Table of Contents
"I just took up smoking, and I think I'm doing it wrong," Esquire writer Tom Chiarella told a tobacco company rep over the phone. "Something's not right," he continued. "I don't hold cigarettes right, I don't inhale fully, I don't know how to ash, I never know where to throw the butts. And when you're old, just starting out, no one will teach you. Do you have anyone who can help me learn to smoke?"
This absurd yet intriguing piece of writing, called "Learning to Smoke," follows the adventures of a 46-year old man, a non-smoker up until that point of his life, who was apparently so committed to his job that he was willing to start smoking, become addicted, and quit after one month just to write about it. (His article, linked below, is worth reading, though if you've recently quit smoking, you may want to hold off — Chiarella is most certainly "romancing the cigarette" and will probably make you want to light up.)
Though he might have been engaging in a twisted science experiment in his forties while you probably stood behind the bicycle racks at school in your teens trying to look cool, your first experience with smoking is bound to have a lot in common with Chiarella's.
That is, nobody enjoys their first cigarette.
That is, that first cigarette is much more likely to make you cough, make you feel dizzy, and even make you puke than it is to make you go all "aaaah, that's the good life".
None of the 4,000+ chemicals in cigarettes make us feel wonderful the first time we light up. As Tom Chiarella described, we have to learn to smoke. That process is quick, but it's a process. By the end of his month-long adventure, Chiarella certainly went through the same withdrawal symptoms the rest of us do. He accomplished what he set out to: he learned to smoke, became addicted, and then had the dubious privilege of finding out first-hand how much quitting smoking sucks as well.
The Inner Workings Of A Nicotine Addiction: The Hard Facts
How does it work? We now know that nicotine hijacks the brain's reward centers, that it tricks the brain into thinking that it's just as important as the other things that cause dopamine release — existential things like food and sex. That's right, cigarettes trick us into thinking we need them.
If you have been smoking for a while now (whether that is, for you, a few years or a few decades), you might well think that you genuinely enjoy it, but that's the addiction tricking you.
Not only does smoking mess with your brain's dopamine receptors, you also come to link cigarettes with certain activities you engage in. Smoke when you feel sad? Smoke when you feel happy? Smoke when you're taking a break from work? Smoke after sex? Keep it up for just a little while, and as already seen in the old Pavlovian dogs, your brain will soon start giving you cues. "Work break! Ding, ding, ding! Nicotine please!" And then: "Aaaah...!"
You did as your brain ordered you, got your hit, and your craving is gone. This feeling is what makes us think we enjoy smoking, but if you hadn't started smoking in the first place, you'd never have been subjected to the bad feeling that precedes the "good feeling" smoking gives you.
Smoking neither relieves stress nor makes you feel good. Nothing about that cigarette was good the first time you smoked it. You have simply allowed your body to be tricked by nicotine. All smoking a cigarette does is make you want to smoke more cigarettes. Had you never started, you'd neither have more stress because of not smoking, nor less joy. The good news is, though quitting isn't easy, that if you do stop smoking you can once again be free.