cigarette. As what felt like glass shards tore down my throat and the flavor of the Newport Menthol left a putrid aftertaste on my tongue, I promised myself I’d never smoke again. And I didn’t – at least not for a while.
Two years later, my one-night-stand escalated into a summer fling. I occasionally bummed a cig from a friend at a party or a concert, but this rare occurrence wasn’t a cause for concern.
We took our relationship to the next level – a full-fledged love affair – during my first fall semester. But my parents didn’t – and still don’t – know of my illicit lover, which made nicotine rendezvous difficult, especially during winter and spring breaks. Between then and now, though, I became a statistic.
My breakfast of champions isn’t a bowl of Wheaties and a glass of orange juice. It’s a Camel Turkish Gold and a large coffee with skim milk. I enjoy a nicotine rush periodically throughout the day – in between classes, on my walks to and from Main Campus, after each meal, intermittently during TECH Center study sessions and each night before bed.
I think I’m addicted.
I thought my relationship with cigarettes had gone on for too long, and I agreed to break up with Mr. Gold, though for only a week. Figuring the patch or gum would still give me a daily dose of nicotine, I decided to face this challenge cold-turkey.
My first day smoke-free went without a hitch. I found myself scrambling to study last-minute for a test the next day, and between classes and meetings all day, I couldn’t find the time to enjoy an afternoon quickie.
I knew the impending weekend – one spent at home in the suburbs – wouldn’t fare well for me, and dreaded the next evening. I gulped more coffee than usual and trucked on.
I woke up Friday morning on the metaphorical wrong side of the bed. Lacking a morning pick-me-up and realizing I had a test in a few hours, I was crabby the entire day.
When my fingers began to jitter or drum on my desks and reach for pens, pencils and anything else cylindrical, I became fully aware of the obvious chemical imbalance in my brain. I went through an entire pack of gum for a pseudo-oral fixation. But I was still craving something more: dopamine.
In other words, nicotine attaches to nerve cells, which results in a chemical signal and tells neurons to release dopamine. More dopamine means a happier Lex. Many scientists say dopamine is also what actually creates an addiction; the nicotine jumpstarts the process.
On Friday evening, I went home to the suburbs for the weekend with high hopes I could control my addiction better around my parents, who, although ex-smokers themselves, don’t approve of the habit.
Sleeplessness defined my Friday night, but I stayed strong.
Saturday, I awoke with renewed fervor, but as the listless day dragged on, I craved my old friend.
The lack of oral fixation – insert inappropriate joke here – still plagued me. I munched on apples, stuffed my face with my mom’s delicious cooking and bought another pack of gum, but to no avail.
I tried caffeine, sugar and working out to release endorphins for a dopamine fix, but once more, no cigar – literally.
I settled that evening with a glass of wine and a rerun of “Glee,” hoping to divert my racing mind. I slept poorly again and knew I was growing weak.
I spent the majority of Sunday afternoon fighting with Comcast about my bill, paying bills to Temple and writing my rent check. The woes of emerging adulthood plagued me, and once more I craved the comfort of a cigarette.
I returned to Philadelphia in the evening, ready to tackle a week’s worth of homework and crawl into bed, depressed.
What I walked into, however, was a post-war zone in my apartment. Hung-over roommates, stories of projectile vomiting and a confession from my girlfriends of borrowing my clothes for a party the previous evening hit me like a ton of bricks and poured salt on the unhealed wounds of my Comcast conflict.
I needed a cigarette.
I dashed to the closest 7-Eleven, tore off the cellophane and ripped open the pack like a crazed animal. With a flick of my Bic lighter and a deep inhale, I finally found relief – weak and embarrassing relief, but relief nonetheless.
I learned two very important lessons during my four-day challenge. First, biology is not a force to be reckoned with. If your brain wants dopamine, you better give it dopamine unless you want to rip your hair out like yours truly found herself doing.
Second, I am Mr. Gold’s mistress; I let cigarettes control my life, my happiness and my sanity. I won’t be quitting again any time soon, but I have resolved to get a greater control over my addiction to avoid the same fate as the Marlboro Man.
Alexis Sachdev can be reached at email@example.com.