I smoked for about 20 years or so. I spent most of my thirties trying to quit, but failed miserably. I’d manage to go for a month or two before some stressful situation presented itself (mostly manufactured by my own imagination) and the only thing that could help me through was smoking.
Two summers ago, I met up with my old university roommates for an evening on the town. They were staying at a hotel and I was shacking up with my mom in her new apartment. My friends and I went for dinner, and then for drinks. Those led to a few more drinks. And a few more. I’d been struggling to stay off cigarettes that summer, but with seven Dr. Pepper shots and six beers coursing through my veins, my willpower didn’t stand a chance. I left my friends and staggered out of the bar in search of smokes. It was only when I was outside that I realized how completely sloshed I was. I could barely walk. Everyone was on an angle. In any case, I (somehow) made it to a variety store, bought a pack of Belmont Milds and stumbled to a parking lot across the street to indulge.
Here’s what I remember: the fuse of the lit match, the soft crackle of tobacco, that delicious long rush of smoke. Here’s what I also remember: a severe head rush, a teetering, arms flailing, my sneakers skidding on gravel.
I fell. I fell and hit my face. I fell and hit my face on a concrete parking lot divider.
“Ow,” I thought as I sat up. “That wasn’t good.” It was time to call it a night. I butted out my cigarette and found the nearest taxi. The driver asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital.
“No,” I mumbled, confused. “Just my mom’s.”
I got back to her apartment, passed the bedroom where she was sleeping and went to the guest room. Then I sat on the edge of the bed and proceeded to vomit everywhere before passing out.
The next morning, I woke to a horrible stench and saw what I’d done. My mother was going to kill me. I hurried to the bathroom in search of a towel. Then I saw my reflection in her medicine cabinet mirror. One side of my face was completely swollen and scratched, a watercolour of deep purples and pinks. There was dried blood everywhere.
There are a few things more humiliating than getting drunk and vomiting all over your mom’s room at the age of thirty-eight. Like having to wake your mom up to tell her you’ve screwed up your face. Or listening to her call your sister to tell her she needs to take her brother to the hospital. Or better yet, sitting between the two of them in an emergency waiting room, looking like you’ve just taped an episode of Intervention.
As if things weren’t bad enough, I was informed by the hospital admissions clerk that my health card had expired. (FYI: the red-and-white ones don’t expire. The photo ones do.) She said I had to get another one pronto if I wanted to avoid being billed for my visit. The next day, I waited in line at Health Canada and posed for my new card. I can only imagine the punch lines I inspired in the staff lunchroom.
The writer in me knows this is a good story, so I can’t help telling people about it. I know how to build it up, pile the embarrassing details on top of the other before pulling out my Health Card with a flourish and presenting my pièce de résistance.
But beneath that story, there’s an alternate one. The story that didn’t happen. Which is that I could’ve gotten a concussion. Stumbled into traffic and been hit by a car. I could’ve choked on my own vomit. People die these ways. You read about it online or in the newspapers. And you can’t help but shake your head and wonder how anyone could be so stupid.
I haven’t smoked since that night.
This article originally appeared in The National Post on August 22, 2011.