On nicotine, night terrors and facing the abyss

by Brian Clarey

On nicotine, night terrors and facing the abyss

I remember excruciating cravings back then that would begin even before I opened my eyes in the morning, tug at my nervous system all day and hound me until I fell asleep each night.

I’m writing this onWednesday, April 22,in the afternoon. Astiff wind rattles thegreening trees outsidemy office window. AndI haven’t had a cigarettein two days.I have quit smoking.I have made this boastbefore. Once I evenmanaged to quit for acouple months beforethe relapse. I took a jobat a restaurant where everybody smokedin the employee lounge, which waslocated right behind the Dumpster in theparking lot. It was where all the actionwent down: good shifts up for grabs, goodgossip flying around, possibly a bit ofintrigue… the usual restaurant stuff. Forpolitical reasons, I told myself, it was inmy best interests to start smoking again.I remember excruciating cravings backthen that would begin even before Iopened my eyes in the morning, tug atmy nervous system all day and hound meuntil I fell asleep each night. I cherishedsecondhand smoke when I came across it,thinking, Some lucky bastard is smoking acigarette, and inhaling deeply.I have been smoking cigarettes for along time — let’s call it 25 years — andI’d like to say I’m quitting because of asudden realization of my own mortality,a resolution to take responsibility formy own health, a will to better myself byeliminating a weakness. All of these thingsare true, but for the most part I’m quittingbecause I’m cheap. The price of a cartonof cigarettes has gone up by about $15this year, causing me to reach my tippingpoint. It had become a math problem, andin the long run I’d rather keep the money.I started smoking for the same reasonseverybody else did: I thought it lookedcool, and it seemed toreally piss off a lot ofadults when they sawme doing it. I boughtthem at Raoulston’son Clinton Road, justover the Hempsteadline, for 90 cents a packwhen I was 14 yearsold. They cost a buckand a half over at the7-11 by the time I was inhigh school — my highschool, like pretty muchall the others in the ’80s,had a student smoking section.We used to chip in for smokes in college,especially when we lived in the dorms andstayed up all night cadging each others’cigarettes. When I started bartending Iwould just grab a handful of quarters outof my tip jar and plunge them into thesmoke machine, one at a time.  At somepoint in the mid-’90s, every bartender intown got a carton or two a week for freefrom RJ Reynolds and I had a freezer fullof them.I enjoyed my time as a smoker,enjoyed smoking, very much — allexcept the smell and, in later years, theinconvenience and the itchy, hackingcough I developed. I became veryproficient at smoking; I could smoke aWinston Ultra Light faster than anyone Iknow.But I’m serious about quitting — thistime I’m using a very trendy prescriptiondrug which has enabled two of my oldfriends, Atom and Big Tiny, to shake theirtwo- to three-pack a day habits, and ifthose clowns can do it then I certainlycan.I take the little blue pill in the morning —I won’t name it until someone coughs upsome product-placement money — and italmost immediately makes me nauseous.It also blocks the nicotine receptors in mybrain, making my withdrawal much morecomfortable than it should rightly be.I believe the drug is truly a miracle ofmodern chemistry. And aside from thenausea, it comes with just one otherunfortunate side effect: night terrors.Not nightmares. Nightterrors. Here’s thedifference: I dreamtthe other night thatmy wife left me forsome French guy andbecame famous forstarring in his arthousefilms. When I awoke,the anguish I felt wasreal, if only for moment.And unlike nightmares,which generallydissolve upon waking,I am still able to recallevery detail of that nocturnal episode. Acouple nights later I dreamt I killed a man,shot him in the back until the gun went“click.” The guy clearly had it coming — along story, which again was frighteninglyrealistic and inexplicably detailed — butwhen I awoke I felt as if I had actuallymade a conscious decision to pull thetrigger. And in my mind’s eye I can still seethe tiny bubbles forming in the blood thatleaked out from the hole I put in his lung. There’s a vaguely shamanistic quality tothis experience, like I’m facing my fearsin the dream state to help me conquer mydemons in the waking world, or like I’veaccidentally eaten peyote for dinner. And Ican see how it would convince others thatthey might just be better off smoking thanwaking for a few weeks with the feelinglike they’ve done something unspeakablyterrible. Me, I looked into the abyss long ago andfelt its dead, empty gaze looking back.Terror doesn’t scare me anymore. Butemphysema does.