"The Love Itch Dream to Quit Smoking"
a personal essay by Matty Daley
Cigarette smoking is easily my grossest habit that others -- family, friends, and strangers -- are quick to point out. What they don't realize is that I am fully aware this is my worst human habit, and getting down on me about it only makes it worse. There are many onion layer factors that have led to me smoking cigarettes. Don't worry, I recognize these do not excuse what I know is a disgusting and incredibly unhealthy habit. However, it does not make it any easier to quit smoking.
How I Got Here: Boys are Heartless
It all started with a frat boy. I remember my first cigarette with immense clarity in my memory. Sophomore year of college, I was writing a paper. I don't remember what class it was for, but I remember the feeling that made me leave my dorm room and take that ill-fated trek to the local 7-11. It was late in the evening, around 11PM, a time when most college students feel the last minute crunch of revising and editing before tomorrow's due date. I know it was a Tuesday night because Tuesdays were the weekday party night on campus, since there were only morning and evening classes on Wednesdays -- afternoons on Wednesdays were reserved for extra-curricular club and faculty meetings -- and students only elected to take these courses if they were required to by their majors. Or if the class was above-average interesting. I elected not to party that night because I wanted to maintain my above 3.5 GPA and had my weekly Student Government Meeting the next afternoon. There was far too much to do to ready myself for the next day.
I couldn't concentrate on getting anything done. Admittedly, I am guilty of chronic lovesickness. At the 7-11, there was this gorgeous guy. He had to be around my age group, but he wasn't a student at The College of New Jersey (my alma mater.) Occasionally, I stopped into the 7-11 to get a Slurpee -- my Springtime and Summer addiction -- and chocolate -- another one of my continuos addictions. I was so boy, sex, and love-starved that the chance to spend even thirty seconds with a guy that made my pulse quicken was as close to heaven as I felt in a vacuum of loneliness. The guy had Ravenclaw blue eyes and exquisite hands (I don't know why, but I find hands to be incredibly attractive.) He was straight; I'd caught him flirting with some of the collegiate female customers. But nonetheless, any excuse to get my visual boy fix was excuse enough, as far as I was concerned. Suddenly, the desire to escape my mental overload -- both driven by stressful academics and lovesickness -- discovered an unhealthy loophole.
Marlboro Lights were my first spark of nicotine addiction. When I returned to my dorm building with both my Slurpee and pack of cigarettes, there was another hot guy standing alone outside the building; let's call him Rico (that's not his real name, by the way.) Rico was a member of the fraternity I almost pledged the previous, Fall semester. The Fall was a often a slow pledge season because the freshman couldn't pledge until the Spring. IF any of the fraternities or sororities took on new pledges, they were mostly small classes. In this case, the fraternity elected not to take on the responsibility of a Fall pledge class because there would have only been five pledges, which consists of a lot of extra work for such a limited number of guys. I had been informed by insiders at the fraternity that there was much debate about the inclusion of my membership. The other guys, all of which lived on my dormitory floor that year, were, basically, unanimously voted in. In the end, I was selected by the skin of my teeth with a two-thirds vote -- just enough to receive a pledge bid -- because I would have been there first -- drumroll, please -- openly gay brother. But I was Class President and a Student Ambassador, which meant both administrative clout and knowing I would be eager to participate in Homecoming and Greek competition events, both of which were important to all of the Greek organizations on-campus.
Following the final round of pledge season interviews, my insider connections had informed me that, given I grew up with three brothers of my own and desired that sort of connection on-campus, they felt a kinship to my personality and honestly and wholeheartedly wanted me in their family; the guys that wanted to exclude me were openly homophobic. Come Springtime, I attempted to receive another pledge big, but competition was fiercer with the newly available Freshman and spots were to join limited. I mistakenly adopted a goofier attitude to win the affections of the guys who didn't want me and it backfired. I did not receive a big. To this day, I am filled with mixed emotions of regret and feeling as though this was a blessing in disguise. If I had been a member of the fraternity, I am not certain that this course of events would have led me to break the World Record for the Longest Continuous Kiss in the name of LGBTQ equality. I guess we'll never know.
Getting back to Rico. He was all alone outside our dorm, standing on the grate against the side of the building, which was a popular place to smoke. I don't recall what his cigarette poison of choice was, but there he was about to spark one. He had recently joined the ranks of Student Ambassadors -- the most coveted and desired employment on campus -- and so I had just gotten to know him a bit better. Being his polite self, he said, "Hello." I said, "Hello" to him, and took an appropriately distanced position next to him on the grate and pulled out my new pack of smokes. Mischievously, he smiled at me. One of his best physical qualities was his smile; he had dimples and could melt ice cream with that look on his face. I don't remember his exact choice of words, but I reimagine he said something along the surprise of, "Matty Daley, you're smoking?!" (In college I adopted the nickname 'Matty' to make myself differentiated from all of the other Matts on campus, recalling a day in the quad, when someone shouted, "Matt" and five of us turned around; also, my cousins called me 'Matty Patty' growing up and, although, I claimed to hate it, I confess now that I secretly loved it.) Rico went on, "I always thought of you as a good two-shoes." I likely smirked and responded to him along the lines of, "We all have out vices. And I don't do this often." I didn't want to admit this was my first cigarette or make it seem like I was trying to be "cool" because I wasn't trying to be cool; I was trying to connect. I spent a blissful five minutes with Rico, who finished his smoke first and retreated into Decker Hall, leaving me alone outside. In hindsight, it was a perfect metaphor: cigarettes were what kept me from feeling alone, despite the painfully described truth that I was, in fact, very much within a world of loneliness.
Rico wasn't even at the top of my list of crushes. Truthfully, I'm not sure that any particular guy in college was. Sure, I'd had a devastating crush or two, which are topics in their own for other very personal essays. But there was certainly a list; actually, it was more like a baseball roster. Not that I desired to deviantly run rampant down the list. Again, the loneliness. I didn't want to be alone and I was desperate to do anything to cure this lovesickness. It was long time before I could quietly admit it to myself, but smoking cigarettes was my rebellious way of declaring that boys suck and I hated and loved them all at the same time.
What Kept Me Going: the Party Monster
My first pack of Marlboro Lights lasted somewhere around three to four weeks. Over the years, I tried different brands, declaring each one the fated flavor of my soul. In the beginning, I sought choice moments to sneak a smoke. Usually, to be in the company of so-called "heartless" boys who, occasionally, where anything but -- even if, they did not love me in the ways I wanted to be loved. There were times, however, where I felt as genuinely acceptable company and a reassuring cohort in this cigarette deviousness.
The very first time I went to a gay club was on my eighteenth birthday, a month into Freshman year. (I'm an end of September baby.) I went with the PRISM kids (the LGBTQ club on-campus) to Colosseum, in what would be its final year open for business. It was an experience I can only describe as eye-opening. There were beautiful Adonis go-go boys impenetrable to touch and a drag show. It was a world I'd only ever witness on sneaky late-night sessions watching Queer as Folk as a teenager, after my parents had gone to bed. To my amazement, there was a place like Babylon that actually existed, and where I could go to escape among other people who were sort of like me.
At that time, I had not been a smoker. I was a dancer and loved the disco lights. However, after that ill-fated April in my Sophomore year, and when I started to frequent other open gay establishments like New Brunswick's The Den and Deko Nightclub in Sayreville, NJ, I joined the smoking sheep on the crowded outdoor patios on the weekends. Before I knew it, New York City enticed me and I'd travel with friends to Twink Tuesdays at Splash or the under-21 Friday nights at Rush. School was stressful, as I maintained my Dean's List GPA, worked two part-time jobs, and remained involved in on-campus activities. I was surrounded by straight people everywhere I turned. I felt I needed these escapes to function, to be myself without judgement and homophobia.
Other boys and daddies lit my cigarettes. Few people judged each other at these clubs for smoking. Likely, we addicts kept close to our cigarettes because we were all in this same boat of loneliness, despite being gifted with the company of each other. Friendship, however, is not the same as medication for lovesickness. At its best, friendship is reassurance of selfhood; at its worst, friendship is false validation of our worst qualities, both instigated and (un)reasonably rationalized. In this case, cigarette smoking was friendship at its worst. Most of us knew, deep down, that quitting these poison substitutes for love was the healthy thing to do. But because of them we find an excuse to socialize outside the dance floor on cool summer nights, away from the remixed noise.
A plethora of factors, outside of my club hopping agenda, contributed to my abuse of nicotine. Sophomore year of college was, also, when I first tried marijuana. I did not know this would lead to a rampant cannabis abuse, largely made possibly by a mental health disorder I did not become aware of until I was twenty-six. Although, I do believe marijuana to contain incredible, helpful health-boosting qualities, people with mental health disorders like me run the serious risk of abusing substances of this nature. As well, I experimented with MDMA, LSD, and one time mushrooms. A natural course of action when I ingested marijuana smoke was a cigarette dessert. Smoking weed without a nicotine follow-up felt unnatural to me; for me, the two went hand-in-hand.
In my early twenties, for three years, I did not speak with my mother. Of course, this was for very personal reasons and would, also, require an entirely other personal essay to detail, so I will not share the details of such here. During this time, I was rescued by a pair of individuals, who provided me sanctuary for three years, and provided monetary support to pursue opportunities that, otherwise, given my life circumstances of growing up in property as "white trash," I would not have been able to do. The cons outweighed the pros, though, because one of these individuals smoked almost two packs of cigarettes a day and the other was a marijuana abuser, as well. Both of my vices filled the house like a preamble smoke fire and became endlessly available like a bottomless bag of tricky treats from a mystical nanny. I was invited to live in my own personal hell.
The Search for a Cure: Hellbent Madness
Nine years later, I find it impossible to kick this smoking habit that consumes me and spoils my body. I dread reaching the ten year mark, feeling no pride in almost being a decade deep in cigarettes. Aside from the physical addictive qualities: nicotine, oral fixation, and something to do with my jittery hands, I find mostly psychological comfort in cigarettes. At twenty-eight-years-old, I continue my unending battle with loneliness.
Now, I identify as a transgender girl, after two years of psychotherapy, which finally helped me reach this personal, physical realization I was both unaware of and unable to admit to myself. Of course, in the more than ten years I spent identifying as a gay man, from ages fifteen to twenty-six, the worldview of trans people has rapidly changed and become increasingly more accepting; even though, there is still a long road of understanding ahead to be had by much of the cisgender public. Irregardless, boys are still heartless, and even more so now. I am unable to identify with gay men in a dating capacity and straight, cisgender males are forty-nine times out of fifty cruel and ignorant. I find the best luck with bisexual men, who are often hesitant to begin any more than a physical relationship with a trans girl. My only options appear to be bouts of mostly meaningless sexual encounters. The battle of loneliness rages on.
Years or lovesickness eventually led to hypomanic sickness. In 2016, I had a scary mental breakdown. I packed a bag, went to Target and bought camping supplies, then set off for High Point State Park in the northern hemisphere of New Jersey with the intention to hike the Appalachian trail, until my food and water supplies ran out, and Mother Nature would welcome the rot of my body with open arms unto whatever afterlife awaits beyond our Earth. I ended up being discovered by State Park police, who gave me the only option of a hospital check-up. Begrudgingly, I agreed and, subsequently, "voluntarily," was committed to a behavioral psychology ward for one week. This was when I discovered that I had a mental health disorder. It was, also, my first and only successful attempt at quitting cigarettes.
Obamacare-provided Medicaid paid for my hospital stay. In a hospital setting, they do not allow you cigarettes. Any poison I had left in my possession from my hike was confiscated upon my arrival (but not before the very kind officer who found me allowed me to ingest half-a-dozen of them before I was loaded into the ambulance.) The nurses promoted smoking cessation and provided me with nicotine patches to curb the cravings. I met with a wonderful psychiatrist daily, as we settled on a proper mental health diagnosis and began a medication regiment to regulate my mind back to a functional capacity. I actually made friends while I was there and it was a far less terrifying experience than I had, initially, imagined it to be. I was distracted from my bad habits and comforted by the fact that God's honest normal people were experiencing similar difficulties, despite the fact that we had vastly differently life happenings and circumstances.
Following my stay in the hospital, I spent twelve weeks in a Partial Hospital and Intensive Outpatient Behavioral Health recovery program. During this time, I was able to remain cigarette and cannibas-free for nearly four months. I received a second mental health diagnosis and, suddenly, understood how my brain works; it wasn't scary and I was crazy or unhealthy, I was, simply put, made to think differently than most other people. Upon my completion of the program, however, I lost this daily structure I'd become accustomed to and was sent off into the "real world" to figure out how best to make a "normal" life for myself. After all, outpatient recovery is not a way of life -- it's a way of learning, a school for education about one's self. (I do feel it is something that every person should experience for themselves, but my personal opinion of the matter is, also, an entirely different essay.)
After about a month out of the program, I finally found a working class job. I hated it. Coupled with another family drama, which included two years of buried grief about my father's sudden death in 2014 and another difficult living environment, I fell right back into the arms of cigarettes and cannibas. Six months later, I quit the job I hated and hit the road to drive across the country to California on, what was most definitely a top-of-the-rollercoaster hypomanic episode. I was chasing a dream and a boy, both of which I did not discover while I was out there for a month. (I did make some awesome friends and have a ton of experiences I will always remember, which are another essay, too.) When I returned from California, I was right back where I started in this miserable living environment with no job and nothing to distract me from my bad habits. Finally, I found work with a transgender-friendly fashion company, where I make a working class wage, but which comes with great health benefits and life insurance (a cost my family surely needed, after the debt created by my father's passing and lack-of life insurance.)
Helping Hands: A Hope that Never Comes
I am finally able to admit to myself that I am deeply unhappy -- with my health, with this unending loneliness, with the stigmas of society placed on transgender people, and with people who have both taken advantage of me and caused resentments that I just can't unjustify because of where we currently stand with (against?) each other. I have, however, moved out of my difficult living situation and found an apartment with a roommate I feel blessed by the universe to have. At least, that is one stress undone. Work sucks most days because customers can be either too cruel for various reasons or -- just as painfully -- overly enthused to make me feel both accepted and comfortable with my identity as a transgender person -- there is such a thing as being too emphatically accepting.
On my work breaks, I smoke. On my car ride there, I smoke. When I wake up, I smoke. When I get home, I smoke. Before I go to bed, I smoke. I go through a pack of cigarettes a day to mask my feelings of isolation, loneliness, self-hatred, and because I just can't physically stop. I am back in my outpatient recovery program, receiving a medication adjustment and cannibas-free once more. But cigarettes pulse through my veins, keeping me from singing and destroying my songbird voice, weighing down my lungs, killing my brain cells, filling my body with carcinogens and deadly toxins, deteriorating my teeth, and -- at five minutes a cigarette times twenty of them per day -- eating nearly two hours of my time daily for smoke breaks.
When combined, I have only found two successful solutions for quitting smoking: cessation and love. I was in love once with a guy who strongly disliked smokers and wouldn't date them. I wanted to be with him so badly, for him to want to be with me, that I made it a point not to smoke hours before we would hang out and never in his company. I wanted to kiss him, to hold his hand, to get lost on each other's bodies. The realization of loneliness had come full circle: this was the solution. I needed to be loved. But he didn't love me back. At least, he claimed not to; even though, I was sure he did, but just didn't want to face the judgement of being with -- at that time -- a bodily feminine person like me (despite the fact that he identifies as bisexual.)
There is no rationalization for this method. Simply put: it is what has worked for me. Nicotine patches and the hope of being desired for more than just sex, for being me, kept me from reaching for cigarettes. Scientific studies show that the brain of a person on cocaine and the brain of a person in love experience almost the same exact effects. Love is the healthy version of cocaine without the detrimental (and life-threatening) consequences. Love is a cure. Love is not an excuse or the lack-of it a reason to develop bad habits. However, love works. In mysterious ways. It makes the human body and mind healthier. It is the hope of love finding me that makes me believe that quitting smoking, that being a part of the generation to end cigarettes, is a true possibility.
If you're out there guy who wants to love me, please, I want to be healthy. I want to quit dying. I never want to quit you. I want to love you and be loved and spread love and hope and be the best me I can be. I want to love myself. Like a true Libra, I function best in romantic partnership. In the time it took to write this personal essay, I ingested seven cigarettes and went to 7-11 to buy a fresh pack. I hope, when I write my next essay, in-between the paragraphs, we can kiss and hold hands and cuddle and dance and love each other instead.
*Author's Note: I spent very little time reviewing, revising and editing this essay. Rumination is unhealthy. Putting emotion and experience to work with pen on paper, however, is liberating. If you notice spelling and/or grammatical errors, PLEASE, feel free to point them out in the comments below. Occasionally, I may misspell a word (I am human, after all.) Often, Siri will incorrectly correct my uses of "their," "there," and "they're," without me catching her error. Sometimes, my record player brain skips and I repeat a phrase I repeat a phrase. However, if you point out a discrepancy regarding the use of a comma before or after "but," "instead," and the (not dead) Oxford comma, I may debate you. Or I may concede. Language is beautiful and I love to converse about its use.
**Comments of encouragement are highly encouraged, even more so. They may lead to more essays written. <3