The Benefits of Marrying a Fellow Addict

<em>A Woman in Flames</em>, 1983
A Woman in Flames, 1983 Photo: Everett Collection

I am white-knuckled and nervously kicking my foot against the side of the bed, jonesing for something I am too proud to admit is coloring my every waking thought.

But my husband knows what’s going on. He knows what I’m dying for. Which is why, the only worse feeling than the gnawing craving is the heavy weight of shame.

I need nicotine — and I need it bad.

“Ugggggggh,” I groan, hitting the pillow next to me. “I can’t stop thinking about buying an e-cigarette. What is wrong with me?”

My husband knows exactly what is wrong with me. Because he has the same thing “wrong” with him. We are both addicts. We like cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. But we’ve made a choice to live a life free of all three. And right now, I’m breaking one of those promises in a big way. Nicotine is the one drug I can never seem to keep my promises about.

“Mandy, it’s okay, just buy an e-cigarette,” Pat tells me. “Really, no judgement here, ever.”

This is a far cry from a few weeks ago, when I was hiding an e-cigarette in the bathroom. (Are you familiar with the maxim “You’re only as sick as your secrets”? How about “You’re only as sick as what you hide in the scrunchie bag by the toilet”?)

But now, we are out in the open, just two addicts doing what addicts do best: having a meeting.

There is plenty of easily dismissable advice out there about “just saying no,” most of it maddening, sanctimonious, and alienating. But I can’t dismiss my husband’s insight. He gets it. He’s lived it. And his words reach me in a language that comes from having said yes a bunch of times, and knowing exactly how fun saying yes can be.

His advice comes from a peace and a wisdom that’s rooted in the Serenity Prayer, a spiritual philosophy that any person familiar with sobriety holds close to their heart.

In having a discussion with me in a brutally honest way, my husband is letting me “share,” just like I would in a 12-step group, and I’m unloading the pressure of my addiction through the connection of his support.

“It’s okay to not be perfect when you’re struggling with nicotine,” he tells me. “You aren’t bad or weak, you’re addicted.”

On October 8, my husband will have 15 years without a cigarette. He quit by attending weekly meetings of Nicotine Anonymous (which I didn’t even know was a thing). It wasn’t gum or the patch that helped him solve the riddle of nicotine addiction. It was the support, advice, and patient understanding of a dedicated group of ex-smokers who showed up each week and who knew exactly what he was going through. Seeing him go through it reminded them why they’d chosen to quit for good. And that’s how the program works.

Little did he know that by marrying me, he would be spreading that mission to his own wife, by supporting and guiding her just as all those strangers did for him when he first started the program years ago.

“Fine, I’m going to get an e-cigarette, but then it is going to be the last one.” I hop out of bed where I’m writing and Pat is working. “I’m too embarrassed to smoke it in front of you, though.”

“Why? Who cares?” he asks. “I know how you feel, seriously. I know it’s not easy at all.”

I briskly walk to the bodega where I purchase Twizzlers, Mounds bars, a hot chocolate, and an e-cigarette. Watch out, Goop, here I come.

To complete the sketchy picture, I go stand illicitly by a busted telephone booth and cram some Twizzlers down my throat, swig the hot chocolate, and then inhale the e-cigarette. I feel calmer, and I walk back home to go get the writing done that is supposedly justifying this little purchase.

I work into the wee hours of the morning, and Pat has gone to sleep next to me. I vape, type, vape, type, vape, type until I pass out too.

“Hey,” I ask Pat the next morning, “how did you really stick to quitting for so long?” I’m vaping as I ask him. The writing deadline that inspired the purchase has now been met, but we’ve crossed the Rubicon at this point, right?

“Life just got so much better after I did,” he says. “The world took on another dimension of color and clarity. It’s hard at first, because you feel everything you’ve been suppressing with nicotine.”

All of this intense talk is making me vape more, deeper, faster. He continues: “In the process, you learn to enjoy the intensity of some of the emotions you were using nicotine to pacify,” he says. When I smoked to celebrate something I was happy about, the nicotine was taking the edge off my joy.”

I inhale and exhale the sour chemical-tasting nicotine vapor as I listen. “When you really, really want to quit, give yourself a break and deal with it as an absolute,” he says. “It’s poison. And the human body does not need nicotine to function.”

My addict brain hears his addict brain. It recognizes the wisdom. No bullshit here. He tells me advice he’s heard in meetings over the years: Create the absolute that, no matter what, smoking is not an option.

I lay down the e-cigarette and ponder it. Something is connecting.

“Visualizing certain things can work, too” he continues. “Like imagine yourself as a kid, smoking for the first time. Does it make you sad? Protective? What would you say to that girl?”

I nod. I can feel tears welling up in my eyes. I vape more to try to suppress them.

“And of course, you’ll still want to smoke,” he says. “Like, bad. But understand, that’s just you having a feeling. Then look past the immediate relief and play it out in your mind, all the way to the end.”  

I look at the e-cigarette clenched in my hands. I play out the scenario to the end. I can imagine all the hours that I will spend with my ability to feel organic pleasure and joy diminished because all my chemical receptors are entangled into nicotine pleasure-reward slavery.

My heart hurts. My throat tickles with coughing. My brain is now at the mercy of a $10 product that makes me its bitch. My emotions are dulled down in front of the one person I care most about.

“Okay,” I say. “I’m playing it out.”

I see the little girl who first tried smoking three decades years ago. I see how sad she was. How stressed. How scared. I couldn’t protect her then.

But I can now.