Writing assignment 1: smoking

Part I: Craving

I began this post, “I found myself wanting…” but I realized that “wanting” is an entirely amorphous state, a way of articulating a mental and bodily phenomenon that obscures, rather than reveals, its own essence. The question is, how do I know that I want, what is wanting? There are, for me, several aspects to it.

First, there is the purely mental. My mind keeps circling back to the memory of the sensation of smoking. It’s discursive, narrative: the words pass through my mind, “I want a cigarette. I need a cigarette.” There are follow-on thoughts, such as “I don’t want a cigarette, I don’t want to be a smoker. Smoking kills. I don’t want to kill myself.” And there are more follow-on thoughts: “I can smoke just one (more).” “One won’t kill me.” “I’ve stopped before.” And then there are rejoinders: “Who the fuck are you (am I) kidding? Quitting is the hardest thing you’ve (I’ve) ever done, why are you (am I) messing around with this?” I think about the importance of not thinking about smoking, of thinking about other things, of doing other things. But, as with any obsession, in this state – the state that leads to succumbing, rather than to avoidance/resistance – I am powerless. The thought vortex has the force of a black hole, and if I’m in this state, I descend into it.

Second, there is the bodily. I salivate, imagining the sensation of smoke passing through my mouth, down my throat. I’ve heard (read?) that the notion that cigarettes have a “taste” or “flavor” really is incorrect, a canard, advanced by the tobacco industry: taste is communicated by the taste buds to the brain. Smoking doesn’t interact with the taste buds (well, other than by damaging them). Maybe this is true, maybe it’s not. But it seems accurate that what I tell myself is a taste is really something else, something composite – a series of smells, combined with a series of sensations in my mouth and throat that all reduce to the sense not of taste, but of touch. But my brain does a trick on me: it bundles those all together, the touch sensations in my mouth and the smells, and it tells me those are a taste. And my mouth gets just a little wetter, imagining that “taste.”

And there’s the trunk of my body. I find myself taking shorter and shorter breaths, a sort of tension and anxiety manifesting in my chest, which tightens. My shoulders hunch just a tiny bit up, and forward. And (I think, but I’m not certain, that) my posture deteriorates just a bit. I slouch, my head tipping forward, facing down just a degree or three. Breaths don’t reach as deep in my torso when they come in; at the peak of the in-breath, I feel less… satisfied, less full of air. Like I can’t quite get the breath I crave, sort of a micro-suffocation, a gesture in the direction of what it must feel like to drown, or to be waterboarded – the sensation of not enough air. And then, to circle back to the mental, that triggers a thought, a memory: smoking fixes this all. When I smoke a cigarette, I stand up straighter, taller; my head faces forward, not down; my shoulders ease down, back; my chest relaxes as my solar plexus loosens; breaths penetrate deeper, more fully, leaving me feeling satiated when I breathe, healthier. More alive.

I know this is insane: I’m killing myself, not making myself live, but this is what happens. At least in anticipation.

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