About six weeks ago, I went to a wonderful dinner party that a friend of mine was hosting in a restaurant in Hollywood. I arrived a little late and wound up seated at the far end of the table. At the opposite end was an actress I hugely admired. There aren't many famous people who make me nervous any more, but she is one of them. Shortly after we'd all placed our orders, I noticed that my favorite actress was waving at our end of the table. She mimed that she was going outside for a smoke and wanted to know if any of us wanted to go with her. I shot up out of my seat like my ass was on fire! Although, I'd actually quit smoking about eight years ago, the possibility of hanging out with her "one-on-one" was too good to miss. We scurried out of the door like two bad children.
After finding a secluded spot alongside the restaurant, we lit up. She was just as hilariously funny as I expected and was also wonderfully, surprisingly regular. Sort of like the kind of gal you'd meet in a bowling alley. I loved her. As we chatted, I did my best to look like I was enjoying the cigarette she'd loaned me. In truth, I was fighting off huge waves of nausea. With each drag I felt like I was licking the bottom of somebody's shoe, but I was determined to finish the damn thing so that I wouldn't come off as (a) impolite and (b) like a pussy who couldn't handle a single Marlboro Light.
Because I've never been particularly good at learning my lesson, I went out with her for a second smoke later during the dinner. This time, it was a little less disgusting, but I did find myself wondering how the hell I kept this ridiculous habit up for so many years. Then a few days later, I was sitting outdoors at a Starbucks, when I noticed that right next door, they sold what used to be my favorite brand of cigarettes. I suddenly remembered how much I used to enjoy a smoke with a cup of strong coffee. And that, my friends, is when the dirt crumbled beneath my feet and I slid into the abyss. Within a couple of weeks, I was smoking daily. One became two. Two became three. Three became eight. I had fallen for the biggest joke addicts ever play on themselves: That somehow, they can have "just one."
As you might have noticed, addiction is rather a big problem here in Hollywood. It seems like every other week, somebody is getting arrested or being carted off to rehab. Given how many addicts are in my family, I've (so far) been lucky to have never developed a problem with alcohol or hard drugs. I started smoking when I was fifteen simply because I'd fallen for a gorgeous "bad" girl who smoked like a chimney and it seemed like the easiest way to be near her. Plus, I (the geekiest of the geeks) had never really done anything "wrong" before. Now, I was breaking the rules and hanging out with kids who cut classes, didn't do their homework and refused to live up to their potential. I liked my new friends. I dug it when the principal expressed shock at my behavior. I liked pissing-off and disappointing my parents. I felt powerful and free.
Unfortunately, smoking didn't end in high school. It reappeared in college and stayed with me as I became a young man. Soon, I wasn't so young anymore (and still smoking). I spent ten years living with an alcoholic boyfriend and although I harbored an extremely low opinion of his addiction, I never paid any attention whatsoever to mine. After all, smokers didn't run their cars off the road. Smokers didn't slur their words and do embarrassing shit at parties. My behavior was a model of restraint compared to his.
I finally began taking the problem seriously about ten years ago when I started having anxiety attacks. Oddly, they only happened when I was in my car and only when I was smoking. Shortly after I lit up, my chest would tighten and I would be overcome with a desire to abandon my car -- just leaving it sitting there in traffic -- and run. When I described this sequence of events to my therapist, she asked me what I was "doing" when I lit up. I was initially confused by her question, but she kept pressing it. Finally, I was able to articulate that when I lit a cigarette, it was because I was thinking or feeling something that I didn't particularly like. Smoking was literally an attempt to suck that unpleasant feeling down inside myself; so I could perhaps feel it at a more convenient time. My therapist looked at me sort of seriously and said. "Well, I don't think you can suck anything else down there. Apparently you're full." It was an awful moment, because I knew she was right. I started trying to quit. It took twelve attempts, but finally, I did it.
Addiction can strike anybody. If you don't already have a reason to feel sorry for yourself, addiction will happily provide you with one. That's its job. Show business is a life filled with rejections, large and small. And they never stop coming. The business expects you to keep a stiff upper lip, a smile on your face and a song in your heart. These weekly body slams are not supposed to get to you. You're just supposed to accept all the vagaries of this career; to remain philosophical and easy going about the emotional (and financial) rollercoaster you're on.
Most of the truly talented people I know invest a huge part of themselves into their work. I can still remember the first really big laugh I ever got. I was instantly hooked. From that second on, I was willing to do almost anything to repeat that experience. The geek was, in that moment, a hero. All the things I'd secretly longed for (popularity, power) were in my grasp. All I had to do was hang onto them. What I didn't (and couldn't) have known in that moment was that I'd also opened up an emotional wound in myself that would never quite heal. Smoking was always a nice intermission from all that grief. The problem developed when eventually there were so many intermissions that there was really no show anymore.
During the last few weeks, (as I hid out behind my house, puffing away) I began to suspect that this little adventure needed to come to an end (before I wound up with my old pack-a-day habit again). Then the penny dropped in a big way on Wednesday, when that lovely girl I was so in love with in high school passed away without warning. Her death wasn't smoking related, but it was another one of those cruel reminders of how unpredictable (and short) life can be. Yesterday, I tossed my American Spirits into the garbage and began the crappy experience of getting back to the business of living. This is day two. There have been a couple of times when I wanted to stab out my eyes, but having been down this road before, I feel relatively sure that in a day or two, I'll feel fine. It feels stupid to say that I miss smoking, but it did feel like an old friend -- granted, a friend who was secretly plotting to kill me -- but a friend none-the-less. I've even felt a little weepy and nostalgic about it. I guess it's true -- like the song goes: "When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes."
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor ("Boston Legal") and screenwriter ("Kingdom Come") who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv