Jesus, I look awful. What the hell did I do last night?
These are the words running through my mind as I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, the stark light revealing the grim reality of my hungover existence. I’ve stood in the same place and said the same words way too many times before. Alright, time to assess the damage. Pale, sallow skin? Check. Bags under my eyes so big I’d have to check them in at the airport? Double check. The stale taste of tobacco in my parched mouth? Che… Oh no. No no no no no.
I rack my booze-addled brain for memories of smoking and, for a blissful moment, I think I might be imagining the taste. Maybe my mouth is just remembering what it used to feel like the morning after, like war veterans who can still feel a limb after it’s been blown off but look down to see that it’s still missing. This moment is regretfully short-lived. With a sinking heart, I realize there’s an explanation for why I’m drawing a blank; it always takes my hungover brain a few minutes to get on board with the program after a night of heavy drinking. A splash of ice-cold water to my face and a glance at the red smiley-face stamp on the back of my hand, and fragments of memories start trickling into my consciousness; a strobe light here, a pulsing bass there, tequila shots taken one after the other with reckless abandon. I focus around my head-splitting migraine, and let out a groan as the trickle becomes a full-on flood.
I remember now, God, do I remember: drinks with a college friend who flew into LA to escape a messy East-Coast breakup, quickly turning into an impromptu college reunion with local friends, even more quickly becoming an excuse for us all to get sh*t-faced since it had been so long since we’d all been under the same roof together. Hence the dive bars, and the shady, sweaty clubs, and the strobe lights and the bass that almost blew out our eardrums, and shot after shot and drink after drink of only-God-knows-what. My stomach heaves in protest at the mere thought of alcohol. And amid these hazy memories, a moment that stands out with heretofore-unprecedented clarity: standing on the outdoor patio at the Robertson (don’t judge), feeling tipsier than I have in a very long time, and reaching over and yoinking a smoke from the pack in my friend’s shirt pocket. I did it. Me. There was no peer pressure, no voices whispering in my ear: “Come on, have a cigarette, all the cool kids are doing it.” (FYI, all you readers with virgin lungs: that’s rarely what happens). No, the only person I can blame is myself; me, and my alcohol-loosened inhibitions and lack of willpower in a moment of weakness I should have seen coming and avoided. I probably even justified it to myself, thinking something along the lines of It’s been over three months since you quit, you’re out of the woods or Just one and that’s it. Except, I know for a fact, that tipsy-me would never let it rest at just one. Especially not if I went back in to the bar to proceed to get hammered, and this hangover from hell gives me a sneaking suspicion that’s exactly what I did.
God, this sucks. The hangover, the guilt, the fact that I have work in an hour – it all’s just so horrible. Why did I f**king cave?! I was doing so well. I had finally stopped thinking about cigarettes on a daily basis, and I was starting to actually feel healthy. My complexion was clearer, my skin less dry, my ability to exercise drastically improved – why did I have to go and throw all of that away? Because, regardless of what they say about relapsing, this doesn’t feel like a little bump on the road to recovery from nicotine addiction. It feels like I’m back where I was three months ago, further back, even. Those first few days and weeks of quitting were hell, and to have to go through the withdrawals again?
I stare at my reflection, and that’s when I notice it. There’s an itch inside my chest, just beneath my throat, one that I haven’t felt in a while but I’m all too familiar with. It’s bearable now, but I know it’ll keep growing until it feels like my insides are twisting, until it’s too much to handle and I have to feed the addiction that I’ve stupidly let back into my life. As I make my way to my bedroom to get ready for work, a part of me is working frantically to push the itch down, to get it under control, to not waste the last four months of progress I’ve made. A bigger part of me is secretly hoping that when I dig through my pants pockets for my keys and wallet, I’ll find a cigarette. Here we f**king go. Again.
Hey there, Mr. Jones. Long time no see.