Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: PTSD and Smoking

My earliest memories of cigarettes are wonderful.

I remember my parents and aunts and uncles hanging out in one of the apartments of the Chicago three-flat we all lived in once upon a time. There was so much laughter and music and dancing and joy. The beautiful, old, high-ceilinged living-rooms smelled of cigarette smoke, liquor, coffee and perfume. Music always played in the background–bossa nova or cool jazz or the new hip sounds of Motown. The sixties were beginning to swing!

Another memory from that period is of sitting beside my dad on the steps of the back porch at night when he’d have an after-dinner cigarette. I sat enrapt by his stories of the war, of being a boxer, of all the different jobs he’d had like working in the Chicago stockyards and even the opera! I’d look up at the stars and imagine having thrilling adventures of my own someday. I loved the smell of his Kools. I felt so safe. So safe.

After we moved away and the trauma years began and ended, I was thirteen and a freshman in high school. It was an all-girls school. I was surprised and thrilled when some of the cool crowd evinced interest in me. (I’d become a loner by the eighth grade.) One day, in the woodlands area near school, my new friends taught me how to inhale cigarette smoke. I’ll never forget the feeling that first inhale gave me, that little high. I felt wonderfully dizzy and suddenly better than my normal self–transformed, sophisticated, hip. I bonded over cigarettes every day with these girls who would become my best friends.

The years went by.

I became addicted to other things–liquor and drugs–and quit both, but I kept smoking.

It had become part of the fabric of my life. It was a familiar wake-up in the morning, a reward when I worked hard and needed a break, company while I watched TV, a custom after meals, a consolation when things went bad. But primarily, I now see, I used it to soothe me, to comfort me, to calm me down–something I never learned to do myself.

When I moved in with Jack nine years ago, I quit smoking.

Shortly afterwards, painful sores appeared all over my tongue and gums. It hurt so bad, I couldn’t eat. I also got a terrible stabbing pain in my ear drum, my throat and tongue swelled up and an assortment of other bizarre symptoms from the neck up.

I went to six doctors. No one could diagnose it.

An oral surgeon checked the sores for cancer. Oh man, did I get sick from that surgery. No cancer, though.

Finally, a nurse told me, in confidence, that in my case–the cigarettes used to kill all the bad bacteria in my mouth and now that I wasn’t smoking, I was infested with the bad bacteria. She said this happens to a small percentage of people who quit.

I smoked a cigarette when I got home, another that night and one in the morning, and within forty-eight hours, all the sores and other symptoms disappeared.

I didn’t need to inhale that smoke, though. I could have just puffed one every morning and gotten the same result.

I’m trying to quit smoking again because my throat burns all the time. I also had two dreams where I was explicitly told I need to stop smoking now. I’m not too worried about getting the bad bacteria again because I’ve learned about natural antibiotics like garlic and I’m sure supplements like that would help me.

I went cold turkey the first twenty-four hours and thought I’d go out of my mind

I became immediately aware of how tense my stomach became without smoking and how the feeling intensified as the hours went by. I felt uncoordinated and kind of jerky in my movement, even a little paralyzed or frozen. I felt scared, too.

The second day I had two cigarettes and I’ve been keeping it at that.

I Googled “PTSD and cigarettes” and sure enough, a good percentage of people with PTSD smoke cigarettes (as well as drink alcohol, abuse substances and/or eat) in an effort to keep uncomfortable feelings down and maintain some kind of equilibrium or balance.

I realize now the primary feeling I keep down with cigarettes is fear.


I’m still self-medicating–only it’s with cigarettes now. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life depending on something outside of myself to fix the inside of myself. If I’m going to completely quit smoking, I need to be willing to be uncomfortable for an unpredictable length of time. That’s how I quit drinking, tranquilizers and pain pills. I was willing to feel bad for a while.

I’ve been doing the breathing exercises more often (ten-minute sets of pranic breathing) and working out more strenuously. I’m doing meditative work with my tummy, asking the energy that condenses there, What is your source? How can I release you?

The good news is I’ve been sleeping better and my throat doesn’t burn now.

But will I ever be able to say goodbye for good?

I don’t know. I’m going to try.

I associated cigarettes with love and happiness long ago. Then for many solitary years, cigarettes felt like my only friend. They were always there for me.

But now…they feel unsafe. So unsafe.


As I continue throwing out and packing up in preparation for our big move out west, I found more illustrations I never used for My Husband’s Toes.

At one point, the toes told me they felt no girl toes would ever be interested in them without hair, so I created toupees for them. (Jack sure was surprised when he woke up and found all the hair on his feet!)


Here’s another one where I cleansed the aura of a toe who’d been feeling down.


Life isn’t so stressful when I can laugh or be absurd.