“Hal likes to get high in secret, but a bigger secret is that he’s as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high.”
I don’t really get high anymore, but it’s hard to let go of secrecy. I’m in a small VT forest behind my house, it’s shady and verdant and the wind is blowing enough to be a constant shush. The old broken log I’m sitting on has been chewed by termites leaving slight indentations in the shape of a Maori tattoo. My legs are sweating and splayed and I have my UVM baseball cap on to keep the smoke from my hair.
I’m engaging in a daily ritual I don’t want anyone to see, not even myself.
Every evening I take one American Spirit cigarette from its cellophaned blue box and trudge hustle from my front door, then down between close knit houses into the woods where, after I’m deep enough that I pass the huge oak and make it onto the well-groomed dirt trail, I flick on the neon green lighter and, with cigarette filter gently squinched between my teeth, I take a deep drag from the fire lit tip. I hold it in the bottom of my lungs and breath in some real air then take another deep drag. After a few moments I release a few spinning wisps of smoke into the air. It’s bad for me and part of me hates that I do it, but it also, in those very brief moments feels satisfying, like a need I didn’t know I had is being soothed. It’s probably just mild nicotine addiction, but it feels like something more.
Then I make my way to the horizontal tattooed trunk to sit and smoke the same way (I’m able to get three full drags and a few puffs with this method) as I watch bits of ash pull up and away like flies from a hot corpse. By the end my mouth is dry and tastes bitter and the slight buzz has worn from a quick beating crescendo of mental freedom to a thick heart beat that accompanies a headache. I hate the end part.
The thing is, I don’t think it’s the actual nicotine that keeps me smoking; sure it’s a great catalyst when I’m avoiding work; rather, I think I like having something hidden, because it’s both a mirror and an actualization of the fact that I hurt all the time (like everyone) and I don’t know what exactly to do with that hurt.
Okay, that’s a pretty fuckin’ huge leap. Let me back up. I was lucky enough to attend the David Foster Wallace conference at Illinois State University. It was a dense period of time saturated with brilliant thoughts by kind people in a relentless onslaught that left me simultaneously overwhelmed and intellectually well fed. I met people that had nothing to prove except their own enthusiasm for the writer. In short, I was engaged for 72 straight hours in the manner I engage best, deep listening and deep conversation with people open and interesting.
It was a high in itself and coming back I’ve felt a certain withdrawal. Like, I still haven’t had the energy to do laundry (or that’s what I tell myself) and more importantly I’ve felt the weight of loneliness more acutely than I’m used to. And that’s a difficult thing to complain about because it’s so… amorphous, it bleeds into the folds of perception and hangs out in my chest like an ugly medallion.
I don’t think people are supposed to be alone. Even introverts like myself need a sense of cohesion, that I’m not just drifting along in time taking up space eating frozen pizzas on the tan and beige colored house in the corner of my neighborhood. But fervent purpose is difficult to stir up without at least a little bit of mania. And the tough thing is, it’s socially ugly to admit to loneliness. It’s a bizarre cycle where a general admittance leads to a pariah like status that increases loneliness (this isn’t always the case, tight knit groups like the Wallace folk, or AA, or healthy family connections, or good friends annihilate this kind of thing). But I want to see my own free floating pain, that has very little external explanation (I have a writing room full of books and can afford food, what am I complaining about?) articulated. I want to see it made substantial. But I usually do this all in secret because I’m so afraid my basic human desires to connect will make it impossible for me to connect.
A cigarette is an easy way to feel some kind of control over the shame I feel. If I hide that, it’s okay I’m hiding other more essential, but less explainable things. That’s how I justify it to myself. I can be ashamed of cigarettes (as stupid as that shame might be) and feel like that shame is in my control. Loneliness is not. Consequently, Apps are not a great way to ameliorate it.
Sometimes I sit in the woods until the sun goes down. I do this on purpose. I like to come out at the far end of the trail and take the sidewalk back. Still ashamed, I like to see the red orange glow of families in houses. Some sitting on grey and white pinstriped sofas, near each other, not moving, the TV projecting across their tired faces. I don’t know what they feel. I don’t know how to know. I would like to. Sometimes a family is shouting, maybe about leaving behind a slip of paper with an important number on it saying things like “Don’t back me into a corner Frank!” Sometimes it’s just the blue glow of the TV as talking heads silently and overly enthusiastically mime to each other while caked in foundation. Sometimes the TV is on and no one is in the room.
I don’t imagine things will stay this way forever, I mean in terms of my smoking, or the separation of houses, the secret retreats to private places, but loneliness is a longtime companion. It outlasts us just as it has outlasted others, and yet we have the ability to disrupt it.
I found that in the Wallace convention as I did in AA. I think my people are those that see this baseline pain and are willing and brave enough to talk about it. I think most people can be my people and me? I can be one of their people.