First One’s Free

‘…Almost every adult I knew smoked. Cartoon characters smoked. To complain about smoking was almost rude, like being a vegetarian.’

The America I grew up in was dusted in ash and studded with cigarette butts. Everyone smoked everywhere, all the time: hospitals, grocery stores, movie theaters, high schools  –and no one thought a thing about it.

By the end of the 1970’s, when I was a boy, the entire country was like an over-flowing ashtray that had been filling up since Prohibition. The public spaces looked like a morning-after coffee table, and people just didn’t give a damn anymore.

They stubbed out cigarettes on shopping cart handles, on grocery store shelves, on the carpeted floors of department stores, on the tabletops at restaurants and bars. Nearly any flat surface was a socially acceptable option when it came to snuffing out your coffin-nail.

Part of it was just the times. America was grubbier then. There was a sort of gray film that coated everything and the whole nation had the feeling of being worn and lived-in, like a building that had seen too many tenants.

It was completely normal to see someone answer a telephone, pick up a pencil, and start writing on the wall as if it were a notepad. People tossed garbage from car windows without a second thought. People poured used motor oil straight on the ground.

It was like we were all just renting the place.

That lackadaisical attitude existed in a lot of areas back then: seatbelts were largely optional; drinking and driving was a lot more socially normalized; people rode in pickup truck beds…and cigarettes were no big deal.

How could they be a big deal? They were hard-wired into the culture! Movie stars, musicians, TV stars, artists, newscasters –everyone smoked when I was a kid. Johnny Carson still smoked on the air. Almost every adult I knew smoked. Cartoon characters smoked. To complain about smoking was almost rude, like being a vegetarian.

My dad had smoked like a coal train the whole time I lived at home (as much as five packs a day just before he quit) and considered it personally insulting if someone asked him to crack a window. On long car rides my sister would wind up lying face-down in the back-seat floorboard, draped over the hump of the Buick’s transmission, gasping for air like a battlefield casualty.

It was normal. My dad was no different than a dozen other dads I knew: they didn’t crack the window either. Most of the time I didn’t even mind. Sometimes I even liked the smell. I’d open the miniature ashtray in the back seat armrest and practice flicking imaginary ashes from the chewed, gummy ends of sucker sticks. I’d buy packs of candy cigarettes –even though they tasted like chalk– and nibble little bits at a time to simulate them burning slowly away.

The first time I bought real cigarettes was in 1981, when I was eight years old, and ran inside a gas station to get my mom a pack of Winston Lights. That was normal too. Lots of kids did that for their parents. Up until about Reagan’s second term, if you were tall enough to slap the quarters on the counter, the cigarettes were yours.

Even after the culture began to shift in the mid-80’s, I certainly didn’t have problems buying them. By 1987, when I was fourteen, I’d been smoking for a year (Lucky Strike non-filters, because that’s the brand Don Johnson smoked on Miami Vice) and it was rare for a clerk to refuse to sell to me.

Once, when I was buying a pack, the elderly clerk leaned down close and called me in with a crooked finger. I thought I was in for a lecture.

“You know,” she said, “they make those with filters now. They’re a lot better for you.”

My dad (who had started smoking at nine) was equally laid-back when he found out I was smoking, a year later.

“Hmm. Got a light?” He asked.

By that time I had switched to filtered cigarettes (Marlboro reds, just like Guns N’ Roses) and was spending significant amounts of my day loitering in my high school’s student smoking area. By the time I graduated, I had a pack-a-day habit.

Three years later, in February of ’94, when I stepped off the bus at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, that habit was two packs a day, easy –three if I was drinking.

I was reporting for Army Basic Training and –in another sign of cultural shift– smoking would not be permitted while I was a trainee. When my dad had come through Leonard Wood in ’68, they’d had cigarettes in the C-rations and ashtrays in the barracks.

I had an ‘amnesty box,’ wherein, upon arrival, recruits had a single opportunity to drop any contraband they might be carrying, no questions asked. I dropped in my half-a-pack of Marlboros, and immediately felt a twinge of panic. I was twenty-one and hadn’t been without a cigarette in eight years.

He wasn’t the only one to comment on my almost superhuman cigarette intake, but it didn’t faze me. I took an almost perverse sort of pride in how much I smoked, as if it were some talent I had.

I didn’t know it then, but I already had emphysema. I know this for certain because of something I thought of as a quirk of biology, almost like a parlor trick: smoke would continue to roll out of my mouth for long minutes after I’d put out the cigarette or passed the joint.

I’d be talking or laughing or singing –sometimes 15 or 20 minutes after I’d smoked anything– and I’d notice wisps of smoke still trailing out of my mouth when I exhaled. It didn’t roll out like Cub Scouts were trying to win a fire-starting badge, but it was enough to be noticeable.

I remember being at a house party, people all sitting in a scattered circle around the living room, parked in a hodgepodge collection of mismatched chairs, passing a joint. I was sitting on a sofa armrest next to a bright lamp, telling some story to the group when a guy across the room called out.

“Hey, my man, I’m sorry, I gotta stop you real quick,” he said, immediately turning his attention to the group.

“Y’all seein‘ this shit? My man ain’t smoked nothin’ the whole time he been tellin’ this story, but this dude smoke so much…”

A few people began to titter.

“…that smoke still rollin’ out his damn mouth!”

The group broke up into guffaws and little affirmational anecdotes: “I saw it too!”; “I kept looking for the cigarette!”; “I was like ‘where is it coming from?’ “


I noticed it often after that.

It was most easily visible in bright light, so I would stand, long after crushing out a butt, exhaling into beams of sunlight streaming in through a window, squeezing air out of my lungs, watching the wisps of smoke appear like ghosts in the bright, angled planks of light.

“Isn’t that strange?” I’d think.

I had no idea it was a clear indicator of emphysema. My lungs weren’t able to expel all the smoke when I exhaled because they were already losing their elasticity and were trapping carbon dioxide and smoke deep inside.

It wasn’t the only indicator. My whole life I had been plagued by colds and flus that would degenerate into bronchitis. I recall being eight years old and hearing a man on the radio saying “If your cold lasts longer than two weeks, see your doctor.”

“That happens to me all the time!” I thought.

And it did. It seemed that I spent half of every winter with a towel over my head, my face hovering over the spitting, wet nozzle of a humidifier, trying to loosen the goop that was clogging my lungs. After the humidifier had done its work, my mom would lay me on the couch and pound rhythmically up and down my back, trying to break up the congestion so that I could cough it up. The routine became a fixture in my childhood that continued into adolescence.

By the time I was in middle school, I had been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, so when I went for my enlistment physical, I had written down ‘chronic bronchitis’ on the form that asked me to list pre-existing conditions. The doctor had asked me about it.

“When were you diagnosed with chronic bronchitis?”

“My family doctor diagnosed me when I was fourteen,” I’d replied.

“I think you probably misunderstood him. That’s too young. Chronic bronchitis is an adult disease.”

I hadn’t misunderstood him, though, so I spent most of Basic Training on antibiotics, steroids, and inhalers, fighting off multiple lung infections. By the time I graduated training in July of 1994, my medical file was thick enough that people commented on it. Over the next seven years of my Army career, it only got thicker.

It didn’t help that I’d started smoking again the second I graduated training, or that my first duty station was Korea –where the anti-smoking sentiment that was rising in the U.S. hadn’t yet taken hold. We still had beer and cigarette vending machines in the barracks when I got there, and were more worried about North Korean artillery than we were the long- term effects of smoking.

When I think back on that year, nearly every single memory has a cigarette dangling from its lip. I would often sing and play guitar at barracks parties, chain smoking as I did so. Since you can’t sing and smoke at the same time, I’d wedge the cigarette behind the strings on the headstock of the guitar, the way I’d seen my dad and uncle do. There it would stay, burning away like a stick of incense. I did this so frequently that the nicotine stained the wood of the guitar.

“That guitar smokes almost as much as you –and that’s saying something!” my friend Jim (himself a two-pack-a-day man) would joke.

He wasn’t the only one to comment on my almost superhuman cigarette intake, but it didn’t faze me. I took an almost perverse sort of pride in how much I smoked, as if it were some talent I had.

I might have told you then (if I were being honest) that I wasn’t worried about possible consequences because they belonged to a hypothetical future, and I was only concerned with the now.

It’s a hedonistic philosophy of life that can only thrive in youth, before life has kicked you in the teeth and force-fed you consequences until you gag on them.

But even that wouldn’t have been the truth, no matter how much I might have believed it then. The truth was that I hated myself, and my cigarette smoking was just one more symptom of that disease, but I’d be a long time figuring that one out.

‘Soon, I was sneaking out of my recruiting office a few times a day to suck down a cigarette, feeling the nicotine hit my bloodstream like morphine.

The first time I seriously tried to quit smoking was in 1999, when I was twenty-six. A guy I worked with had attended a hypnotist’s seminar and claimed that he had been “cured” of smoking in a single session –that after one session, the thought of a cigarette made him ill. He’d purchased a cassette tape of the hypnotist’s schtick in case the post-hypnotic suggestion ever needed ‘reinforcing’ and offered to lend it to me.

That night I popped the cassette into a portable tape player and lay back on my bed, prepared to let the lilting voice emanating from the small speakers work its magic. I felt ridiculous, but was prepared to give it an honest try. By the time the tape player snapped to a stop a half hour later, I knew it was a useless scam, but didn’t want to admit it to anyone, because it would just seem like an excuse for not trying.

When my co-worker asked me how it went the next morning, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I lied.

“Great!” I said. “Don’t even want one!”

I definitely wanted one.

Even still, I held out for three days before the cravings just became too much. I went back to smoking at home and in my truck on the way to work, but my co-worker was still singing the praises of his magical hypnotic cure, so I kept up the lie during the workday –at least for a while.

Soon, I was sneaking out of my recruiting office a few times a day to suck down a cigarette, feeling the nicotine hit my bloodstream like morphine.

Most often, I would slink around to the back of the armory where I worked and hide behind the massive bulk of an Abrams tank we kept back there, toking nervously like a schoolboy afraid to be caught. 

I had been at this subterfuge for a couple of weeks when, one afternoon, I heard footsteps approaching my position, threatening to blow my cover. I hunkered down as the footsteps came to a stop on the opposite side of the tank.

After a minute, I decided to risk a glance over the rim and noticed a thin trickle of smoke rising from the opposite corner of the tank. Curious as to the identity of my fellow covert smoker, I cat-footed my way around armored rectangle until I could get a peek at them from behind.

There stood my ‘hypnotized’ co-worker, luxuriating in a post-lunch smoke.

I cleared my throat and he spun as if I’d shot at him. I held up my own burning cigarette. After a few seconds of embarrassed silence, we broke into relieved laughter.

I would later joke with him that we’d only been hypnotized enough to tell people that we’d quit smoking, not enough to actually do it.

In previous attempts to quit, failure had felt like an all-or-nothing game. Each time I went back to cigarettes felt like an inevitable and total surrender. It was no cigarettes or sixty a day.’

I’d tried again in 2002, when I was twenty-nine, after I’d been diagnosed with Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency and severe emphysema.

The doctor had told me that I had three to five years to live, and this was enough to motivate me to make half-a-dozen attempts at quitting, though not enough to make any of them successful.

By 2003, I had tried patches, gum, herbal supplements, prayer, and self-loathing, all to no effect. I resigned myself to being an addict until I died.

“Nicotine is more addictive than heroin!” I’d tell people, trying not to broadcast the defensiveness I felt.

Then, watching some television news magazine show, I heard a former heroin addict, clean for fifteen years, talking about Narcotics Anonymous and the Twelve Steps.

It’s *BLEEP*. It’s *BLEEP*-ing *BLEEP*. Ya know what? I’ve got my own twelve step program: the first eleven steps don’t matter, and the twelfth step is “DON’T DO *BLEEP*-ING HEROIN!”

“I mean, people act like they don’t have a choice. That’s *BLEEP*. You have to CHOOSE to go find it, to buy it, and put it in your body. No one is putting the heroin in your body. You’re choosing that. If you don’t want to use heroin, stop buying *BLEEPING* heroin. Stop going to places where you know people are using heroin. Stop hanging around people who use heroin. You can’t use what you don’t have.”

It was a take so harsh that it was jarring, and I went to bed thinking the guy was a jerk. But the next morning, as I pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store to buy a pack, I thought, if you don’t buy ’em, you can’t smoke ’em.

I sat in the driver’s seat, engine idling, staring at the brick exterior of the Stop-N-Go for a long time.

You’re not going to go in there and buy cigarettes, because you’re not a smoker anymore, I finally told myself. Only smokers need cigarettes, and you’re not a smoker. You just quit.

Then I shifted into reverse and drove away.

It wasn’t easy: half-a-dozen times over the next couple of months I caved and made the walk inside the store, hating myself as I opened a new pack, feeling the shame of failure.

But something had changed.

In previous attempts to quit, failure had felt like an all-or-nothing game. Each time I went back to cigarettes felt like an inevitable and total surrender. It was no cigarettes or sixty a day.

This time I viewed each failure as a slip –a momentary blip on my path to becoming a full-time non-smoker. I didn’t throw up my hands and surrender to my addiction as I had previously. Instead, I’d put it behind me, consciously telling myself that I wasn’t a smoker again, just a non-smoker who’d made a mistake.

I stopped viewing opening a pack as a commitment to finish it, and all of those half-dozen packs made their way into the garbage nearly full. I’d flip open the top of the box and hold them under a running faucet, until they were sodden and useless, then crush them like an empty beer can, like an army burning its ships to prevent retreat.

By the end of the year, I felt free enough to be smug, even enjoying a haughty sort of pity every time I saw someone light up.

Thank god that’ll never be me again! I’d think.

After two years I was certain I had it licked.

I don’t know how many times someone has related to me –on learning that I have emphysema– a story of a relative who also had it, that always ends with ‘and can you believe they still smoked?…’

I started smoking again at the end of 2006, just three years later.

My wife and I had decided to divorce the year before, but had agreed to keep cohabitating, due to my illness. I was in year four of those ‘three-to-five years’ the doctor had given me, and we agreed I should spend as much time with our kids as I could. We were in the process of buying a house together, and it had been stressful for us.

She had started smoking for the first time in years –Virginia Slim Luxury Light 120’s. She’d wait until the kids were asleep in their rooms, then she’d sneak one or two at her computer desk. The smoke would snake down to my basement like a siren whose voice got sweeter after every beer. I was watching Band of Brothers a lot, and every time a character lit a cigarette, my spine would vibrate. One night, after she’d gone to bed, I’d stolen one.

It wasn’t hard to talk myself into it. A Virginia Slim isn’t much larger than a coffee straw. It wasn’t even like a real cigarette, I told myself.

One wouldn’t be a big deal.

Besides, didn’t I already know how to quit? Hadn’t I proved I didn’t need it? I had nicotine’s number. I could still be a non-smoker, I’d just sneak one, smoke it, then not have another.

When the nicotine hit my system it was like low-grade morphine. I could feel it in every nerve.

Within a week, I was buying Virginia Slim Luxury Light 120’s so I could replace the ones I’d taken from her pack. Within two weeks I’d cut out the middleman and was just buying them for myself.

I don’t know how many times someone has related to me –on learning that I have emphysema– a story of a relative who also had it, that always ends with ‘and can you believe they still smoked?’

Yes, I can.

I did it for a lot of reasons: as a fatalistic response to a bleak outlook –it’s going to happen no matter what; as a way to feed my sense of denial –it’s not really going to happen to me; because it provided a sense of control –some agency in the face of a disease which gave me none at all; and –subliminally– because I wanted to hurt the body that had betrayed me.

But mostly I did it because I was an addict who loved nicotine and cigarettes and how they made me feel. I lied to myself and told myself I could control it, that I could just have one every now and then, but of course I couldn’t. By the time I realized I’d lost control again, it was too late.

At the ER, they’d rushed me back and a doctor started talking about an endotracheal tube. He asked me if I’d ever been intubated.’

By 2012, I was smoking three packs-a-day, even though it was seriously impacting my quality of life. By that time, I was spending months of every year in the hospital, fighting to breathe. I expected every hospitalization to be my last, but every time I’d get released, I’d light up in my truck in the parking lot.

In February of that year, the night before my daughter’s birthday, I decided to go to the hospital.

I had been fighting a flu for a week, and I could feel myself taking a turn for the worse. Just sitting on the couch was becoming unreasonably hard. Trying to breathe triggered a low-grade panicky feeling in my gut, sort of like when you really have to pee and spot a toilet, and you’re not sure if you’ll make it.

It had taken me twenty minutes to cross the twenty-five yards of asphalt to my truck, and another ten to recover from it, gasping in the front seat. Even still, halfway to the hospital, I thought, I’m gonna be in there a few weeks, this will be my last chance to smoke a cigarette.

And my dumb ass tried.

It was like trying to inhale hot steel wool.

I had to pull over as I hacked and wretched, opening the truck door so I could hock and snort puddles of mucus onto the asphalt, in a desperate attempt to keep my airways clear of muck. It went on for minutes. When it was over I wiped my face on my sleeve and glared at the cigarette smoldering on the tarmac.

It was the cigarette I was glaring at, but it was me I was hating.

No more, I told myself.

At the ER, they’d rushed me back and a doctor started talking about an endotracheal tube. He asked me if I’d ever been intubated.

I shook my head, hyperventilating between racking coughing fits.

A respiratory therapist pulled a hissing mask, spitting a fine mist, over my face. It makes me feel claustrophobic and I keep pulling it away to gasp for air and try to hack up gunk.

“I think you’re about to be, chief. Hang in there, we’re gonna get a breathing treatments started, get some I.V. meds going, a little something to calm you down, some steroids, some antibiotics, see if we can’t get you moving some air, maybe breathing a little easier. Then we’ll see where we’re at.”

I could taste the saline as the nurse flushed the I.V. she’d just spiked, and then the punch of Dilaudid, like being run over by a Freightliner made of goose down pillows.

The doctor didn’t wind up intubating me, but he did call me an idiot.

“You have to quit smoking. It isn’t an option for you,” he said. “I won’t say ‘We might not be able to save you next time,’ because you don’t have a next time. Quit smoking, idiot! You’re killing yourself!”

When I told him I’d quit on the way over, he seemed less than convinced.

My future-fiancé was equally skeptical, but just as firm.

“You can’t smoke if you want to be with me. I won’t be with you if you’re going to smoke. I won’t watch you kill yourself. No more cigarettes. I mean it.”

But I’d meant it too. I had quit. I’d had enough.

I was in the hospital for three weeks, and quit cold turkey when I was released. I used the same approach as the first time: I allowed myself room to fail, and fail I had. I smoked half-a-dozen cigarettes the month after my release. After each one, I told myself the same thing as before: still a non-smoker; just one mistake; don’t throw it away.

The month after that, I didn’t smoke any.

Then the months turned into years, and they became just a part of my past that I rarely thought about, except in vivid nightmares. It wasn’t enough to keep me out of the hospital, but the severity and frequency of my ‘exacerbations leading to hospitalization’ plummeted by two/thirds.

That benefit alone was usually enough to keep me a happy non-smoker –but not always.

There was a dark period a few years back, after the future-fiancé became the former-fiancé, and I spun out of control for a year. I fell off the wagon for a while, and was back to a pack-a-day in a blink, but I like to think it was an aberration.

I’d like to think that I finally got control of it, that I’ve slain the dragon. I’d like to think that I’m finally out of the woods, secure in the knowledge that I’ll never smoke again.

I’d like to think that, but it’s bullshit.

I mean, I don’t think I’ll ever smoke again –I certainly don’t want or intend to– but I’ve thought that before, so I can never be sure. Because I’m an addict. Given the right circumstances, I’d smoke a cigarette. Sometimes I still crave one, out of the blue. It’s rare, and ninety-nine days out of a hundred I don’t even think about ’em, but I’m an addict, so I have to guard against being vulnerable on the wrong day.

I’ve got a system, though, and it works pretty good most of the time, so I’m optimistic. It’s sort of a twelve-step program.

The first eleven steps don’t matter, and the last step is don’t fucking smoke cigarettes.

The thing is, you’ll never stop working at that last step.

The first one may be free, but the rest you pay for your whole life.


    1. I read every word Brian, i will save to keep reading it. I am just trying to get the courage to stop smoking, this was helpful. Thank you so much.


  1. Wow. 😳Excellent writer. I just shared this with someone i know who has Emphysema and still smokes. I just quit myself, 28 days ago after a hundred at least attempts. Longest was Five years. Its true, we’re addicts to this smoking ritual but were free now. Stay free and I hope you have a breath filled rest of your life! Thank you for sharing your story. It’s powerful and I believe will help many people.


  2. My dad was a heavy smoker too that was normal and i had many experiences like yours awesome writing and look forward to seeing more x


  3. Brian you might want to read the research j to high dose vitamin C for Emphysema healing. Might be worth investing in the infusions and giving it a go. Thanks for the great piece on your journey.


  4. Great writing Brian. I don’t know how you remember the dates a such so well. I read the whole thing. Thank you.


    1. Thanks so much, Jerry! I’ve always had a good memory for things like that –I think it’s becaused I moved so much that I have a lot of milestones to hang the memories on. Thanks for reading!


      1. I’m an MZ, 70 years old. Fortunately I did quit smoking 30 years ago. Now I’m stage 3 copd. Just began Glassia infusions a couple months ago. My dog figures in got the Z gene from my dad. He died from emphysema at the age of 56. Good luck to you. I hope you can get a transplant.

  5. Wow! Great read! I can relate in so many ways. Oh and boy do I remember the 80’s. Unfortunately, I am a Gold stage 4 COPD with Alpha 1. Still being stupid and on the marry go round of smoking. I feel like there is no way off and I cant get infusions if I dont figure it out. And that only can happen after 1 year no smoking and more. I will re read this many times for encouragement, thank you!


  6. WOW! I could relate to so much of what you wrote. I am an Alpha on once a week infusions. Have you gone on them yet?


    1. Hi, Cassie! Thanks for reading! I’m glad the piece connected with you. Yeah, I first started the infusions back in 2003, but have been on them continuously since 2009. I’m a big believer in the infusions!


  7. Amazing writer! My mother also has Alpha 1, SZ. Smoked for near 40 years, she wasn’t expected to last much longer without oxygen when she was diagnosed in 2010 at 53. Definitely a struggle but with it was worth it for her, we’ve already had many more years than we expected.


  8. Thank you so much for writing this. I just quit smoking and your story is so recognizable but gives me even more determination to stay quit this time. I will share it in my quit group and credit you. All the best to you.


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