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Vol. 2, Issue 23


The first time I smoked a cigarette I was 16 years old. I bummed it from some other dirtbag at a high school house party. The autumn night smelled like Halloween and cold leaves and I sat by myself smoking the Marlboro Red on a slippery grass hill lined with orange-turning maple trees. There were big flat stars in the sky and I could have counted all of them through the exhales of smoke and breath. The nicotine wooshed through my veins and smoke spun in my lungs, and right then and there, I was hooked. Hooked on the poisons, hooked on the unfathomable ease. This, I thought, is gonna be bad. By the time winter rolled around I was up to a pack a day. 

 The next time I felt anything close to that was about about nine years later when I tried cocaine for the first time in an ominously-lit bathroom at a Flatiron rooftop bar. This, I thought, is gonna be really bad. But I quit the coke before the smokes. It took me until March of 2017 to quit smoking for good. That's almost 25 years of that shit. 

I had short sprees of nonsmoking throughout those years–a week or two and, one time, 16 continuous days cold turkey thanks to a smoking cessation program where I'd wake up each morning and give my face a "cold mitten friction" rub with a coarse washcloth–but I'd cave and buy some Kodiak Wintergreen dip and ultimately fall back into smoking again. The dip created its own set of problems, mostly shredded gum lines and awful dry-morning-breath, plus it never got rid of the nicotine pull. I'd also leave full Snapple bottles of brown slop everywhere. I dipped off and on until I was in my 40's and some days I miss it the most.

But I'd tried so many remedies: nicotine gum and lozenges, hypnotism, chewing straws, lollipops, pretzels, Wellbutrin.

I also had one of the worst experiences ever with Chantix, the magical stop smoking pill which also sometimes turns people into ax murderers. 

I've written a little bit about my Chantix meltdown already, but it's worth detailing again just because of how uniquely strange it was. At first it worked marvelously; I tapered off of cigarettes until, eventually, I was down to zero as promised. But then I began to develop weirder afflictions, mostly online shopping. I bought nothing useful, just pointless things like colored shoelaces for sneakers I didn't own and expensive throw rugs and duvet covers from Gilt or One Kings Lane. Plus, I had a ravenous, unhinged sweet tooth where I bought Carvel ice cream cakes five at a time and I drank Shirley Temples or salt-rimmed glasses of chocolate milk with every single meal. And then there was the blackout sobbing. After four or five drinks I'd start crying–like big, gulping sobs–and never remember what set me off. (Don't take Chantix if you have a pre-existing, untreated mood disorder. I think that's an actual warning on the package, but oh well.)

I quit Chantix, immediately returning to smoking and dipping, dejected and doomed for another four more years. After years of ignoring it on my wife's bookshelf, I finally came around and read Allen Carr's stop-smoking book. Its back cover was filled with outlandish infomercial-like claims: No weight gain! No willpower! No withdrawal! Yet, it worked for some people I knew and I was determined to quit before my first child was born.

Carr's background won't convince anyone that he's not a quack. A stuffy British accountant whose longstanding battle with his own 100-cigarette-a-day smoking habit transformed him into a self-improvement guru out of sheer personal desperation, his methodology seemed too simple to actually work. But through sparse logic and hypnotic repetition he's cured thousands of people. So much so that he parlayed the success of his not-smoking program into weight loss, drinking, and drugs until he eventually built a Stop Everything empire that flourished, even after his death from lung cancer in 2005. 

I picked up the book in March of 2017, just before my 43rd birthday, and I was still deeply skeptical so I bought a tin of Kodiak just in case withdrawal symptoms changed my mind again. But after only a couple days, and minimal nicotine-deprived freak-outs, it just clicked. I knew then that I'd somehow quit smoking forever. I threw the dip away, too. Here's the sentence that cracked open my brain: "Smoking only relieves the withdrawal symptoms from the previous cigarette, which in turn creates more withdrawal symptoms once it is finished." 

So the 'normal feeling' I wanted from smoking a cigarette was actually attained by nonsmokers...but all the time. How stupid was I to miss something so simple for so long? But then again, I get addicted to virtually everything and my addiction to cigarettes was gonna happen the minute I smoked that first one on the hill. 

I got a physical soon after I quit by a quirky doctor from Santa Monica with a stud earring in his left ear who, he himself, was a former smoker. "I miss it," he'd tell me. "But remember, it will kill you and you can never ever smoke again." He scanned my lungs and they weren't as bad as I thought–no emphysema, no cancer–but I did have the lung capacity of a man of 65 (or thereabouts). He assured me that my lungs would improve with time–as long as I didn't ever smoke again. I negotiated with him for one cigarette each day (like Obama!), but he wouldn't budge. 

"You can never smoke again."

I see him twice a year and he patiently lets me run through this same routine each time. On a recent visit he struck a bargain with me. "I'll tell you what, if there's a news report that a meteor is about to hit the earth and there's no chance of survival, I'll set up two lawn chairs in front of my house and you and I will smoke a whole pack together." 

I admit the prospect excited me and some days I'm hopeful an all-caps report about the meteor of imminent doom will pop up on my news feed. 

A couple weeks ago I went to see him for a checkup on my cough and I inquired about a coronavirus test. He wouldn't give me one, but I followed up with the more pressing question.

"If this gets real bad does it count as the meteor? Can we smoke then?"

He stared at me for an extra long beat, clearly processing the question. 

"No. This isn't it."   




To continue with our Allen Carr theme, we're interviewing Edith Zimmerman for this week's feature. Edith actually quit drinking using Carr's book "The Easy Way To Stop Drinking" and she's been sober for four years. The interview begins below the usual tap-dance of announcements. 


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Extremely Brief Moments of Courage 

By The Small Bow
A developing orchestra


A q-and-a with Small Bow illustrator and Drawing Links proprietor Edith Zimmerman. 


Why did you use Allen Carr? Did you try any other ways to get sober?

A friend I trust and admire had recommended Allen Carr’s quit-smoking book at one point, years earlier, and so when I came across Carr’s stop-drinking book one night alone online, I ordered it on the strength of that association and of the book’s Amazon reviews. (I later wrote my own Amazon review.) I was curious about sobriety at that time but only in theory. I want to say I thought the Universe would give me points just for ordering it.

I started the book when it arrived, but I sensed that I wasn’t actually ready for or interested in sobriety, and I put it away. (Even though that sort of goes against what the book recommends.) Six months later, I read it all in one afternoon and haven’t had a drink since. 

I didn’t try other ways to get sober. (Other than a failed attempt at Dry January and five white-knuckle days of no-drinking at one point in 2013, to try to please someone else.) I spent maybe five or eight years trying to drink less, but that didn’t work. The day I stopped drinking was the first day in my life where I wanted to fully cut alcohol out entirely. Up until that point, I’d wanted to keep the things I thought were good about it while minimizing the things I thought were bad. The day I quit was the first day I wanted to toss the whole thing.   

When you ran your first comic and 'outed' yourself as being sober, what did that feel like? And why did you choose to make it a comic instead of an essay?

It was exciting. I’d had it as a draft on Medium for months, hoping to publish it but also nervous to. The day I published it, which I did impulsively to distract myself from something else going on, it felt like I was flipping a major switch. It was gratifying that people started responding to it. It was so gratifying, in fact, that I started a Google Doc to collect the praise I got! Lol. Well, that was because I thought I might make a book out of it. Also because I was lonely.  

Looking back on the story now, it seems like some of the Medium formatting defaults have changed, so the story looks a little wacky, with some images hugely magnified. 

It came out as a comic because comics were the main (only?) thing I was making at that time (and now, again). I was keeping a comics journal, because I found that I had a lot to say and not that many people to talk with, and eventually I collected all the journal comics I’d made about drinking and sobriety, and that’s what became the Spiralbound story. Later I wrote a text essay for The Cut about sobriety which I’m proud of, but the comic feels closer to my heart, maybe because it’s messier. 

When you go public with sobriety, there’s of course that nagging feeling of “What if something changes and I start drinking again? And then there’s THIS hanging behind me?” But that didn’t give me too much pause. The parallel that has felt right to me is something like, “Well, I’m not going to go back to wearing diapers, why would I go back to drinking alcohol?”

The value of having a mindset shift around alcohol -- of believing that it’s boring rather than believing that it’s fun -- is that alcohol loses its appeal. 

Do you have enough of a support system? That's really the benefit of 12-step groups and other recovery groups and I always wondered if you'd still be open to it. 

I have a pretty good support system. I’m sure I’d benefit from a 12-step group, but I like where things are now. I’ve been to AA and loved it, and I have a lot of admiration for 12-step programs. 

One of my best friends is sober, and she and I talk all the time. And I mean, you are sober, AJ, and I get a lot of benefit from emailing and talking with you throughout the week, like when I’m being a bitch in my emails, or you’re doing something dumb. It’s been really meaningful to me, more than I can express here. Like, it’s nice to talk about sobriety in a “how the sausage gets made” way. Like, I am an asshole sometimes. You’ve seen it now. And I feel like I see you more clearly, too. And I think you are a lovely person. 

Sometimes when talking about sobriety with non-sober people, I feel compelled to make it sound great, or make myself sound great, like I’m always doing great now, on this side, lest I unintentionally be a bad sobriety ambassador. So, it’s always nice to put down that mantle a little. Sobriety can suck but not because it’s sobriety. 

Also, I will interrupt myself to say that I get a lot of support through the internet. Just as I was typing this, someone sent me this email: “After reading your Feb. 22 newsletter, I followed the link to your Cut article about Annie Grace's book, bought a copy of The Naked Mind and her 30-day alcohol free experiment, and I'm on day 19. Around day 12, I started writing poems again for the first time in almost ten years. It honestly feels like a miracle.”

Like, I could die and I would feel my life was worth something. 

There are also a number of sober people I rarely talk to but often think about, and it’s comforting to me just to know they’re out there. I’ll think, “What would so-and-so think of such-and-such?” It helps to have a pretty active imagination. Also heavy drinking guys aren’t attractive to me anymore. 

Have you acquired any new fears in sobriety?

Yeah. I’ve had fears of never connecting with someone again, fears of never having kids. Fears that I would just sit there, forever, and never be funny again, never be cool or make anything that people like again. I think all those have ultimately been fears of not having courage. But I have found that extremely brief moments of courage are all that is needed. I saw something once on a blog about the concept of having “20 seconds of courage.” (Originally it came from a Matt Damon movie.) That’s all you need to set a ball in motion. I’d say it’s more like three. Three seconds of courage can completely change the course of one’s life. Whether it’s saying hi to someone, signing up for something, sending an email, or publishing a story. I think to myself: “I need to be my exact same self, just with three seconds of courage, once a year.” 

But, there's invariably other fears. I lost weight and now I have a fear of gaining it back. I have a mild fear of spending too much time at home alone, living in my imagination. But, it’s fun to do that, too.  

Do you wish you got sober sooner? 

I could have saved a lot of money and spared myself and others some pain and worry if I’d pulled things together a few years earlier. But I wouldn’t change anything, no.


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Illustrations by Edith Zimmerman

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