holy smokes

Last night I went out with friends and I smoked a cigarette. This coming Wednesday would have been the five year mark since I quit smoking. I have never craved it since I quit, have rarely battled the urge to take a drag. Mostly I’ve thought it was gross and have steered clear of even second hand smoke. Occasionally when I see someone smoking on television or in movies I have the desire, though I’m pretty sure if I saw Joan Holloway punch a baby in the face I would feel at least slightly compelled to do it, her character just makes everything seem so attractive. It was just there, and other people were doing it, and I just felt like it. My mom died of COPD. I watched her struggle for weeks, months, even years when I really think about it. I witnessed her fighting so hard to breathe, even with oxygen in her nose. I saw her breathe her final breath. It is a hideous disease that turns your skin grey and steals you from your children well before your time. I know so, so, so much better than to smoke. And yet… and yet… and yet.

Today I feel that panicked and uncertain feeling of having consumed too much alcohol last night. I feel the nagging uncertainty and doubt about the choices I made, staying out late, staying up late, spending money, drinking too much. Though I have spent much of the past three to five years drinking with reckless abandon, still it has the same impact on me the next day, especially after more than just a few drinks. I used to drink while I took psychotropic drugs, not because I didn’t know better, but because we are stupid, we humans. We do all sorts of things that are terrible for us. I would mix alcohol with the drugs that were meant to level me out, and I would feel exponentially more erratic, my blood sugar would spike and crash, the chemicals in my brain would rage like teenagers on E at a rave. The first time I ever cried in a bar (not counting the myriad occasions when I was a soggy mess at the bar I managed around the time that my not-quite-my-fiance-but-not-really-not-my-fiance died because I was usually sober those times) was on a Sunday. I had gone to the hospital to visit a coworker and acquaintance who had been in a horrific car accident. By the time I arrived with stacks of styrofoam containers filled with food from the restaurant where we both worked, her family was huddled around each other, bemoaning the weight of the decision they’d had to make to remove her from life support. They were trying desperately to face the reality that she would die, even though she had just turned twenty-one years old.

The smell of food emanated from every square inch of me, black uniform pants covered in food from the brunch shift. I stood there like an imbecile, arms full of food that no one would eat, sharing in this intimate moment with her family when I had little business being present. Not knowing how else to respond, I held a couple of people from her family – people I wouldn’t recognize today if you held a gun to my head. When you are in that moment and you are broken and all you can be is broken, it matters little who people are or how scarcely you know them. All that matters is that you are broken, twisted in pain, certain you can never come back from this. Eventually I stumbled out into the light of late afternoon in the summer, bewildered. As I emerged into the breezeway the airlift helicopter was returning to its base, and the sound of it roared in my ears, blew my hair around my face, completely drowned me in the gravity of the situation I’d just left. It brought screaming to the surface all of my own sorrow and grief that I worked neatly to put in a box, this airlift helicopter landing on the roof of the hospital with some patient inside who may or may not live. All this while a bright girl a few floors up who should have had her whole life ahead of her was having a shunt removed from her brain so that she could die naturally. How I did not land on my knees and sob into the sidewalk, I have no idea. The two blocks to my car were through quicksand, and I was underwater. My boyfriend at the time worked at this hospital and was presumably at work in the building near my car. On the verge of hysterical tears, I called him and begged him to come outside and hold me for a few minutes so that I could get my bearings, so that someone could help me shoulder the enormity of the world. He declined. In my heart, our relationship ended that day, though it carried on for several more months.

Finally I got into my car and sat in the ringing silence for a few minutes before the hysteria caught up with me, like sound coming after with you with all the fury and fire of the center of the earth. I sat on a side street in my Subaru, parked in front of the annex building where my boyfriend was working, two blocks from the hospital where my friend and probably others were dying, and I wailed. I draped my arms across the steering wheel and rested my forehead on them and sobbed from the depths of my soul. When I thought I had purged enough that I could speak, I called my mom. The moment I heard her voice, I lost my composure and cried and cried and cried. One thing my mother never did was tell me that things would be okay. She never glossed over the incredible suffering of this world and the unfairness of it all. She promised me that I would be okay no matter how unokay everything became. Because there is no choice but to be okay, even in the face of a world that is fraught with pain and injustice and broken hearts. I owe her my life for that lesson, a lesson that is so crucial to survival in that simultaneously despicable and beautiful world.

I went home and sat on the front porch of my apartment building with my neighbor who would eventually become my next boyfriend. We sat quietly under the cover of huge shade trees on our street, barely talking. I needed someone to be with me, to share my air space and be alive next to me, and he was willing. I drank hot tea while he drank PBR, and we occasionally made a joke about the squirrels in the neighborhood and talked about the meaning and fragility of life. That night, I went with him and my other neighbor to trivia at a local bar. It was the first time I unwittingly mixed Xanax and beer, and after spilling a full MGD on my skirt and going home to change, I should have called it a night. I didn’t. Instead, I went back out and tried to relate to a bunch of people who felt millions of miles away from me, tried to engage in conversation and feel like a part of the group. All I felt was sadness, which translated into me talking and laughing too loudly, until how out-of-place I felt came crashing in on me and the reality of what my day had been was too much and I started to cry. One of the girls in the group firmly suggested that my neighbors take me home, which they did. Just as we pulled into our driveway, I vomited into my own skirt – apparently my body’s way of rejecting the combination of booze and benzodiazepines.

Every now and then this story comes up as a silly drunken night that is worthy of being shared and laughed about, that I deserve to be teased over. Ha! Remember that time you cried at the bar and puked into your own skirt?! You were a hot mess! What an idiot! I laugh along, though the truth is that it will go down in my personal history book as one of the most challenging days of my adult life, my alcohol consumption a byproduct of being a scared and confused human, reeling from the inescapable frailty I felt. Sometimes we make choices as adults that are in direct contradiction to what we know is best for us. We ignore that little voice inside our heads that pleads with us to not be a moron and just do the smart thing – go to bed early, exercise more often, don’t eat that second cupcake, lay off the booze, call your parents, forgive your significant other, quit smoking. We plow ahead, knowing we will regret it, but we just can’t help ourselves. As I have gotten older, I have fought harder and harder to be cognizant of these choices, to make the right decision in the moment, to be mindful of alcohol and substance, to take better care of myself. Every now and then, though, you just have to do something so stupid that you spend a day or two contemplating your own idiocy. If you have no foolishness in your backdrop against which to compare your triumphs and your intelligence and your success at being a bona fide adult, what’s the point?

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