My Love Affair With Nicotine Gum
First I chewed it to quit smoking, but then I couldn't quit the gum. And why would I ever want to? It was my perfect drug.
It didn’t make me paranoid, like pot. It didn’t make me black out, like drinking. Unlike smoking, it didn’t ruin my teeth and lungs and cause me to have nervous breakdowns in front of funeral homes: CVS-brand cinnamon-flavored nicotine gum was my perfect drug.
But I gave it up, and I hardly even know why.
As a smoker, I obsessed constantly over my own mortality. By 2011, thanks to Bloomberg, you couldn’t walk a block in New York City without seeing graphic images of decomposing organs and rotting teeth posted in subways and outside delis. Oh god, I’m going to die! I would think, walking past yet another blackened lung.
As a kid I got so nervous in certain social situations that my hands shook—you can’t climb the social ladder with shaky hands. I smoked my first ever cigarette at 16 and it drained the anxiety and fear right out of me. I felt edgy and aloof and cool—for a teen who wore too much corduroy and raised her hand too often in class, this was a new feeling.
“Wanna step outside?” and “Can I bum one?” is how countless new friendships are forged. A pack of Marlboro Lights in my back pocket instilled me with a sense of swagger. I liked the way smoking made me feel like I looked—leaning against a wall, a lit cigarette dangling from my lips, just like, Whatever—I don’t care if I live or die.
I was left imagining a slow and gory end. Doctors would have to chop out parts of my body, one at a time, until I was just a pile of yellow teeth and tar-scented hair.
But that’s not me, not really. I care an excessive amount about whether I live or die. I would like death to be postponed as long as possible, and with no pain and suffering, please. I was always Googling questions like, “Can you die from smoking if you quit before you’re 30?” But the Internet offered no conclusive answers. I was left imagining a slow and gory end. Doctors would have to chop out parts of my body, one at a time, until I was just a pile of yellow teeth and tar-scented hair.
One cruel irony of smoking is that it momentarily eliminated certain of my anxieties while replacing them with a morbid dread of disease and death. Yet I smoked on and off—socially, anti-socially—for the better part of a decade. Toward the end I was in a constant state of anxiety that I could not smoke away.
So I quit. It was awful. I cried on the subway and raged at work. When I ran out of reasons to be angry at my co-workers, I got angry about things that happened on Facebook, or in my childhood, or in the news. I stuffed my mouth with fruit and gummy candy and whatever was in reach. In social situations, I had no idea what to do with my hands. So I avoided social situations. I manically chewed my way through two or three packs of Dentyne a day.
I eventually grew to love being a non-smoker: I didn’t gasp for air after climbing a flight of stairs. Fourth-floor walk-up apartments stopped being a reason to turn down a dinner invitation. My hair smelled like hair! It felt good just to breathe. And food tasted so good. When I ate, my tastebuds sang. I ate, and ate, and ate. I gained five pounds. The crying came back.
About six months later I started smoking again because I started seeing someone. Smoking made me feel sexy, even though the guy I was seeing thought smoking was disgusting. I quit again. Then I re-started because I had a writing deadline.
So I bought my first box of nicotine gum, for $42. I’d always been too cheap to go that route—a faulty rationale, given the cost of smoking in New York. Plus, my lungs and teeth are probably worth at least $42. So I chose CVS-brand cinnamon nicotine gum, 2 mg. At first, the cashier refused since I didn’t have ID with me. But I begged, and she must have seen the panic, desperation and rage in my eyes.
This time, quitting smoking was easier. I fell for nicotine gum as hard as I had fallen for cigarettes. It became my mouth’s constant companion. I loved the instant kick of nicotine as I first bit down, the chewing, the sweetness, the secrecy—My gum is not like your gum. It is special. It is drug-gum.
I slept with a piece in my mouth, and woke up craving it. My life revolved around obtaining it—ensuring I had enough to get me through the day.
Sometimes people would see me chewing and ask me for a piece of gum—assuming I was some normal Orbitz-chewing plebeian, not a secret ex-smoker with top-shelf shit. People were usually surprised, and a little impressed. “I smoked for 10 years!” I would brag. If smoking was cool, quitting was cooler.
I used the gum for 90 days as recommended. But then, instead of weaning off the gum, I upgraded to the 4 mg variety—same cost, twice the kick! I found no reason to “wean” off it other than a feeble suggestion written on the side of the box. There is no conclusive evidence that nicotine, on its own, has even modest health risks. It’s a stimulant—so it may cause a slight increase in blood pressure and heart rate. But the benefits far outweigh the risks: increased attention span, reduced anxiety, and improved memory have all been linked to nicotine use. Another known side-effect is weight loss. So basically, it’s a goddamned miracle, is what it is. I was addicted to the perfect drug.
But I was still addicted.
I slept with a piece in my mouth, and woke up craving it. My life revolved around obtaining it—ensuring I had enough to get me through the day. If I got down to my few last pieces, I’d feel a surge of panic that didn’t subside until I could get to the store for my next box. No one cast accusatory glances at me on the street for chewing gum, as they had with smoking. But I could swear I was getting judgmental side-eye from the cashiers at CVS who rang up my preferred brand of “smoking cessation aid,” week after week. I started going uptown, to a different CVS.
On a weekend trip to Montauk last summer, my stash ran out as we were on our way back to the city. Stuck in traffic, it took us seven hours to drive back and we stopped at multiple gas stations—none of which sold nicotine gum. It was 85 degrees and the air conditioner in the car didn’t work. I felt anxious and physically ill. I ate my way through a box of Hot Tamales and one of those enormous deli muffins made out of couch cushions, but it didn’t help. I thought about smoking again. I almost bought a pack of “Snus” but had no idea what it was, how it works, or if it even contained nicotine.
I live nowhere near a CVS, so when I got home that night, miserably, I went to sleep. No gum in my mouth. I haven’t had a piece since. The next day, I decided to continue riding out the withdrawal—just to see if I could, and because I never wanted to go through that again. The next day at work I was nauseated, headachey and seething in silent, venomous rage. The withdrawal took about 48 hours, and when it was over, I felt like a war hero.
To fill the gaping emotional void, I chewed regular cinnamon gum and sucked on ginger chews and scrolled relentlessly through my Facebook feed. I started grinding my teeth in times of stress—sometimes loudly, and in public. I went from two to four cups of coffee a day. I sucked Diet Dr. Pepper through a straw. I started crying on the subway, again. I played Tetris on my phone. I got hooked on 12 different podcasts and carried snacks to eat while walking places. I have yet to recover from any of these addictions, and—unlike nicotine—some of them are destroying my mind and possibly converting my cells into toxic waste. A year later, I still miss my drug-gum every day.
I recently confessed to my therapist that I’m thinking of taking up nicotine gum again, even though I haven’t smoked in three years. “It quells my anxiety,” I explained.
She responded, earnestly: “You know, they have medication for that.” Yes, I know.
May Wilkerson is the senior editor of Substance.com
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