In Praise of Smoking
by Anne Moore
They say smoking kills, but my family must be the exception that proves the rule, because my father and I can both claim that smoking saved our lives. For my dad, there’s the added drama of history: no shit, he was working at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and was on his way to the very wing that got hit to check out the recent renovations when he stepped outside for a cigarette. While he was outside, my brother called from New York to let him know that he was safe. As they were trading shell-shocked analyses of the situation, my dad felt the ground shake under his feet and the call suddenly dropped. He wandered through Rosslyn for over an hour before he could make the outgoing calls that brought him out of limbo and back into the world.
His own father had died at 64 of emphysema, and the constant game of codependent chicken between him and my mother was the background noise of my childhood, as she tried to hold out new punishments or rewards that might convince him to quit: “I’m going to sign up for this class to learn Spanish, because I know it’s important that I keep up my interests after you die and I’m alone”; “If you quit smoking, I swear I’ll stop bothering you about how much money you spend restoring your motorcycle.” That year at Thanksgiving, though, there was a minor coup during our annual gratitude parlor game in which we write down what we’re grateful for and then everyone has to match the person with the statement. My mother’s lips got thinner as she unfolded piece after piece of creased paper declaring how glad we were that he still smoked. “You shouldn’t encourage him,” my mom huffed, “he already thinks he’s bulletproof, and this certainly isn’t helping.”
For me, it was less dramatic. Following the pattern of idiot teenagers since the beginning of time, I started smoking in high school. My dad bought Marlboro Lights by the case and kept them in a drawer next to the phone in the kitchen. There were never fewer than five packs in the drawer at a time, so it was easy for me to take one. I’d been pretending to smoke pen caps in class since grade school, but the mechanics of actual smoking didn’t come so naturally.
The first time, I snuck out to a stump in the backyard and tried to train myself the rhythm of it. The whole operation was a secret, so I had no mentor to coach me in the art of the drag, how you pull the smoke into your mouth and then inhale. I thought you were supposed to breathe off it like a scuba mask, taking the smoke directly into your lungs–after the first few tries, I found myself doubled over and dizzy.
I never liked the “buzz” from smoking, but I loved every other thing about it–how I suddenly got extra breaks from my jobs at the bagel shop and the movie theater; how it slowed me down and forced me to focus on my breathing; how I made instant friends with my fellow smokers as we huddled together against the cold; how it finally gave me something to do with my hands. I especially loved lighting cigarettes for other people, and trained myself to maintain eye contact with them as I did so rather than fumbling with the flame.
But the greatest benefit was only apparent in retrospect. It turns out that nicotine can put ulcerative colitis into remission—since colitis is an autoimmune disease, the way that smoking shuts down your immune system is actually a boon for people with IBD. When I left home for college and started smoking in earnest, a pack a day, the terrifying physical symptoms that had been picking up speed the entire time I was in high school mysteriously vanished, and I didn’t have to think about them again until I quit eight years later and they almost immediately returned.
I don’t actually know when the blood in the toilet started, but by my senior year in high school, it was happening a lot. As with everything my body did, from my first period at age ten to my sixth-grade C-cup, this change seemed to have come out of nowhere to work its dark magic through me. It was four weeks before I left for college when I found myself back in my pediatrician’s office. I’d already gotten all my shots and done my last off-to-the-real-world visit, but I had inexplicably fainted in the shower two days before. I stood up from shaving my legs, like I did every morning, and suddenly found myself flat on my back, blinking water away, the stern eye of the shower head staring down at me. I’d also missed my period the month before, and couldn’t figure it out. Most days I subsided on handfuls of movie theater popcorn and Diet Dr. Pepper, but I seriously binged whenever I was high (which was a lot), so I was still a size 10—hardly thin enough to stop my period.
My mom stood next to me as the nurse practitioner wrapped the blood pressure cuff around my upper arm. “Has anything like this ever happened before?” she asked. She was looking at me, not my mom, so I answered no, feeling the cuff tighten. “She has tons of energy normally,” my mom reassured the nurse, “and she’s never fainted–right, honey?” I nodded.
“Why don’t you wait out in the hall for a moment so we can chat,” the nurse practitioner said to my mom, and after she was gone, the nurse asked me—not unkindly—“Is there any chance you might be pregnant?”
I burst out laughing. “Maybe it’s the second Immaculate Conception! I hear we’re due for one.” And it was true—I was very careful that none of my basement makeout sessions had come even close to anything that would lead to a baby. My mother reminded Kate and me daily, it seemed, that although she had been thrilled by the news that she was pregnant with each of us, that she had been on birth control for every pregnancy—the Sponge for Kate and Sean, the Pill for me. “I just couldn’t remember to take it every day! But thank goodness, because if I had a better memory then I wouldn’t have you.”
So I knew I wasn’t pregnant—that would be impossible.
But, in retrospect, I do know what it must be like for women who don’t know they’re pregnant. Such a thing seems impossible, that your body could undergo such radical changes without your knowing it, but the truth, it turns out, is more complicated than that. Sitting on that cushioned table, talking to this kind lady in a white coat, it just never occurred to me to mention that I’d been shitting blood for over a year. It wasn’t that I was purposely keeping it from her, it just never crossed my mind as worth mentioning.
Every now and then, when it was happening, I’d have a brief moment of bone-deep terror—like when you’re halfway up the ascent of a roller coaster that’s way scarier than you thought it would be, or in a nightmare when you suddenly remember you’ve committed a terrible crime. But I would just flush and wash my hands and immediately forget, a clean slate.